Five essential books that explore common themes in American life

Emily Broad shares her favourite reads from US authors

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is set around the Great Depression 
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is set around the Great Depression 

From Salinger to Vonnegut, these are my favourite novels from US authors, which each describe key moments or experiences in American life. From the 1930s to the 1990s, this list covers the most common themes in American literature – war, murder, beauty, struggle and loneliness.

'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt (1992)

Set in a small liberal arts college in Vermont, this novel follows the murderous plot surrounding a group of students passionate about the Classics, with Richard Papen, an outsider from California, as its main character. With Tartt’s flowery descriptions and excellent storyline we are pushed towards each new page to discover the truth about this odd bunch.

'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger (1951)

This is a tale of wandering; a literary encapsulation of what it means to feel lost. The main character, Holden Caulfield, is fed up with “phonies” and human superficiality. After being expelled from his prep school, he journeys through New York City, tackling his childhood and a loss of innocence by rediscovering relationships with those close to him.

'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck (1939)

Perhaps one of the best literary representations of the Great Depression in the US, Steinbeck delivers the tale of the Joad family and their escape from poverty. Each character’s story feeds into the main plotline, with the gruelling escape from the dust-covered Midwest enhancing the book’s main themes of hope, faith and what it means to be a worker.

'Cat’s Cradle' by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

Written at the height of a global arms race, Vonnegut addresses the world’s obsession with war and weaponry in this satirical masterpiece. The main character, John, tries to write a novel about the atomic bomb, leading him to an island and the book’s shocking conclusion. It is an unconventional sci-fi novel that discusses free will and its relation to technology.

'Long Day’s Journey Into Night' by Eugene O’Neill (1956)

This semi-autobiographical drama centres on the Tyrone family. Each flawed character, from a mother addicted to morphine to a deathly ill son, demonstrates the bleak nature of family life and the urge to damage those closest to us. O’Neill crafts dialogue and the book’s setting into a grand display of denial, isolation, blame and nostalgia.

Emily Broad is an intern at The National

Published: June 29, 2019 10:45 AM

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