Without a doubt, the greatest novels have their roots in Europe, beginning with the Cervantes masterpiece, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, right through Dickens, Stendhal, the Germans, Italians, and the Russians.
Until James Fenimore Cooper arrived on the scene, American literature was all but nonexistent. Cooper was not the greatest technician, but the Europeans were extremely interested with the New World and became intrigued with Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales written with Native Americans and pure wilderness as a background. Since then, American literature has grown steadily, until the latter part of the 20th century, when it drowned amidst teenage love, vampires, and magical fantasy.
I cannot imagine how many novels I have been fortunate enough to read, but I can take a shot at some of my all-time favorites, and I share them here:
1. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. A young American professor enters the Spanish Civil War as a Loyalist and learns about love and brotherhood in the last months of his life. This is my number one pick, and I have read it many times. It is the novel that convinced me that war is an absurd method of settling human disputes.
2. Sula by Toni Morrison. This wonderful novel with the main theme of good versus evil is on my list because Morrison taught me a great deal about writing. Of all the modern American novelists, I find her prose to contain the most clarity.
3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. No work tells us more about the American Dream than this classic. The symbolism is second-to-none, and the author paints a clear picture of the issues still facing America today. Perhaps, if everyone read this book, our nation would begin to move in the right direction once again.
4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I always tell my students that they have not really graduated from college unless they have read this novel. In return, they frequently walk down the aisle at graduation ceremonies carrying a copy. If one wants to understand the mindset of Americans in the late 19th century, this is the novel to read.
5. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. I was a so-so reader until the 8th grade when I was assigned this novel as summer reading. Hemingway’s tale of hopelessness set in a Spanish culture hooked me on reading-and the author for life.
6. The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper. For the reasons expressed in my introduction to this post, this novel introduces readers to 18th century America and its values, long lost I might add. Cooper might not possess Toni Morrison’s writing talent, but his historical perspective will last as long as literature itself.
7. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. This satirical novel about the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II is brilliantly written on two levels. Fictional happenings on an unknown planet mirror the horrors of reality on Earth. Like Hemingway, Vonnegut convinces his readers of the futility of war as a method of resolving human conflict.
8. Deliverance by James Dickey. As an archetypal critic, I find this novel to contain all the steps of a complete Heroic Quest. Anyone wanting to ponder the psychological struggles of all human beings need only read this book and think about his or her own existence.
9. The Pearl by John Steinbeck. In this work, a young pearl diver finds a great, valuable pearl. He dreams of a better life for his family, but soon discovers that money sometimes creates more problems than it solves. This book is a life lesson for all.
10. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. This coming-of-age novel set during the American Civil War contains classic symbols and archetypes. One of my favorite literary scenes occurs when the hero, seeking courage in battle, runs away in fear. This causes him to fall further into depression, until his flight scares a squirrel who quickly runs to the trees for safety. The hero realizes that the animal is part of Nature, and it is perfectly rational to fear for one’s life. It is this type of realization that we all must experience to be truly content with ourselves in life. We gain that experience through reading, which sadly, most young people today avoid.
Of the thousands of novels I have enjoyed, the above list names just a few. I can only conclude that my life has been greatly enhanced by fictional works because they are based upon the realistic visions and experiences of their authors. There is a great deal of truth in fiction.