The seventies were a bizarre transitional decade in U.S. history. Following the political tumult and societal upheaval of the 1960s, a sort of cynical weariness descended over the next decade. It was one exacerbated by unprecedented political scandal, a flagging economy, and a society struggling to determine and eventually come to grips with its identity. Unsurprisingly, these mounting tensions created space for some truly exceptional literary works with writers like John Updike, John Cheever, and Philip Roth creating some of their best work and others like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ursula K. Le Guin continuing to discover and refine their voices. Here are a few of the best of the 1970s.
King’s epic post-apocalyptic thriller kicked off a creative period that would give us some of the writer’s most enduring and beloved works – but few touched the scope and power of The Stand. Set in a world brought to the brink of destruction by a worldwide pandemic, The Stand is the book that largely set the template for what King’s style – a sprawling narrative, a large and well-drawn cast, multiple point-of-view narration – it all comes together for the first time here. The Stand remains one of King’s best.
This sequel to John Updike’s classic Rabbit, Run continues the American odyssey of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Set a decade after the events of the first novel, Rabbit has been abandoned by his family and finds himself caught in the grip, whether he wants to be or not, of the counterculture of 1969. It is an extraordinary, bawdy, tragicomic examination of post-war Americana.
Toni Morrison has an extraordinary ability to weave brilliantly imagined stories of complex relationships, powerfully drawn emotion, and aching beauty. In Sula, Morrison explores both the strengths and burdens of a lifelong friendship between two very different women. It is a story that spans decades with a near-mythic quality, crackling with the ribald energy and emotional weight that has come to define the works of Toni Morrison.
With The Ghost Writer, Philip Roth introduces the character of Nathan Zuckerman – one of the legendary author’s most enduring creations, and the one that is closest to the author himself. Set in the 1950s, the novel centers on Zuckerman’s experiences as an overnight guest of his literary idol, E.I. Lonoff, and Zuckerman’s fascination with a haunting woman who may have been Lonoff’s mistress. It is a examination of the tension between literature, the creative process, and inner lives as only Roth could create.
Continuing Maya Angelou’s celebrated collection of autobiographies, Gather Together in My Name picks up after the events of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Set at the end of World War II, Angelou is still in her teens and has given birth to her son. But she struggles to find her place in a world that no longer feels like her own. Poignant and brimming with the humor and extraordinary power of Angelou’s prose, Gather Together in My Name is a must-read.
Spanning two centuries and six generations, Roots presents the enthralling saga of Alex Haley’s family, beginning with his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, who was taken from his village in West Africa and sold into slavery. While Roots has been subject to its share of controversy, it is nonetheless a landmark literary achievement that captured the popular imagination and earned Haley special recognition from both the Pultizer Prize and National Book Award committees.
Octavia E. Butler
Kindred is a difficult novel to categorize. It blends elements of historical fiction, time travel, slave narratives, and suspense into a wholly original, captivating, and haunting book. The story centers on Dana, a woman celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday in 1970s California when she is suddenly and inexplicably transported to the antebellum south. As she is repeatedly pulled back and forth between the past and present, a shattering narrative of racism, slavery, and identity unfolds.
John Cheever’s piercing observations and profound insights essentially defined popular perception of postwar suburban life. Despite penning a number of excellent novels, his short fiction remains some of the most influential of the twentieth century. The Stories of John Cheever earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 and features some of his most powerful and enduring work.
(Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Pynchon’s sprawling, bizarre, manic, oft-hilarious novel is a writhing, pulsing jumble of seemingly disparate narrative episodes. It largely follows the exploits and travails of Tyrone Slothrop, a GI in 1944 London. While still a child, Tyrone was subject to a series of experiments at the hands of a Harvard professor turned Nazi rocket scientist. Now Tyrone’s erections correspond with the targeting of incoming German Rockets. This abnormality sets Tyrone on nightmarish path through WWII Germany. It’s precisely as weird as it sounds and all the better for it.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Watergate was, in many ways, a defining moment of the 1970s. A vast political conspiracy that reached all the way to the White House, it proved to be the final nail in the coffin of America’s dwindling optimism. With All The President’s Men, Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward recount, with meticulous detail, the way a seemingly innocuous break-in at the DNC headquarters spiraled into a scandal that would topple a presidency.
In the summer of 1969, a series of apparently random, horrifying murders shook the Los Angeles area and captured national headlines. A pregnant actress, an heiress, and a supermarket owner were among the victims. The murders were eventually traced back to Charles Manson and the cult that became known as the Manson Family. Vincent Bugliosi was the prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial, and Helter Skelter details the investigation and trial. It remains a true crime classic.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Part of the enduring power of Ursula K. Le Guin’s fiction lies in its prescient and timeless qualities. Le Guin was an influential literary force, and far ahead of her time. The Lathe of Heaven centers on a world beset by climate instability and overpopulation until a man named George Orr wakes to a vastly different world. Only he has memories of the previous one. George realizes that his dreams have the power to alter reality and he soon a becomes a pawn in a dangerous game, with fate of humanity hanging in the balance.
(Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Erica Jong’s groundbreaking work of fiction made waves when it was published in 1973, taking the sexual revolution of the 1970s and riding it all the way to the top of the bestseller list. At its heart is Isadora Wing, a woman at the tail end of her twenties whose extramarital affair sets off a self-discovery like none other.
While you may know Sophie’s Choice best as the film that won Meryl Streep her second Oscar, the book on which the film is based is a stunning and devastating work of post-Holocaust fiction, interweaving the tales of two lovers and a writer in a Brooklyn boarding house.