We live in a particularly diverse and fascinating country. It can be easy to forget that, especially in the current divisive political climate. The United States, however, is home to an extraordinary literary tradition – one as expansive and diverse as the country itself. Thus, a literary tour of the U.S. seems in order.
From classics to memoirs to thrillers, a literary masterpiece can be found lingering in every state – a book that gives us a view into another part of the country is always a worthwhile exercise. The books below represent some of the best and most iconic reads from each of the fifty states, and are both fiction and nonfiction. Don’t worry if your particular favorite didn’t make the cut – we’d love to hear about it in the comments. And you can always dive a little deeper with these curated book lists for each of the fifty states.
This Pulitzer Prize winner from Harper Lee is one of the great American novels. Fifty years after its publication, its ruminations on race, injustice, and morality remain as relevant as ever, and crusading attorney Atticus Finch is one of literature’s finest characters.
The Call of the Wild, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, made Jack London a household name. This tale of adventure, survival and companionship in the wilds of Alaska is as gripping today as on its original publication in 1903.
Or the Evening Redness in the West
Few writers have Cormac McCarthy’s gift for haunting, terse, and elegiac prose. Blood Meridian is among McCarthy’s finest work, and also his most brutal. It follows the story of a young man caught up with a gang of ruthless outlaws in along the U.S./Mexico border – it is a challenging and pitiless read. It is also modern mythmaking at its very best.
Maya Angelou was one of the most inspiring voices of her generation. Her debut memoir became an instant classic and recounts a life that is, at turns, joyous and painful. Filled with Angelou’s frank and powerful ruminations on sexuality, race, and love, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remains among the author’s best.
(Penguin Orange Collection)
John Steinbeck is a towering figure in American literature, and with good reason. Steinbeck considered East of Eden his magnum opus. This sprawling examination of two families living in California’s Salinas Valley is built around allusions to the Book of Genesis, as well as Steinbeck’s extraordinary descriptions of the region that makes up the novel’s setting.
Stephen King’s first bestseller is still one of the prolific author’s greatest. The novel established King as a household name. It’s chilling (literally) tale of a man slowly losing his mind while serving as an off-season caretaker at a remote resort hotel in the Colorado Rockies is haunting.
This searing deconstruction of the ideal of American suburbia in the 1950’s is a devastating view into the disintegrating lives of a young couple struggling to conform to life in a Connecticut suburb. Yates writes with a startling clarity that exposes the inner machinations of a generation.
Told from multiple points of view, The Book of Unknown Americans chronicles the lives and interwoven stories of a group of recent immigrants – and first generation Americans – living in a neighborhood in Western Delaware. It is a book that feels particularly relevant today.
A True Story of Beauty and Obsession
In this beguiling, strange, and wickedly funny book, Susan Orlean takes the reader deep inside the eccentric world of orchid enthusiasts. It’s a bizarre and too-strange-for-fiction account of a truly fascinating subculture that is equal parts vivid and hilarious.
Alice Walker’s Pulitzer winner is a powerful examination of race, misogyny, and class. The Color Purple recounts the harrowing life of Celie, who endures decades of abuse and rape first at the hands of her father, and then her husband, before ultimately building a life of her own with devastating power.
James A. Michener
James A. Michener’s expansive and meticulously researched recounting of the history of Hawaii is a stunning piece of historical fiction. Hawaii is a fascinating and thrilling chronicle of the birth of modern Hawaii and the people who populate it.
With Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson creates a poetic portrait of two orphaned girls coming of age in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, and is a haunting tale of familial strife and redemption.
This quintessential work of muckraking fiction is built around Upton Sinclair’s own investigations into the meatpacking industry in early 20th century Chicago. The novel follows a Lithuanian immigrant forced into backbreaking menial labor in the Chicago stockyards. Sinclair intended to turn America’s attention to the plight of impoverished working class, but instead shed a harsh light on disturbingly unsanitary practices of the meatpacking industry.
The Magnificent Ambersons is a Pulitzer Prize-winning classic that focuses on the changing fortunes of three generations of a once-powerful American family. It is a study of the economic turmoil that resulted from the swift industrial expansion that took place in the U.S following the Civil War.
