Great American Novels

Paul Reich, assistant professor of English and director of the American studies program, discusses five great American novels that showcase place and national identities.

Light in August
William Faulkner

Faulkner’s seventh novel—and his first explicit discussion of race in the American South—provides readers with one of the most memorable characters in 20th-century literature: Joe Christmas. The adopted son of Mississippi farmers, Christmas is plagued by questions about his racial heritage, and his search for identity reveals the rigid standards of the post-World War I South. Directly influenced by Sherwood Anderson and his work on small-town life, Faulkner’s town of Jefferson is filled with fascinating characters whose conflicts with their community are humorously and deftly realized by the Nobel Prize-winning writer whose literary aesthetic is a feature of American modernism.


My Ántonia
Willa Cather

Set during the European settlement of the American West, Cather’s novel provides a fascinating portrait of immigration and integration on the vast plains of Nebraska. What makes My Ántonia special, though, is Cather’s employment of a narrative voice that carries on the tradition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and would inspire Cather contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Narrator Jim Burden’s romantic nostalgia for a rural, preindustrial America is both enhanced and tempered by his love for childhood friend Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant who refuses to compromise in a world that often requires it.


Toni Morrison

“They shot the white girl first.” From the opening line of Morrison’s seventh novel—her first since being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature—readers are enveloped by a haunting and complex story told through the engaging lens of different women searching for a sense of self and community. Morrison’s lyrical prose chronicles the genesis of an all-black town in rural Oklahoma and its often destructive relationship with those who seek to change it. Set against the backdrop of the turbulent decades of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Morrison provides readers with a fascinating examination of race, gender, and class and the devastating consequences these divisions can have on individuals and their community.


The Summer Guest
Justin Cronin

The first novel from the New York Times best-selling author of The Passage, Cronin’s The Summer Guest is a fractured narrative of stunning grace and poignancy that chronicles the history of a rustic fishing camp in a forgotten corner of Maine. Told through the perspectives of four characters, the story centers on a returning guest who—at the end of his life—wants one last trip to a place that has nurtured and restored him. Like all of the texts on this list, The Summer Guest’s romantic appreciation of place is tempered by the complicated lives of the people who inhabit it; their stories combine to form a mosaic of the American experience.


Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston

Partially set in Eatonville, Florida—just a few miles from Rollins—Hurston’s novel is a powerful story of an African American woman searching for love and understanding in a world that rarely provides either easily. Janie Crawford’s journey through the Florida Panhandle, Central Florida, and the Everglades is an exceptional tour of oft-ignored communities in the state, and Hurston’s ability to faithfully represent them makes this text a classic in every sense of the word. From its poetic descriptions of pear trees and honeybees to Janie “combing the road dust out of her hair,” Their Eyes Were Watching God is a true literary wonder.