Great American Literature, or Great American Stories

The third world-building post will be in two weeks. It’s coming, never fear. But apropos of the piece at The Passive Voice/Wall Street Journal, and the never-ending debate about “what is real literature” and why should everyone read it, I started wondering…

Rather than “the Great American Novel” with all the literary weight that seems to freight the idea, what if we talked about “the Great American Stories?”

What are the books that capture the American experience and that serve as touchstones for why we are the way we are? Or that best describe the story of the USA, and that also happen to be great stories?

I’d toss out a few, off the top of my head, that I’ve read and can vouch for. They are West and Midwest heavy, just because that’s what I’ve been interested in and had access to:

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. They are classics for a darn good reason.

Holling C. Holling’s Tree in the Trail and Seabird. The first is about the Santa Fe trail, the other about ships and sailing.

The first four or five Sackett novels by Louis L’Amour. Also The Lonesome Gods, which is about making and remaking yourself in a new world, and what happens to those who can’t.

Irving Stone Men to Match my Mountains about the opening up the mines in Nevada and California.

Stanley Vestal The Missouri is non-fiction but reads like fiction and tells the story of that river. Heck, anything by Vestal.

Hamlin Garland A Son of the Middle Border about breaking a farm in the Dakotas, moving away from the prairie, and then returning.

The first three-quarters of Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. It is a story about the Scandinavians who settled Minnesota. The end plunges into grey goo, but the first three-quarters of the book are great.

Vardis Fisher Mountain Man It tells the story of an unnamed trapper in the Rocky Mountains. It drags in spots, but overall is a really neat story. The protagonist isn’t a fan of Indians. He has good reasons.

Willa Cather’s O, Pioneers and Death Comes for the Archbishop The latter is heavily tilted in the main character’s favor, to the point of bending history, but reads well.

Mark Twain Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin.

Robert Frost’s early poems about farming and farm life. Once he gets away from the dirt, I don’t love him as much.

OK, he’s Canadian, but Robert Service’s poems about Alaska and the Yukon. “The Cremation of Sam Magee” alone is worth the price of admission.

What other books would add that capture the story of America in great stories?



  1. As a young non-american kid dreaming of American Adventures, I loved White Fang, Burning Daylight and The Call of the Wild. Later Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, a great book about Americans of the Greatest generation.

  2. Hm. I feel like I’ve read a lot fewer of them since I was a kid, so my memories of most of these are kinda vague. My Side of the Mountain comes to mind, as do Hatchet and The Haymeadow by Gary Paulsen. I feel like Where the Red Fern Grows belongs in that list, but I didn’t like it as well.

    Davy Crockett’s biography, and Daniel Boone’s. Heck, the Disney-fied story of the Alamo, for that matter, and the American folktales (Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, etc.)

    Vintage Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, I think.

    Branching out a bit from books, there’s the musical 1776, Glory, and much more recently Greatest Showman.

    1. I have a soft spot for _My Side of the Mountain_. A teacher in grade school read it to us, and by the end I think we all wanted to head out to the woods by the Missouri River and live for a year. 🙂 With a hawk.

      1. So did we – there was a children’s radio program that we listened to in the late 1950s, with a performer who read this book, about half a chapter a day. We loved it so much that my mother bought a copy for us.
        Another book that I loved – well, besides the Laura Ingallls Wilder Little House series was another story of the Oregon Trail – Children of the Covered Wagon, by Mary Jane Carr. It’s still in print, and seems to be beloved by those of us who read it, or had it read to us early on.

        1. My mom got me to read Almanzo Wilder’s book from the little house series and i think i read two others…

  3. The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald, books set in Utah around the turn of the last century about a money-grubbing scam artist of a middle brother and the little brother who both idolizes him and is his greatest victim.

    It’s interesting how little the equivalent happens in Canada. Books that became classics because they told the story of their country as part of another interesting story. Here it’s more about what Officialdom thinks children should read in order to mold them to become better Canadians as defined by said Officialdom. Especially if it concerns the Quebec issue. Or Mennonites for some reason. Or how evil and venal the lower peoples populating the lower provinces are (that’s if they’re mentioned at all).

