10 novels that brilliantly capture the American experience

  • Literature expands our ability to feel empathy and inspires compassion.
  • These 10 novels tackle some facet of the American experience.
  • The list includes a fictional retelling of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, and hiding out in inner-city Newark.

We call it “getting lost” in a novel, but what we find there is often more impactful than any nonfiction work can offer. Literature makes us more empathic and intelligent. Storytelling is how we bond, as tribes and a planet. A powerful narrative, like a good mythology, carries us far away from ourselves only to deliver us right back where we started, transformed.

Since the European invasion that brought a host of newcomers to these shores, the American experiment has produced a lot of suffering and plenty of beauty. This nation leads the world in many domains, many of which are not pleasant. Yet the core principles of democracy remain an important component of who we are, even if at times like this we seem to forget what that really entails.

The novels below do not comprise a “best of” list simply because there are too many books I have not read. (If you have a suggestion, please tweet at me @derekberes.) These are 10 works of literature that made an impact in my life, offering varied perspectives of what happens between the two oceans and two nations bordering us (speaking continentally, of course). Most importantly, they’re all amazing books.

American Pastoral — Philip Roth

Every Philip Roth novel is a slice of America, mostly told through the lens of the Jewish experience in and around Newark. Sure, there’s something purely Americana about Seymour “Swede” Levov, a former high school star athlete squaring off in later age with adultery and mortality. The novel traces Jersey life during the cultural upheaval of the late sixties, when Swede’s daughter, Merry, hides out in inner-city Newark after she killed multiple bystanders by planting bombs. Merry’s character profile—an outlaw devoted to Jainism living in squalor—is one of the most fascinating in modern literature. The book is a meditation on the dissolution of the American dream in front of a family’s eyes.

Another Country — James Baldwin

James Baldwin is one of the most fearless writers of the 20th century. While lacking the explicit sexuality of “Giovanni’s Room”, “Another Country” explores bisexuality and interracial relationships in America during the imagined “Golden Era” of the 1950s. Some point to that age as the true height of American ethics and values; Baldwin exposes the hypocrisy as it happened; he started writing it in 1948 and published in 1962 while living in Istanbul. The characters grappling with jazz drummer Rufus Scott’s lifestyle after his death makes for gripping and harrowing writing by a master of literature.

Caleb’s Crossing — Geraldine Brooks

Having worked as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Australian-American writer Geraldine Brooks turned to novels in 2001. Her deep working knowledge of international history informed her fiction, including this gorgeous tribute to Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a member of the Wampanoag tribe on Martha’s Vineyard. Cheeshahteaumuck lived a life of integrity and tragedy. The first American Indian to graduate from Harvard in 1665, he died less than a year later of tuberculosis. Brooks’ retelling transports the reader to the challenges of the earliest years of the American experiment, dealing with many issues of immigration and citizenship that sadly…

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