10 Best American novels of the past half century

Tyler Cowen recently flogged the state of American literature, and for good reason: American literature, like American society as a whole, has always been a bit provincial despite the fact that it’s a commercial republic. Ours is, as Tocqueville once observed, a “disagreeable and talkative patriotism,” and not fit for stories universal in scope. American literature is provincial despite the fact that the republic is the world’s hegemon, too. Again Tocqueville: “in democratic nations a writer can flatter himself that he may get a mediocre renown and a great fortune cheaply.” There is also the fact of the world having too many wonderful writers in it, dead or alive. If you want to enrich yourself, you simply must read as much foreign literature as possible.

Yet it’s hard to believe that American literature, despite its provincialism, is too American for readers around the world to enjoy. The commercial nature of our mores (“I do not know a country where the love of money holds a larger place in the hearts of man,” says Tocqueville of the United States), the sheer size of our republic (325 million people give or take a few million), and the extent to which our cultural grasp has rooted itself worldwide is sure to produce a cosmopolitanism of some scope.

So, I present to you the 10 best American novels produced over the last half century. I do this not out of a vulgar or even talkative patriotism, but out of a respect for the less-heralded cultural underpinnings of the republic, the ones that celebrate and encourage – quietly (almost humbly) – timeless and universal tales about humanity in all its facets.

Fifty years back takes us to 1969. The postwar boom has faded. The so-called Thirty Glorious Years are almost over. The Cold War against the Soviets will be fought for another 20 years. The buzzword of note, in the press and among the wonkish and literary elite, is “de-industrialization.” There are riots in the streets. A once-confident republic is less sure of itself than it has been since its founding era, and has even discovered, perhaps for the first time in its short history, a sense of self-loathing and despair. It is against this mainstream cultural backdrop that the following list comes from:

10. Ham on Rye (1982) by Charles Bukowski. At number 10, Bukowski, known more for his poetry than his novels, barely makes the cut. And Ham on Rye is, at first glance, not a particularly strong choice. It’s about being white trash, which is an essentially American identity (or it was up until ten or twenty years ago). A second glance reveals a more universal theme, though. Henry Chinaski’s mother is from another country. She married a foreign soldier, bore his child, and left her own country for what she thought could only be a better life in the occupying soldier’s homeland. Bukowski’s book is of global relevance.

9. Humboldt’s Gift (1975) by Saul Bellow. Every sentence in Bellow’s story is a breath of fresh air. Every character is memorable. Every theme to be found has universal appeal. This one should probably be ranked higher, to be honest. Bellow’s writing surely pushes the conservative reader of 2019 deeper into his despair over the decay of the republic. Philistines take note: read this one first.

8. Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison. Yes, I know Morrison just died, but this book would still be on the list even if she was still among the living. Like the ghost in her novel, Morrison’s story will haunt you. Slave novels and haunted houses are as American as apple pie, you say, but what about a runaway slave’s dead baby ghost? Ghosts themselves play a prominent role in much of the world’s literature, as does slavery. Beloved is a world-class tale, though, not only for its subject matter but its themes as well: deep, sorrowful pain and love well-earned.

7. The Echo Maker (2006) by Richard Powers. The intelligence of Richard Powers is overwhelming. His stories are based on the experiences he’s had within America’s scientific and literary institutions. His voice is therefore too American, too literate, unless it’s used to tell a story about a man who seems to have gone insane. The definition of insanity varies across cultures and within the medical profession, but every society has crazy people in it, and Powers’ storytelling ability gives to this notion a new foundation.

6. The Namesake (2003) by Jhumpa Lahiri. This is a debut novel from a prize-winning author, and it’s been overlooked precisely for that reason. It, at first, seems far too American to make this list. There’s the bored housewife driven to philandering, of course, but also the son of immigrant parents who just can’t seem to please anybody. Yet the world now is filled with immigrants and most of them don’t seem to care much about the American Dream. They dawdle, they doodle, and they do their best to come to terms with their dual identities, much as Gogol does in this story. The Namesake is a deceptively great story.

