"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is the heartwarming coming-of-age story of the young and idealistic Francie Nolan as she grows up in the slums of Williamsburg during the early 20th century.
An avid reader and lover of penny candy, Francie is a sweet and lovable narrator who must also face the horrors of life — battling sexual assault, extreme loneliness, and lost love — in an effort to survive (and prosper) despite her environment.
"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain
Published in 1884
Considered to be one of the great American novels, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" follows Huck Finn and his friend Tom Sawyer as they travel along the Mississippi River and through the 19th century antebellum South with a freed slave named Jim.
It was the first book written in vernacular English, and though it's frequently challenged for use in the U.S. public school system's curriculum due to racial stereotypes and frequent slurs, many modern academics argue the book is an attack on racism.
The lengthy "Atlas Shrugged" is set in a fictional dystopian Untied States where all the world's movers and shakers have abandoned society, leaving the world and the remaining people in a state of flux.
No matter your opinion on the underlying concept of the book — that capitalism is goodness itself — Ayn Rand's philosophical book is considered by many to be her magnum opus and one need not agree with her to appreciate it.
One of the most boundary-pushing and feminist novels of its era, Kate Chopin tells the story of a Louisiana housewife who loses herself in an extramarital affair and yearns for independence from her husband and children.
Originally thought too provocative by the 19th century critics who panned the book, Chopin's realism, depiction of female sexuality and questioning of societal expectations in "The Awakening" is why it remains a moving novel to this day.
"The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson" by Emily Dickinson
Published in 1890
Emily Dickinson was a true master of the English language, but she went largely unrecognized during her own time due to her idiosyncratic punctuation, capitalization, and vocabulary.
Though an introvert and recluse, Dickinson had a profound understanding of the human condition, and was able to write with a knowledge that one would not expect from a woman who later in life refused to leave her room. Today, she is known as one of the greatest poets in history with a corpus of nearly 1,800 poems.
In this Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award for Fiction-winner, Walker paints the horrifying yet realistic account of a young black woman named Celie who faces disturbing abuse — both physical, mental, and incestuous — at the hands of the men in her life.
"The Color Purple" is set in the southern U.S. in the '30s, and follows Celie as she learns how to survive and let go of the past after discovering that she is somebody worth loving.
From the same Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who wrote "Death of a Salesman," "The Crucible" is another of Arthur Miller's plays about the Salem witch trials of the 17th century.
It hit the stage in 1953, and was thought to be an attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy for his anti-Communist fervor and "witch hunts" of Communists in 1950s America. And though not entirely accurate, the play remains a timeless story of how intolerance and hysteria can tear a community apart.
"Fahrenheit 451" is set in a dystopian future where literature (and all original thought) is on the brink of extinction.
Guy Montag is a fireman whose job is to burn printed books as well as the houses where they're hidden. But when his wife commits suicide and a young neighbor who introduced him to reading disappears, Guy begins hoarding books in his own home.
From the "Tell-Tale Heart" to the Sherlock Holmes-esque "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe is a master at building to a story's climax with palpable emotions — terror, love, sadness — that feel undeniably real to readers.
Winner of the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, and Nobel Prize, John Steinbeck wrote "The Grapes of Wrath" during and about the Great Depression that seized America in the 1930s.
The story follows a family of poor tenant farmers as they're driven away from their Oklahoma home, and journey through the Dust Bowl towards California. But all of their hopes for redemption are slowly wiped out at they battle hunger, lack of employment, and death.
Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth" tells the story of American class hierarchies through Lily Bart, a woman who sabotages all her possible opportunities for a wealthy marriage in the hopes of marrying for love, but refuses to marry for love because she is unable to give up her love of money.
Through a series of rumors and gossip, Lily slowly loses the esteem of her social circle, until she dies poor and alone. It was a stark illustration of the Gilded Age Wharton knew so well, and it remains profoundly tragic.
New York's 19th century industrial workers lived in squalid, cramped tenement buildings. So journalist Jacob A. Riis made it his mission to show the American upper- and middle-class the dangerous conditions the poor faced every day with graphic descriptions, sketches, statistics, and his photographs.
Not only did "How the Other Half Lives" inspire tangible change to the Lower East Side's schools, sweatshops and buildings, but it was also the basis for future "muckraking" journalism.
