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Would you like to know a little bit about American history and culture? While history books can teach you to a certain extent, you ought to engage seriously with American literature, too, which itself can be a great help to you. For literature shows you the ideas, feelings, dreams, and desires of people who lived in America long ago, something you won’t find as clearly or as complexly articulated in most history books.

Or, would you like to become an expert on early American literature? The list below will help you start to become one, whether you are a graduate student seeking to become an American-literature professor and scholar, a layperson who would like to know a lot more than you do, or a student or homeschooler who needs to pass a class or complete a project.

As an added bonus, I have starred my favorite books in this way (***). These are not only informative but also were a complete delight for me to read. My favorite author here is Edgar Allan Poe, a literary genius who helped invent many majors genres. My favorite book might be Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, followed by Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s Conquest of New Spain.

Finally, two caveats. First, this is a living list; as I read more, I will alter and add to this list. Second, this list is not an attempt to create an American literature canon, featuring the important books and excluding non-important books not on this list. I assume that there are plenty of intriguing or important works that I’ve missed. Please email me with your suggestions for additions.

The Colonial Period (~1500-1776)

  • Christopher Columbus — Collected Letters
  • Bartolome de Las Casas — An Account of the Destruction of the Indies
  • Bernal Diaz del Castillo – The Conquest of New Spain (***)
  • Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca — The Relation of Cabeza de Vaca (***)
  • Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz – Poems
  • The Jesuit Relations
  • Samuel de Champlain – Voyages
  • John Smith — The General History of Virginia
  • William Shakespeare – The Tempest
  • William Bradford – Of Plymouth Plantation
  • Thomas Morton — New English Canaan
  • John Winthrop — “A Model of Christian Charity
  • The Bay Psalm Book
  • Roger Williams — A Key Into the Language of America
  • Michael Wigglesworth — “The Day of Doom”
  • Anne Bradstreet — Poems
  • Cotton Mather – Magnalia Christi Americana
  • John Locke – Two Treatises on Government; An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • Edward Taylor — Poems (***)
  • Daniel DeFoe — Robinson Crusoe (***)
  • Jonathan Edwards — sermons; “Personal Narrative”
  • Benjamin Franklin — Autobiography (all four parts)
  • Samson Occom — “A Short Narrative of My Life”
  • William Byrd – The Secret History of the Dividing Line
  • Hector St. John de Crevecoeur — Letters from an American Farmer

The Early Republic (1776-1865)

  • Thomas Paine — Common Sense
  • Philip Freneau — Poems
  • Thomas Jefferson — Autobiography; Notes on the State of Virginia
  • John Filson — The Life and Adventures of Daniel Boone
  • Joel Barlow — The Vision of Columbus
  • Phyllis Wheatley — Poems
  • Olaudah Equiano — The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano
  • William Bartram — Travels
  • Royall Tyler — The Contrast; The Algerine Captive (***)
  • Hugh Henry Brackenridge — Modern Chivalry
  • Hannah Foster — The Coquette
  • Charles Brockden Brown — Wieland; Edgar Huntley
  • Washington Irving — The Sketch-Book
  • Catherine Maria Sedgwick — Hope Leslie
  • James Fenimore Cooper — The Last of the Mohicans; The Pioneers (and many more)
  • John Tanner — The Falcon (***)
  • Nat Turner — Confessions
  • William Apess — “The Son of the Forest”
  • William Cullen Bryant — Poems
  • Blackhawk — Life of Blackhawk
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson — Nature; Essays (first and second series)
  • Edgar Allan Poe — all poems and stories; The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (***)
  • William Gilmore Simms — The Yemassee
  • Frederick Douglass — The Life of Frederick Douglass
  • Margaret Fuller — Woman in the Nineteenth Century; Summer by the Lakes
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne — all novels and stories (***)
  • Herman Melville — Moby-Dick; Typee; “Billy Budd” (***)
  • John Greenleaf Whittier — Poems
  • Henry Bibb — Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb (***)
  • Sojourner Truth — Narrative
  • William Wells Brown — Clotel; Narrative of the Life of William Wells Brown
  • Susan Warner — The Wide Wide World
  • Francis Parkman — all history books (***); try The Oregon Trail first
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — all poems
  • John Rollin Ridge — The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta (***)
  • Henry David Thoreau — Walden
  • Walt Whitman — Leaves of Grass (any edition is fascinating; all are different from one another)
  • Rebecca Harding Davis — Life on the Iron Mills

Reconstruction and Pre-20th Century (1865-1890)

  • Emily Dickinson — Poems (***)
  • Louisa May Alcott — Little Women; Little Men
  • Bret Harte — all western stories
  • Mark Twain — everything, including Roughing It, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (***)
  • William Cody — The Life of the Honorable WIlliam Cody
  • Edward Wheeler — Deadwood Dick (and any other dime novel)
  • Henry James — any novel, especially Roderick Hudson, The Americans, and the Bostonians (***)
  • George Washington Cable — The Grandissmes
  • Sidney Lanier — Poems
  • William Dean Howells — The Rise of Silas Lapham
  • Edward Bellamy — Looking Backward: 2000-1887
  • Jacob Riis — How the Other Half Lives
  • Frederick Jackson Turner — “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”

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