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Best of American Fiction, 1900-1945

Content last modified January 2012


This minibibliography, second of two minibibliographies lists the best of American fiction, covering the period from 1900 to 1945.

Theodore Dreiser, author of Sister Carrie, was the first voice to be heard as American literature entered the twentieth century. His reportorial vision and his message that outside forces direct human affairs were a continuation of the trend toward realism and naturalism first presented in the works of William Dean Howells, Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris (see The Best of American Fiction: Early Period). Dreiser also set the stage for other realistic and naturalistic American writers such as Erskine Caldwell, Jack London, and Sherwood Anderson.

Other writers of the period from 1900 to 1945 focused their critical vision on particular regions or geographical locations. William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and Ellen Glasgow captured the character and conflicts of the South while Willa Cather and O.E. Rolvaag chose the desolate American prairie as a setting to communicate timeless visions of humanity and its struggles.

During the 1920s, two of the best known American literary figures, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, reflected the shattered idealism and morality of the Jazz Age in The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway) and The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald).

The shattered dreams, social unrest, and economic depression of the prewar period of the 1930s and early 1940s found expression in the works of John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and James Farrell. Contemporary writers would echo and expand these themes in the aftermath of World War II.

Books chosen for this minibibliography are based upon the recommendations offered in Good Reading, edited by J. Sherwood Weber; The Reader's Advisor, 12th edition, volume 1; "Darien's First 'Classics' Collection," from Library Journal, November 15, 1981; and American Novel, Crane to Faulkner edited by Frank N. Magill.

Books in this list are arranged in alphabetical order by author and then, within author, by title. The dates following the annotations are the original dates of publication. All books are available from NLS network library collections.

Braille and digital book numbers that are also links will take one to the Web-Braille or Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) version. These password-protected electronic files are freely available to readers who register with a cooperating library in the NLS network. More about Web-Braille. More about BARD.

Anderson, Sherwood (1876-1941)

Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life

The revolt in the 1920s against the mediocrity of small-town life and in favor of realism was inaugurated by these sketches of a Midwestern community. 1919

DB 18118

RC 18118

BR 18637 volume 1

BR 18637 volume 2

Buck, Pearl S. (1892-1973)

The Good Earth

Describes the rise of Wang Lung, a poor Chinese peasant. The story begins with his wedding day, as he ponders his good fortune that now he will have a woman to take over the chore of lighting a fire to heat the water for his bath. With the help and patience of his new wife, O-lan, Wang Lung becomes a rich landowner. Pulitzer Prize. 1931

DB 37294

RC 37294

BR 9400 volume 1

BR 9400 volume 2

BR 9400 volume 3

Cabell, James Branch (1879-1958)

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice

An allegory set in a semi-medieval country, Jurgen is allowed to regain his youth for a year of amorous adventures in a story filled with a variety of strange beasts, alien gods, fabulous lands, beautiful women, and an aura of the supernatural. 1919

RC 14431

Cain, James M. (1892-1977)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

A novel of clandestine love, murder, and accidental death. Vagabond Frank Chambers stops at a California roadside sandwich stand run by a Greek man and his American wife. Captivated by her, Frank hires on and they begin a mutually destructive affair. Some violence and some descriptions of sex. 1934

RC 17817


Caldwell, Erskine (1903-1987)

God's Little Acre

A Georgia mountaineer, who has been digging for gold for fifteen years on his farm, keeps the proceeds from one acre for the church. Several family tragedies occur but nothing stops him from his search. Strong language and explicit descriptions of sex. 1933

DB 23881

RC 23881

BR 6926

Tobacco Road

The saga of Jeeter Lester and his shiftless family. Their ribald adventures along Tobacco Road, a once a flourishing plantation, attract a lusty preacher, Sister Bessie. Explicit descriptions of sex. 1932

DB 46240

RC 46240

BR 11889 volume 1

BR 11889 volume 2

Cather, Willa (1873-1947)

My Antonia

A lawyer recalls his Nebraska boyhood and the girl who was a strong influence on his life in this novel about pioneering conditions and the assimilation of immigrants. 1918

DB 13491

RC 13491

BR 11320 volume 1

BR 11320 volume 2

BR 11320 volume 3

Clark, Walter Van Tilburg (1909-1971)

The Ox-Bow Incident

Nevada, 1885. Wrangler Art Croft reluctantly joins a group of citizens in a small town who hastily form a posse to catch murdering cattle rustlers. Three men are accused of the crime and, although there are some doubts about their guilt, lynched. Some violence and some strong language. 1940

DB 52564

RC 52564

BR 13679 volume 1

BR 13679 volume 2

Dos Passos, John (1896-1970)


Three novels first published as a trilogy in 1938: The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). Dos Passos satirizes life in America from 1900 until the 1930s, using period "newsreels," autobiographical pieces, and biographical sketches. Some strong language. 1938

DB 42698

RC 42698

Dreiser, Theodore (1871-1945)

An American Tragedy

Based on an actual murder case, this classic novel depicts the dark side of the American dream in the story of a young man who will do almost anything to gain wealth and social acceptance. While he loves a poor factory worker who is carrying his child, he is dazzled by a rich woman who seems to embody all his fantasies. 1925

DB 23138

RC 23138

BR 18631 volume 1

BR 18631 volume 2

BR 18631 volume 3

BR 18631 volume 4

BR 18631 volume 5

BR 18631 volume 6

BR 18631 volume 7

BR 18631 volume 8 

Sister Carrie

Naive eighteen-year-old Caroline Meeber leaves rural Wisconsin for Chicago, where she temporarily moves into her sister and brother-in-law’s flat. Seeking an escape from a drab existence, Carrie welcomes the affections of two men--one of whom is married--who bring her wealth, sophistication, and success, but ultimately dissatisfaction. 1900