Jane Smiley; Introduction by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
This tale of an Iowa farmer seeking to divide his one thousand acre plot of land between his three daughters reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. The objections of the youngest daughter open the flood gates on startling series of suppressed emotions and long-held family secrets.
Truman Capote’s classic more or less created the true crime genre. His account of the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 is a meticulously researched, atmospheric masterpiece and represents Capote at the zenith of his narrative skill.
C. E. Morgan
The Sport of Kings, a sweeping novel on race in America, is the best horse racing novel in recent memory, and is told through the lens of multi-generational epic. It is a story steeped in dark and complex history, and serves as a reminder of our darker impulses and our better angels.
John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces is an absurd, picaresque novel centering on an eccentric, delusional, and slovenly man stumbling through a series of increasingly bizarre misadventures in a brilliantly drawn New Orleans. It also earned John Kennedy Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
Another Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge is told through a series of interwoven narratives all taking place in Crosby, Maine. It centers around the cynical and abrasive titular character. Tinged with joy, pain, and ruthless honesty, Olive Kitteridge is Elizabeth Strout’s best work.
This Baltimore based novel centers on three siblings grappling with the impending death of their perfectionist mother. It’s an emotionally wrought examination of recollection and the complexities of family that is equal parts poignant and humorous.
Henry David Thoreau
Walden is an undisputed classic in American literature. Working in a small cottage in 1845 on Walden Pond in Concord Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau laid down a series of startling ruminations on life, nature, and contentment.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ controversial examination of an intersex Greek man named Cal Stephanides is a thought provoking exploration of gender identity, sexuality, race relations, and the immigrant experience. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002.
Main Street tells the story of Carol Milford, who moves to the small community of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota after college. Her efforts to bring culture and reform to the town are met with disdain and bigotry. Published in 1920, Lewis’s novel shattered the literary myth of happy small-town life with satirical precision.
The Corrected Text with Faulkner's Appendix
In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner chronicles the decline of the American South through the lens of the Compson family. The Compsons were once Southern aristocracy, but fell to financial ruin throughout the 1920’s. It is arguably Faulkner’s finest novel.
This remarkable memoir from George Hodgman reads like the most absurd fiction. Hodgman leaves his life in Manhattan for his hometown of Paris, Missouri to care for the ailing mother who has never fully accepted his sexuality. It is disarmingly honest, moving, and laugh-out-loud funny.
This semi-autobiographical collection of short stories explores Norman Maclean’s childhood in Montana. It is a coming-of-age tale set against the beautiful landscape of Montana, and centers on a father’s reverence for fly-fishing.
Rainbow Rowell’s debut novel was an instant classic tale of star-crossed misfit teens. Set over the course of a school year in 1986, Eleanor & Park is a knowing look at the power and pitfalls of first love in all its painful glory.
A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
Hunter S. Thompson
There really is nothing quite like Hunter S. Thompson’s drug soaked, surreal, and chaotic chronicle of a long-weekend roadtrip to Vegas. It’s incredibly bizarre and incredibly fun. Thompson’s inimitable prose is just icing on the cake.
The Hotel New Hampshire is, in many ways, quintessential John Irving – quirky, evocative, and thought-provoking. It centers on the Berry family and the various ordeals they stumble into while opening a series of hotels.
Diaz’s stunning debut novel became an instant literary classic. Another Pulitzer Prize winner, the novel pulls together pop culture references, a coming-of-age tale, and bits of magical realism to tell the story of Oscar – a chubby Dominican adolescent who may be victim of a curse that has plagued his family for generations.
Willa Cather’s novel unfolds with a kind of mythic intensity. The narrative centers on Father Jean Marie Latour, a devout priest sent to serve as the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico in 1851. The novel unfolds over the course of forty years, and charts Latour’s life against the unforgiving landscape and his own loneliness.
Few works capture the allure of New York City like this collection of Joseph Mitchell’s iconic reporting for The New Yorker. His precise observations and his humor chronicle the bizarre lives of street preachers, freaks, saloon-keepers, and gypsies – it’s a cross-section of New York unlike any other.
Charles Frazier’s debut novel is a stirring historical epic. The narrative centers on W.P. Inman, a wounded Confederate deserter who makes the arduous journey back to his home in Cold Mountain, North Carolina, and to the love of his life.