    A book written by a Canadian has as much chance to be good as any other book. A book written by a Canadian, about Canada, for the Official Canadian market, has very little chance to be anything more than competently written and will start its life on the featured table in the bookstore or the corner displays at the library.

    And will end its life six months later on the remainder table at the bookstore or in a dusty back shelf at the library. If ever you happen to find those books, and open those books, you will hear an audible crack because it’ll be the first time anyone was even interested enough to get past the back cover.

    Prestige books. But how generating disinterest and boredom is prestigious in any way is beyond me.


    1. I will counter with the one Canadian literature piece that is actually about Canada. That would be Anne of Green Gables (as well as its sequels and all the other books and stories by L.M. Montgomery.) Admittedly, they’re all “small” stories, but they do have a flavor.

  4. I hated A Son of the Middle Border, but that might have been due to an overenthusiastic sixth-grade teacher who pushed me to read it because she was just sure I’d love it as much as she did.

  5. Guns for General Washington is about a true American story from the Revolution, that is not as well known as it should be. It is about bringing the guns from Fort Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights and setting them up at night. When the British General in Boston woke and saw them he sailed away. The reason I call it an American story is that the plan to get the guns was the brainchild of a Boston bookseller; it took him from August until March to move the guns — but he never gave up. It was supposed to take a month… Something about the grit and stubbornness is totally American to me.

    1. I loved that sequence in David McCullough’s “1776.” Henry Knox just seemed so cool, hardening the ice to get the guns across. I also liked Nathanael Greene, who was an ordinary man who had read a lot of military history. I honestly don’t remember learning about those guys from K-12 or college. After reading “1776” I had wondered if their stories had ever appeared in fictional form. They seem exactly like the sort of “history comes alive” characters who would interest children.

  6. I’ll second Where the Red Fern Grows and add Sounder (William H. Armstrong) and Old Yeller (Fred Gipson), making it the trifecta of sad dog stories.

    For younger readers, I would suggest Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes) and Carry On Mr. Bowditch (Jean Lee Latham).

    I know I’m going to get pushback on this, but I think The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper capture a part of the American experience. I know Cooper tended to go overboard on description, but he tells some great stories. I read the first four (never got around to The Prairie) the year after I got out of graduate school. I was surprised at how much romance they contained and how dark they were.

    And why hasn’t anyone mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird. Just because the literati like a work doesn’t mean it can’t have a great story.

    1. I wonder if we all assume that everyone has read or will read _To Kill a Mockingbird_? It is required reading in almost all schools.

  7. I’d throw in Rifles for Watie, which is about the Civil War in the Indian Territory, (won a Newbery back when winning a Newbery meant kids might actually want to read it), and will throw in anything by Allan Eckert.

  8. I second My Side of the Mountain. I grew up playing in the woods — the kind you can spend hours walking in without seeing another soul, other than the brother and cousins accompanying you. My brother, who only occasionally read for fun, devoured that one. We both eagerly watched the movie when it happened to come on TV.

    I vaguely recall Naya Nuki: Shoshone Girl Who Ran, about a girl who is captured by an enemy tribe and has to trek thousands of miles through the wilderness to get back home. She turns out to be friends with Sacajawea. I checked just now for the spelling of “Naya Nuki” — turns out the book is now “problematic.” Sigh. Island of the Blue Dolphins, which I think takes place off the coast of California, is based on a real woman. I’m not even going to check if it’s problematic now, too.

    In school we read/watched Johnny Tremaine, and of course there was White Fang and any random Jack London story. Davy Crockett/Daniel Boone seem a given to me. Tales of people surviving on wits and courage and skill in the wild have has always appealed to me. I think of such tales as quintessentially American, so I’d expand the selection to include stories that resonate with the American spirit. Think the “Iceberg Hermit,” about a Scottish teen moored on a glacier in the Arctic, and Robinson Crusoe. I think everyone in class enjoyed those stories.

