Norman Mailer's 10 Favorite American Novels

Soon after he passed away, The New York Review of Books published a selection of Norman Mailer's letters. In a letter from January 1988, Mailer named his 10 favorite American novels (in no particular order).

In the same letter Mailer wrote “With the exception of “Huckleberry Finn,” which I reread recently, the other nine books were devoured in my freshman year at Harvard, and gave me the desire, which has never gone completely away, to be a writer, an American writer. … Freshman year at Harvard is luminous because of these books.”

Thanks, Harvard!


The U.S.A. Trilogy

by John Dos Passos

Michael Goodell from Grosse Pointe Farms, MI says:

The U.S.A. Trilogy is a photographic essay on the United States during the first third of the 20th Century. I call it a photographic essay even though it has no pictures because Dos Passos took snapshots with his prose. Several different story lines are intertwined through the three volumes. Some of them mesh in surprising ways, others unwind on their own. In addition to the narratives, Dos Passos composed brief biographies of major figures of the day, snapshots really. Also, "the camera eye" segments included impressionistic images from his own life, and the "newsreel" segments presented a montage of snippets from newsreels and newspapers. The work is an abstract expression of his age, a work of complexity and power.


Studs Lonigan

by James T. Farrell

William V. Lipton from Ann Arbor, MI says:

This is both a coming-of-age novel and a social history. Set during the 1920s and 1930s, it follows Studs as he grows through his teen years in Chicago. It shows the influences on urban children, the stresses on families and the American society during that time. The characters and dialogue are captivating.


The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

Horo from Jacksonville, FL says:

The Joad family is made up of hardscrabble people who have known no life other than tenant farming in Oklahoma. When the Great Depression strikes, and much of the central United States is turned into a "Dust Bowl" incapable of sustaining crops, the Joads set out for California and a better life. The story captures, inimitably, the life and times of the poorest of the poor, as they struggle to reach a place they've only heard about, for a future they cannot imagine. They see incredible kindness among their fellow travelers, and unbelievable cruelty among the authorities and landowners along the way. The unfairness towards labor makes a political statement, as does the description of poverty among the lush valleys of California. But more than anything, the book haunts the reader by leaving images of a devastated country, the poor, simple, honest people who struggle to survive, and their deep family relationship that sustains them when there is literally nothing else.


The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Laura Marello says:

The Great Gatsby is short, clear, nostalgic, and wistful. You will never forget the green light out on the spit of land on Long Island. It's a story of secrets and lost loves. Oh yes, read this one. Fitzgerald is considered one of the best American writers from the Jazz Age.

This book also appears on The Best Novels About WASPs


The Sun Also Rises

by Ernest Hemingway

Laura Marello says:

The Sun Also Rises is one of my favorite books. I read it when I was a teenager and I cannot forget the characters; Jake Barnes will be in my head forever. The language is simple — perhaps overly simple — but very powerful. The characters are well drawn and the relationships are interesting. It will not take you long to read this book, but you will think about it for a long time... maybe forever.

This book also appears on Hannah Bomze's Favorite Books


Appointment in Samarra: A Novel

by John O'Hara

Will from Chicago, Il says:

O'Hara had a great ear for dialogue and a highly attuned perceptiveness on cultural and psychological issues like class prejudices, marital relationships, internal deception and self-aggrandizement. All of his tremendous skills are used to wonderful effect in this Prohibition-era novel set in a prosperous coal-region Pennsylvania town. Intellectual without being too lofty. Always interesting and quite often hilarious. This is a great novel.


The Postman Always Rings Twice

by James M. Cain

Eric Mueller from Los Angeles, CA says:

There's only three things you need to know about this book: first, it's seriously hard-boiled noir. Second, the characters border on reprehensible. Finally, you won't be able to put it down.


Moby-Dick: or, The Whale

by Herman Melville, introduction by Nathaniel Philbrick

Katrina Naugle says:

Oh my bejeezus, Herman Melville has a great sense of humor. I put off reading this book 'cause I thought it was slow-going; turns out, I just wasn't catching his dry, witty sense of humor, and once I did, he just kept getting better and more clever! Ishmael is a truly funny character, in a dark way, which makes me wonder why they haven't made a movie yet (don't get any ideas! Don't ruin it! Just kidding — a little).


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

Miss Hannah says:

Though the cover says Mark Twain, this book is written by Huck with hilarious results. Huck is not a great writer. His spelling is awful and his grammar not much better. Proofreading is something he never heard of. He simply writes it as he lives and feels it. He starts out with the fun and excitement of a boy on a great adventure. But he finds himself betraying what he thinks is right, to be true to what he feels is right. Lying to save Jim. Helping him escape. He finds himself changing, growing up. Trapped and having to consider the consequences of fighting his way out of the trap. It's not all fun and games for anymore. He's very intelligent, but his position makes him vulnerable. He's a child, he's aiding a fugitive, he's a fugitive himself, and he's uneducated. Throughout the story, Twain makes sure we don't forget that, though we watch him grow before our eyes. One of the funniest, most thought-provoking books I've ever read.