Maya Angelou's "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," is a powerful American classic that tells of her struggles growing up during the Great Depression, and the abuse she suffered.
The memoir follows Angelou during her youth as she survives soul-crushing racism, a brutal sexual assault, and finally her hard-won independence as she becomes a young woman. Her poetic prose continues to influence and inspire generations today.
"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" by Harriet Jacobs
Published in 1861
This slave narrative was an in-depth chronological account of Jacobs's own life as a slave, documenting in particular the horrific sexual abuse that female slaves faced: rape, pressure to have sex at an early age, being forced to sell their children, and the relationship between female slaves and their mistresses.
Though "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" went relatively unnoticed at the time of its publication due to the outbreak of the Civil War, it reemerged in the 1970s and '80s as an important historical account on the sexualization and rape of female slaves.
Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, "Invisible Man" is a masterpiece that explores what it means to be black in America, as it grapples with race relations and misguided activist groups in the United States.
The book follows the nameless narrator as he tries to escape racist stereotypes from both the white and black people that he meets in an effort to find his true identity and make others see him how he sees himself.
U.S. journalist Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle" to raise awareness for immigrants in America by making the squalor and harrowing working conditions of Chicago factory life incredibly vivid.
The book galvanized public opinion and led to a forced government investigation that eventually caused the passage of pure food laws. Today, it's often referenced in response to poor working conditions and food safety laws.
Published in 1855 (deathbed edition published in 1892)
"Leaves of Grass" is a poetry collection that Walt Whitman spent his entire life revising and re-writing until his death. There are many versions of the book, from a small compilation of twelve poems to the final (gigantic) collection of 400 poems.
But all collections showcase Whitman's staple free-verse poetry, which explores themes such as what it means to be an American while still remaining accessible to modern readers.
Stephen Crane published "Maggie, Girl of the Streets" at his own expense, and at the time it was considered a major failure for the well-known novelist.
Today, it's said to be one of the first examples of American realistic novels. It tells the story of Maggie, a pretty girl born into — and ultimately killed by — the New York City slums of the 19th century. Maggie's tragic fate pays homage to the true grit of life inside the tenement buildings.
Jack Kerouac's unforgettable descriptions and truly original writing style soar in this novel about a pair of friends traveling across America.
A defining work of the postwar "Beat" culture, "On The Road" is both a physical and spiritual journey of the narrator who tries to find meaning in his life through his friends, lovers, and adventures around the U.S.
When the beautiful Isabel Archer is brought from America to Europe by her wealthy Aunt Touchett, she is expected to find a suitable match. But the stubborn Isabel almost immediately turns down two eligible suitors in a desire for independence.
However, the American heiress soon finds herself the target of a con by two American expatriates, and must struggle with a loveless marriage, cruelty, and intrigue in one of Henry James' finest novels, "The Portrait of a Lady."
"The Things They Carried" is the critically acclaimed collection of related stories about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War, based in part on O'Brien's own experiences.
A short story collection, memoir, and novel wrapped into one, O'Brien takes his readers to the front lines with him, whether it's trying to escape to Canada to avoid the draft, watching a friend die, or being welcomed home by people who have become strangers.
"Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston
Published in 1937
Zora Neale Hurston is one of the preeminent U.S. writers of the 20th century. She was a major player in the Harlem renaissance, known for mastering beautiful imagery and local dialect in her work.
"Their Eyes Were Watching God" is one of her best-known novels, following the life of Janie Crawford as she tries to discover herself through a series of marriages. The book is deeply moving as it confronts issues of female identity with the linguistic richness of 1930s Florida.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of local attorney Atticus Finch and his children Scout and Jem as they grow up in a community divided by — and defined by — racism.
Based on Harper Lee's own hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, Finch is asked to defend an African-American man accused of rape, which sends the small Southern town into a frenzy and launches Scout and Jem into the center of the conflict.
Billy Pilgrim is a man who has become unstuck in time after being abducted by aliens, specifically Tralfamadorians for their planet's zoo. The book follows his capture, as well as his time as an American prisoner of war witnessing the firebombing of Dresden during World War II.
"Slaughterhouse-five" is a comically-dark novel that combines both fantasy and realism, and is one of Vonnegut's most masterful works.