5. Breakfast of Champions (1973) by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut? Maybe, but Breakfast of Champions is too weird to be universal. Shouldn’t the novel that came before Breakfast of Champions get the nod here? Folks, the world is a strange, sometimes violent place, and Vonnegut’s seventh novel captures every essence of such a cold, hard fact. Much of this story screams “too American,” but if you assigned this book to high schoolers in any country of the world, they’d remember it well into old age.

4. The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica (1983) by John Calvin Batchelor. The list’s dark horse, Batchelor’s novel is American literature’s best-kept secret. The story is a familiar one for people around the world. It’s about the unwanted, and it begins in a bar in Stockholm packed with American military deserters and draft dodgers. Throughout the novel, which is peppered with big words and leans heavily on Norse mythology, the United States is never reached, never touched. In fact, none of the story takes place in the United States at all. The protagonist instead floats from Sweden to Antarctica and is beset by a series of horrific events. Americans will think this book weird, but foreigners will understand it just fine.

3. Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy. A cowboy tale. The Wild West. Nothing says “too American” like a Western, you say, but frontier stories are surprisingly universal (think of Facundo, for example, or even War and Peace). Cormac McCarthy has produced several good works, including some that would give the 1990s a spot on this most prestigious of lists, but Blood Meridian is his best novel. At the risk of sounding provincial myself, I’d argue that it’s the best book on the frontier, ever.

2. Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides. There’s not much to add to the commentary on this one. It’s a masterpiece, and one that is obviously global in scope. There is little about this book that is too American, and much to be excited about for America’s future; despite the republic’s many failures it is still the world’s cultural powerhouse. Middlesex contributes to this tradition, and its impact will be felt around the world for decades to come.

1. The Known World (2003) by Edward P. Jones. As good as the other nine books are on this list, The Known World is easily the greatest American novel of the past half century. Surely two slave novels in a list of America’s 10 Best is one too many, and far too American for a list with such cosmopolitan aims. No. The Known World is a work about good, evil, and moral ambiguity. It is a blueprint for the future and an explanation of the present. It perfectly encapsulates the world we’ve always lived in. Jones accomplishes this task with aplomb, and he uses chattel slavery to do it. That’s rare. This novel is a gift to the world, from a people whose cosmopolitanism and morality is often overshadowed by the power of their military and the reach of their clandestine operations.

Further thoughts

Yes the 1990s were garbage, as is this decade, but who knew the aughts were such a great time? How much of an impact did 9-11 have on our literary class?

Yes I know there are a lot of good books written by Americans. If your favorite American novel from the past 50 years is not on this list, it’s because it’s too American (too provincial) or not quite up to the Christensen Snuff.

Yes I know there’s no science fiction or fantasy on this list, and that science fiction and fantasy are just as intellectually stimulating as traditional literature.

Now, back to Feyerabend!

9 thoughts on “10 Best American novels of the past half century

    • So I’ve heard.

      I still haven’t read him. Gravity’s Rainbow has been collecting dust on my bookshelf for years. (Oh the shame!) Maybe I’ll read that one next…

  1. “Home” by Marilynne Robinson. Yes, it’s provincial. But it’s also a Prodigal Son novel — how universal can you get?

  2. Missing Pynchon, of course. Otherwise, I agree with those of your choices I know. I don’t know though why Cowen called American fiction provincial. (Did he?) It’s like calling Rome in 40 BC provincial. It just can’t be. The huge and continued success of movies adapted from America novels cannot be due entirely to American cinematgraphic skills and imagination (though they are big). The stories have to speak to the millions of foreigners who watch the movies. Expressing myself as a shy immigrant now: I have been puzzled from the beginning about the propensity of a certain class of native-born Americans to consider their country, and themselves, somehow inferior. It looks to me like a kind of collective neurosis. Just ask immigrant Saul Below.

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