November 4, 2013

10 Must-Read American Classics

10 Must-Read American Classics

Note from Jessica: I can't believe this is the last of my maternity guest posters! Our final poster, Keri, won my curtailed Classics Challenge this year - and based on this post, I can see why! She obviously knows her classics - be sure to check out her blog for more; and don't miss the rest of the Books and Babies guest posts
Hi, I’m Keri from Growing in His Glory, and I’m honored to be guest posting today. Before I had children, I was a doctoral student in literature, and, needless to say, I read a lot of books, some that I would recommend to any and everyone I could, others I wondered why I’d wasted my time on them.

That being said, there are some amazing American literary works out there that beg to be devoured, and while I love a thrilling detective novel myself, the classics are classic for a reason and they deserve our attention.

In this post, I will share with you my top 10 favorite American classics. My hope is that you will expand your literary horizons and give at least one of these books a chance. You just might find a new favorite author!

  1. Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville. Don't be scared; trust me. Once upon a time, I vowed never to read this lengthy tome because of all the horror stories I’d heard, and yet when I challenged myself to read it, I could not put it down. Moby Dick, as you probably know, is about the mad Captain Ahab and his maniacal pursuit of a great white whale who destroyed his boat, bit off his leg, and possessed his soul. Where else will you learn about the various types of whales and how to extract ambergris from their intestines to make perfume?
  2. Little Women (1848) by Louisa May Alcott. If you didn't read this classic as a child, you doubtless have seen either the 1949 movie version with Elizabeth Taylor or the 1994 film with Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder. Still, the book is a gem that every mother should read to her daughters: the beautiful depictions of family love and devotion, service to others in the midst of poverty, and personal growth are timeless. When my girls get older, I intend to share Little Women with them because it simply warms my heart.
  3. Sister Carrie (1900) by Theodore Dreiser. Now if you aren't into classic literature, you may not have ever heard of this work, but it's one I would highly recommend reading and rereading. Sister Carrie is a rags-to-riches story in which a young girl leaves the country for big city life in hopes of making her fortune. Eventually, she finds success as an actress on stage only to realize that the American dream isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Yes, it’s depressing, but Dreiser is a literary artist in his realistic depictions of urban life with all the dirt and filth.
  4. Heart of Darkness (1902) by Joseph Conrad. You might remember "The horror! The horror!" from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, but that line is straight out of Heart of Darkness. In this novella, Marlow, the pilot of a steamboat in the heart of the African Congo, transports ivory down river. However, when he receives the task of locating and bringing back a reputed ivory agent named Kurtz, Marlow discovers the dark side of human nature. I love the struggle of good and evil and how Conrad exposes our own propensity to violence
  5. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain. This novel is my all-time favorite piece of American literature because of its colorful characters--notably the Duke and the King--and humorous scenes that will have you laughing out loud. Still, Huck Finn presents a very serious critique of racism. Huck is a lovable character who you will desperately want to mother, and as he travels with Jim, a runaway slave, you can't help but root for them to make it to freedom. The moral conflict Huck faces regarding whether to turn Jim in or help him escape is resolved only after taking into account his friend's character and determining for himself that Jim was "white on the inside." If you’ve read and enjoyed Tom Sawyer, then you definitely need to give Huck Finn a shot. It's far better in my opinion.
  6. The Age of Innocence (1920) by Edith Wharton. Wharton became the first female to win the Pulitzer Prize, which she received for this novel. If you’re a hopeless romantic, then you will love this book about a man who falls madly in love with a woman yet maintains both moral and societal conventions by remaining faithful to his family even as the world suspects his infidelity. It's a novel about controlling one's desires to protect the ones we love and preserving one's reputation even when the people we’re protecting are themselves hypocrites.
  7. Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck. I remember reading this novella in tenth grade and being struck by the unfairness of life. Again, the American dream is an important theme as two ranch hands and best friends, George and Lennie, seek to save enough money to buy their own homestead where they can live peacefully and follow their own desires, safe from the savage world. However, when this aspiration is shattered, Steinbeck shows that sometimes the American dream is simply not attainable.
  8. A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams. Of course you’ve probably seen Marlon Brando in the excellent film version, but I would highly recommend going back to the original. The source, Williams' play, captures the struggle between the Old South (Blanche DuBois) and the new industrial working class (Stanley Kowalski), and when the two collide, all hell breaks loose. "Ste-lla!"
  9. The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin. An early feminist work that centers around Edna Pontellier and her desire to live her own life in a time (the turn of the century) and place (the South) that frowned on any unorthodox views of femininity and motherhood. Unlike the characters in The Age of Innocence, Edna acts on her impulses and desires, turning to art and self-expression and rejecting her societal duties. However, as she soon discovers, her newfound freedom is not as liberating as she had thought.
  10. The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway. An excellent short novel about the "Lost Generation"-- a term used by Hemingway to describe the youth who were deeply impacted by World War I and their decadent, immoral lifestyle. After reading this book, I was struck by the similarities between the post-WWI youth and youth today with their angst, disillusions about life and love and where to find true happiness, and general discontent.
I hope my list may inspire you to forgo the latest bestseller--that's often here today and gone tomorrow--and instead dig into a timeless work of art. Trust me; you won't be

What’s your favorite American classic?

Keri is a wife and stay-at-home mom to 3 lovely little ladies (ages 4, 2, &1). Her blog Growing in His Glory is devoted to encouraging women in their unique, God-given roles as wives, mothers, and daughters of the King. When she isn’t learning with her kids or loving on her husband, she enjoys reading by herself with a cup of strong coffee, writing, and savoring the quiet.