This coming-of-age tale centers on a thirteen year old Native American boy seeking revenge after the brutal rape of his mother. The story is set on an unnamed fictional Ojibwe Indian reservation in North Dakota and is a haunting examination of the effects of oppression, isolation, and violence on a community.
Winesburg, Ohio was ahead of its time. It presents a series of interconnected narratives of life in a small Ohio town. At the time of its publication, it was startling for its frank and, at times, shocking depictions of everyday life in all its complexities. Writers like Faulkner and Fitzgerald owe a debt to Anderson’s work here.
In her inimitable style, Toni Morrison chronicles the tensions and tragedies of a rural, all-black town in Oklahoma. The novel opens with a scene of shocking violence and then unfolds with the sort of grandeur and portent that makes Morrison’s writing so compelling.
50th Anniversary Edition
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an American classic. Randall Patrick McMurphy is one of modern literature’s most boisterous and enduring characters. It is a ribald and insightful commentary, a parable of good and evil unfolding in the confines of a psychiatric ward, and is as powerful today as on its original publication.
John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom cycle is among the author’s most celebrated works. Rabbit, Run, the first in the series, follows Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a one-time high school basketball star crushed under the weight of his middle class life, flailing for some deeper purpose.
Told with Picoult’s trademark flair for emotional turmoil, My Sister’s Keeper is a coming-of-age saga centering on a thirteen year old girl who sues her parents for medical emancipation after her parents attempt to force her to donate a kidney to her dying sister. It is an emotionally complex and thought-provoking read.
The publication of Dorothy Alison’s Bastard out of Carolina drew comparisons to Harper Lee and launched Alison into the literary spotlight. This now-classic of rural southern literature centers on Ruth Anne Boatwright, known as Bone, who finds herself on a collision course with her increasingly violent and abusive stepfather.
Ann Weisgarber’s debut novel offers an insightful and harrowing view into the harsh life of homesteaders at the turn of the century. The novel follows Rachel and Isaac, an African-American couple, struggling to make a life for themselves after claiming a parcel of land in the South Dakota Badlands.
A Death in the Family is a nearly flawless narrative, and possibly James Agee’s finest work. It is an autobiographical novel centering on the tragic death that threatens to consume an entire family. A Death in the Family is among the most powerful examinations of grief in American literature.
Lonesome Dove is a true Western epic and cemented McMurtry’s literary legacy. The first published novel in the Lonesome Dove series earned a Pulitzer and focuses largely on a group of retired Texas Rangers driving a herd of cattle from Texas to Montana.
Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for this sprawling depiction of the events surrounding the execution of Gary Gilmore by the state of Utah. Based almost entirely on interviews with family and friends of both Gilmore and his victims, The Executioner’s Song is an exhaustive examination of the case and its fallout, all told with Mailer’s clear-eyed prose.
Donna Tartt’s debut novel focuses on a group of classics students at fictional Hampden College in Vermont. Under the sway of a charismatic professor, the students begin to push the boundaries of morality – until tragedy strikes and their lives change forever.
Edward P. Jones
Set in Virginia during the Antebellum era, The Known World is a potent examination of race and legacy. It tells the story of a young slave who becomes a slave owner, but dies young, leaving his wife to come to terms with the aftermath. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Snow Falling on Cedars is a compelling read – one part whodunit and one part courtroom thriller. It follows the mysterious death of a fisherman on San Piedro Island in Washington. A Japanese American man is charged with the murder, and the ensuing trial unearths both the man’s own haunted past as well as the past sins of the entire community on San Piedro.
This beloved memoir from Jeannette Walls recounts her tumultuous childhood – a large part of which was spent in Welch, WV. Born to an alcoholic, hopelessly optimistic father and an erratic mother, Walls childhood was one of disappointment, tragedy, and joy in near equal measure.
Mitchard’s debut novel imagines an ordinary family ripped apart when their youngest son is kidnapped, only to mysteriously return nine years later. The novel charts the mother’s struggles against her own grief and the lengths she goes to hold her tattered family together.
This collection of short stories is best known for Prouix’s Brokeback Mountain, but each of the tales – all set against a desolate Wyoming backdrop – are as well drawn and emotionally resonant.