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1. The Bear by William Faulkner (1942). A highly atmospheric paean to the vanishing wilderness, this novella crisscrosses time and memory to chronicle Ike McCaslin’s coming-of-age through annual hunting parties in the Mississippi woods. Beginning with his first trip at age ten, we watch him master the art of hunting, learning the ways of men and the woods. The ultimate prize is the legendary bear, Old Ben, a symbol of the untamed world “which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear.” When sixteen-year-old Ike gets Old Ben in his sights, history, maturity, and ecological consciousness collide in a powerful rite of passage.
2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Perhaps the most searching fable of the American Dream ever written, this glittering novel of the Jazz Age paints an unforgettable portrait of its day — the flappers, the bootleg gin, the careless, giddy wealth. Self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, determined to win back the heart of the girl he loved and lost, emerges as an emblem for romantic yearning, and the novel’s narrator, Nick Carroway, brilliantly illuminates the post–World War I end to American innocence.
3. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1600). The most famous play ever written, Hamlet tells the story of a melancholic prince charged with avenging the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle, who then married his mother and, becoming King of Denmark, robbed Hamlet of the throne. Told the circumstances of this murder and usurpation by his father’s ghost, Hamlet is plunged deep into brilliant and profound reflection on the problems of existence, which meditations delay his revenge at the cost of innocent lives. When he finally acts decisively, Hamlet takes with him every remaining major character in a crescendo of violence unmatched in Shakespearean theater.
4. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). Hemingway proclaimed, “All modern American literature comes from . . . ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ” But one can read it simply as a straightforward adventure story in which two comrades of conve nience, the parentally abused rascal Huck and fugitive slave Jim, escape the laws and conventions of society on a raft trip down the Mississippi. Alternatively, it’s a subversive satire in which Twain uses the only superficially naïve Huck to comment bitingly on the evils of racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and capitalist greed he observes in a host of other largely unsympathetic characters. Huck’s climactic decision to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” rather than submit to the starched standards of “civilization” reflects a uniquely American strain of individualism and nonconformity stretching from Daniel Boone to Easy Rider.
5. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930). Shortly after San Francisco private eye Sam Spade accepts a case from a beautiful and mysterious young woman, his partner, Miles Archer, is killed. Though Spade despised him, his code of honor compels him to solve Archer’s murder. As the two cases intersect, Spade finds himself involved with an eccentric assortment of thugs and con men, all in search of the titular black statue of a falcon said to be worth millions.
6. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot (1915). Eliot’s first major poem is a dramatic monologue in the voice of a spiritually exhausted, emotionally sterile Everyman. Prufock has “measured out my life with coffee spoons.” He tells himself “There will be time to murder and create,” though he fears to act—“Do I dare to eat a peach?” Prufrock was only the first of Eliot’s many disillusioned city dwellers, but with his ridiculous name and fastidious appearance, he may well have been the most poignant.
7. Dubliners by James Joyce (1916). Although many of these largely autobiographical stories evoke themes of death, illness, and stasis, nearly all offer their characters redemption —or at least momentary self-knowledge —through what Joyce called “epiphanies,” in which defeat or disappointment is transformed by a sudden, usually life-altering flash of awareness. The collection’s emotional centerpiece is its concluding tale, “The Dead,” which moves from a New Year’s Eve party where guests muse about issues of the day —the Catholic church, Irish nationalism, Freddie Malins’s worrying drunkenness —to a man’s discovery of his wife weeping over a boy who died for love of her. A profound portrait of identity and loneliness, it is Joyce’s most compassionate work.
8. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939). This is the first novel featuring hard-boiled Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe, a tough guy with a fast gun and a quick wit. Noting that he “was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it,” Marlowe goes to work for a dying L.A. oil tycoon whose two lusty daughters have fallen prey to an array of drug dealers, pornographers, and bootleggers intent on separating the old man from his money.
9. The U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos (1938). Infused with the radical politics of the 1920s and 1930s and littered with newspaper excerpts, stream of consciousness prose, and biography, this triptych weaves an epic American narrative tapestry. Comprised of the novels The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, U.S.A. follows a host of divergent Americans from childhood on up in their unique attempts to find a place in a nation teetering on the verge of social unrest. Mixing newspaper reportage with fiction long before the word postmodern gave academics something to write about, U.S.A. reads like a newsreel and a dream.
10. The Ambassadors by Henry James (1903). Middle-aged Lambert Strethers is sent to Paris to retrieve a young American whose wealthy parents fear he has taken up with an inappropriate woman, but Strethers sees that the young man is truly happy. Gradually, Strethers finds his flinty provincialism chipped away by Europe’s ease and freedom in this novel whose signature line reads, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.”