10 Novels that Represent the American Experience

Growing up between two cultures, Greek and American, heightened my awareness, from an early age, of America not only as a physical place but also a shifting, continually evolving idea. While Greece meant shared history and traditions, America meant reinventing and coexisting, too often uneasily, among diverse histories and traditions. The American experience is an intersection among those who came to America seeking “a better life” with those who were brought against their will and enslaved with those whose way of life was destroyed.

Though far from definitive, the following 10 books provide a starting point for exploring, to paraphrase James Baldwin, the various, beautiful, and terrible American experiences.

Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale by Herman Melville

Melville’s discursive classic sweeps readers from the docks of New Bedford, Massachusetts to the stormy waters of the Atlantic. Ishamel, the narrator, chronicles his friendship with Polynesian harpooner Queequog and their experiences on a whaling ship. Its captain, Ahab, is consumed by a secret mission of revenge against the white whale responsible for his missing leg.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

John Brown’s life in the years before and through his ill-fated 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry is narrated by Henry Shackleford, a young slave whom Brown kidnaps/rescues. Henry’s playful irreverence is revealed in the first two lines and holds up to the very last page of this remarkable novel that makes us laugh out loud even as we’re shedding bitter tears.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The collective “we” tells the stories of Japanese “picture brides.” Women of every class and background, they were sent to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century to marry men they knew only from their photos. In prose that blooms poetry and music, the novel opens readers’ minds to what it would have been like to step into a world turned upside down and have no way out but through.

Roman Fever by Edith Wharton

Wharton’s novella opens with two upper class New York women sitting together on a balcony overlooking Rome. As their daughters gallivant around the city, the ladies reminisce about their younger days doing the same. It all appears quite civilized until their tangled relationship gradually emerges, exposing the decay underlying the gilded surface. The last line delivers an epic sucker punch.

Passing by Nella Larson

In 1920s Harlem, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, two mixed-race women who grew up together, reconnect, with tragic consequences. Irene is married to a black doctor and is an active participant in Harlem’s black community while Clare is passing as white, including to her racist husband. Her social overtures toward Irene build to a shocking climax in this difficult and important novel that confronts the anguish and rage racism causes.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s classic brings to life the Depression-era Deep South, its veneer of gentility and its underlying brutality. The novel’s soul is Atticus, who represents the ideal of American justice: equal treatment under the law for all. His battle to defend a wrongly accused black man exposes how tragically unrealized this value is.

Harvard Square by Andre Aciman

A Jewish Egyptian doctoral student (unnamed) and a Tunisian Muslim taxi driver, Kalaj, briefly connect in this lyrical, absorbing novel. At its outset, both face seeing their “American dream” slip through their fingers. The doctoral student has failed his oral exams and is in danger of being expelled while Kalaj is fighting deportation. As they move toward their separate outcomes, their bond deepens, alongside their animosity.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

In late 18th century Ghana, Effia marries a British officer overseeing the slave trade while her sister Esi is captured and sold as a slave in America. Alternating chapters tell their descendents’ stories in both countries, from the 18th century to the present. Chapters often end just as a significant event has happened to or around characters. We may, or may not, discover their fates in future chapters, a potent reminder of the African and African-American stories irretrievably lost.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson’s memoir in verse recounts her experiences growing up in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the 1960s and 70s. Her poems capture the felt sense of memory – scents, images, set pieces. They craft snapshots of the Civil Rights era South, the Great Migration, and New York City life as well as sibling rivalry and love, friendship and jealousy, family and loss, and finding inspiration and purpose.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Arnold Spirit, Jr. makes the painful decision to transfer from his Spokane Indian Reservation's high school to an all-white one. With equal parts humor and heartbreak, the autobiographical novel explores a question at the heart of American experiences: How do we move forward in a way that honors the past, acknowledges that any choice is imperfect, and allows us to choose life, even in the midst of mourning?