Notes on Books for American Literature for High School
I have starred what is most important.
*A Eugene O’Neill play. O’Neill is the best American playwright; really he’s the best English-language playwright since Shakespeare. Long Day’s Journey into Night: A one-day play, somewhat autobiographical, about a retired actor, his two grown sons (both failures in their own ways), and his morphine-addicted wife, who relapses after a cure they thought might finally work.
*Not The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, 1950 or so. It’s not that much of a classic or that good a play. It belittles witchcraft and Christianity, and one of its points was that there weren’t really any Communists in American government, which turned out to be false historically.
*Some Faulkner— the easiest you can find. Short stories would be best. For Southern flavor and genius at capturing it in words. NOT The Sound and the Fury or Light in August.
My Life, by Frederick Douglass. This could be a token black author, but it actually stands on its own, describing life as a slave in an elegant plain writing style the students could emulate. Very interesting to read.
*The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Very similar in style to Frederick Douglass, and useful in comparing how writing style changed slightly from 1770 to 1870.
*The Day of Wrath, a long (30 page?) poem by Wigglesworth around 1680 about Judgement Day. Its galloping meter carries you along and it’s much much easier to read than, say, Paradise Lost or Walt Whitman. It was a best-seller in America in colonial days, together with the BIble and Pilgrim’s Progress.
Walt WHitman doens’t have any long works. I think he’s overrated anyway. If you want poetry, read more Emily Dickinson.
*NOT THe Scarlet Letter. I read it in high school, and can’t see why people think it’s good, even though it’s a high school standard. It doesn’t capture the spirit of the age and it’s not enjoyable to read.
James Fenimore Cooper— The Pathfinder, or The Deerslayer, or Last of the MOhicans.
*Mark Twain. They’ve probably read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, so give them Life on the MIssissippi or Roughing It, full of true and exaggerated stories from the Mississippi River and the Wild West.
Maybe one science fiction novel and one Western or mystery. These aren’t great literature, but are important as examples of categories of American literature and categories a student might start reading his whole life. Examples: True Grit by Travis; Foundation by Asimov; The BIg Sleep by Chandler.
The Lincoln Douglas Debates might be good. I haven’t read them myself.
*The Great Gatsby, another high school standard, is good for Fitzgerald.
*Some Steinbeck. East of Eden has prostitution in it, so perhaps a bad choice. Of Mice and Men, The Pearl. Maybe others.
*Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea would be best, as most American, even though it’s about a CUban.
Some Mencken essays. He makes fun of Christians, but in a harmless way, but his writing style is brilliant. “A Mencken Chrestomathy” is a good collection.
Thornton Wilder, Theophilus North. Thornton Wilder is underrated.
Ben Hur, by Lew Wallace. Little Women, by Alcott. Call of the Wild by Jack London. The Good Earth, by Pearl BUck. Chrichton novels such as Andromeda Strain or Jurassic Park. Entertaining good novels. Don’t have too many from this category.
Longfellow: Hiawatha. A long poem.
*Not Moby DIck. It’s too boring, even though it’s very good.
Henry James is boring and NOT very good.
Edgar Allen Poe stories and poems.
Bradbury : the Martian Chronicles. Bradbury underservedly gets lots more play than other science fiction writers, but I havd to admit that Martian Chronicles is good and is high art, and it’s famous too.
Nabokov’s subject matter is too perverse. So is O’Toole’s COnferacy of Dunces.
Tom Wolfe is too vulgar, even though he’s the best American novelist of recent times. William Styron is in the same category.
Willa Cather and Flannery O’Connor I haven’t read.