    One thread that runs through many of these stories, including Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, is that young people can be competent, resourceful, and full of grit, traits I don’t think are actively encouraged anymore. I’ve actually seen people ridicule the concept of “gumption,” as if fatalism is the sensible course. But in a thread on Nancy Drew at the Passive Voice, the OP had noted that some survivors of kidnappings had fallen back on their memories of Drew and her resourcefulness, and it helped them to escape or survive. I prefer to celebrate such a mentality, rather than a fatalistic “that’s how it is, whattayougonnado?”

    1. This. I remember reading about how Anders Brevik — by himself, managed to hunt down and murder all those teenagers and twenty-somethings, on an island summer camp. There were hundreds of kids, most of them well-grown … and he hunted them all over the island, like poor, frightened rabbits. No one thought to gang up, and attack him with whatever they could find. They just let him chase them all over the island, until “someone” came to rescue them.
      The massacre was sickening in itself … but the passivity of the kids was also pretty sickening.

    2. There was a recent hostage situation in a Trader Joe’s, and I read an article about one of the hostages, who basically became the mediator so that it didn’t turn into a bloodbath. She had experience with trauma therapy, but she also had the guts to work with the guy with the gun, getting him to a state where he could turn himself in without anyone else getting killed.

  9. Ralph Moody. Much like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but set in Colorado, with male main character. Use a little more discretion, though, with young readers: Ralph’s father dies.

    Ken Thomasma’s ‘problematic’!?! What the heck? He’s such a patient, personable man. And he’s Native himself, how is that not “racist”of them? I first met him . . . have to be about 1986 or 1987, judging from the size of my Naya Nuki t-shirt he signed for me. My older daughter wears it now. Met him a couple times since: because of the Shoshone connection he gets a lot of signings here. Argh. I am so irritated with the SJW. Naya Nuki was a real historical person, local to here, mentioned in Captain Clark’s journal.
    *Stomps off grumbling about idiots ruining everything*

  10. B.A. Botkin collected short stories and folklore from all over the country, and I’m continually fascinated by some of the things he found. There’s the usual stories about Paul Bunyan and Mike Fink, but there’s also some really wacky ones from the colonial era right up through the early 1900s. My favorite of his compilations is ‘A Treasury of New England Folklore’ because I grew up in that region. There are also treasuries of southern, western, railroad, and general American folklore that are quite good.

    1. Botkin was/is great; a bit OT but I love a lot of the folklore collections from the 30’s and 40’s.

      The old Time-Life book of American Folklore was another wonderful book, though some mild nudity might put off a few kids.

  11. Pecos Bill.

    But I strongly approve of most of the suggestions. Especially those relating to dogs or a maimed silversmith apprentice.

  12. Dickon of the Leni Lenape, now renamed The Indians of New Jersey: Dickon among the Lenapes. It was written by M.R. Harrington, one of the great anthropology guys. He had so much practical info about old Indian folkways and technologies that he managed to write a great slice of life, in the guise of a fictional captivity narrative. There is a companion volume about the Iroquois, which has good info but never comes as alive.

  13. Also, Robert McCloskey for young children… Make Way for Ducklings. And a book that showed up among homeschoolers called The Very Last First Time is a lovely book about Alaskan natives gathering mussels under the sea ice in winter. New to me but Wow!

  14. Pricey, at $14, because university press, and I may be biased because my family was from Osborne County, Kansas – but I would recommend “Sod and Stubble” as a somewhat fictionalized account of homesteading on the Great Plains.

  15. “The Cremation of Sam Magee” is one of my favorite poems! I first read it as a child and still retain large chunks of in memory.

    It was in a book titled “Yesterday and Today: A Comparative Anthology of Poetry” edited by Louis Untermeyer, and copyright 1926 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc. It is in two parts, the first (Yesterday) includes the work of authors born between 1800 and 1850, and the second (Today) includes authors born after 1950. It contains many classics and was a wonderful introduction to great poetry. My copy is old and battered and the pages are loose and frayed at the edges, but I still treasure it.

    What I like best is that the poems are simply printed one after the other, (in logical groupings), with no attempts to surround them with interpretations and comments. All of that stuff is in the preface or in the 100 pages of scholarly stuff at the end of the book (which I confess I never paid attention to.)

  16. The Boxcar Children. Four orphans staying together and making a life for themselves in an old, abandoned boxcar. That’s America right there.

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