DB 25296

RC 25296

BR 18587 volume 1

BR 18587 volume 2

BR 18587 volume 3

BR 18587 volume 4

BR 18587 volume 5

Farrell, James T. (1904-1979)

Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy

Young Lonigan: A Boyhood in Chicago Streets

Set in the turbulent south side of Chicago, a psychological novel that traces the life of a tough Irish youth from his graduation from grade school to his entrance into high school. 1932

DB 12902

RC 12902

The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan

Covers the years from 1917, when Studs Lonigan is still in high school, to 1929 when he is trapped into marriage by a woman he grows to hate. Strong language and some explicit descriptions of sex. 1934

RC 12607

Judgment Day

Nearly thirty, Studs Lonigan reflects the values fostered by the movies, cheap daily newspapers, and his streetwise companions: he still wants to be a tough guy. His life ends in disillusionment and despair after being beaten down by the Great Depression. 1935

RC 33611

Faulkner, William (1897-1962)

Absalom, Absalom!

The rise and fall of a nineteenth-century Southern family are reconstructed by several narrators with differing views. A Southern gentleman attempts to found a dynasty but fails; he cannot see that human values are superior to social. 1936

DB 27313

RC 27313

BR 7218

As I Lay Dying

A poor white family treks across the Mississippi countryside struggling with its own incompetence, flooding rivers, and buzzards to deliver its dead mother's body for burial in her hometown. 1930


RC 49008

BR 12386 volume 1

BR 12386 volume 2

Light in August

Joe Christmas, an orphan of mixed blood, travels to the South seeking a place and people with whom he can belong. Soon he becomes hardened by black and white bigotry. 1932

DB 20001

RC 20001

BR 11398 volume 1

BR 11398 volume 2

BR 11398 volume 3

The Sound and the Fury

In 1928 Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, the Compson brothers--Quentin, Jason, and the "idiot" son Benjy--narrate events that trace the gradual disintegration of the family and include the ostracism of their wanton sister, Caddy. 1929

DB 9506

DB 49885

RC 49885

BR 11402 volume 1

BR 11402 volume 2

BR 11402 volume 3

Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1896-1940)

The Great Gatsby

The glitter and recklessness of the Jazz Age form the backdrop for this novel about Jay Gatsby's desperate attempt to recapture the past and, along with it, the love of Daisy Buchanan. Amid extravagant parties at Gatsby's palatial estate, his neighbor narrates the story of Gatsby's obsession with the American dream. 1925


DB 16147

RC 55714

BR 11057 volume 1

BR 11057 volume 2

Tender Is the Night

An American psychiatrist studying in Europe in the 1920s falls in love with a beautiful, wealthy patient in this novel about wealthy American expatriates. In their marriage, he reacts against her great dependence on him as both husband and doctor before he realizes his dependence on her. 1934

DB 18133

RC 18133

BR 11055 volume 1

BR 11055 volume 2

BR 11055 volume 3

Glasgow, Ellen (1874-1945)

Barren Ground

Betrayed by her fiancée just before she is to marry him, Dorinda Oakley devotes her life to the soil. She turns her father's barren land into a thriving farm and learns compassion through adversity. 1925

RC 12813

BR 5031

Hemingway, Ernest (1899-1961)

A Farewell to Arms

Romance between American lieutenant Frederic Henry in the ambulance service in Italy during World War I and the English nurse Catherine Barkley, who tends him when he is wounded. When Catherine becomes pregnant, she refuses to marry Frederic. 1929

DB 49506

RC 49506

BR 12510 volume 1

BR 12510 volume 2

BR 12510 volume 3

For Whom the Bell Tolls

American Robert Jordan has joined the Republicans fighting against the Fascists during the Spanish civil war. He is on a mission to destroy a strategically located bridge with the help of a band of guerillas. At their camp he falls in love with Maria, a young torture victim. Some violence. 1940

DB 49108

RC 49108

BR 12455 volume 1

BR 12455 volume 2

BR 12455 volume 3

BR 12455 volume 4

The Sun Also Rises

A wealthy group of English and American expatriates in post-World War I Europe move from the boulevards of Paris to the bullfights of Spain, bathing, eating, and drinking. The disillusioned characters are a reflection of the war-weary generation of the 1920s. Some strong language. 1926

DB 34114

RC 34114

BR 3615

La Farge, Oliver (1901-1963)

Laughing Boy

A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in the Navajo Southwest of 1915. In telling the haunting story of the young lovers, Laughing Boy and Slim Girl, the author depicts the lives of the Indians from his experience as an anthropologist. Some violence and some strong language. 1929

RC 33829

BR 10379 volume 1

BR 10379 volume 2

Lewis, Sinclair (1885-1951)

Main Street

An educated young woman with a liking for "high-brow" drama and a knack for town planning, marries a small-town doctor and tries to uplift the residents of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. 1920

DB 42189

RC 42189

BR 18625 volume 1

BR 18625 volume 2

BR 18625 volume 3

BR 18625 volume 4

London, Jack (1876-1916)

The Call of the Wild

Buck, a St. Bernard mix, is stolen and trained to be a sled dog in the Alaskan gold fields. Abused by both men and dogs, Buck learns to fight ruthlessly until he finds a master, John Thornton, whom he loves and respects. 1903

DB 49486

RC 49486

BR 12582 volume 1

BR 9833 volume 1

Marquand, John P. (1893-1960)

The Late George Apley

A satire on the well-to-do class of proper Bostonians who once considered themselves the appointed guardians of America's social and intellectual destiny. Pulitzer Prize. 1937

RC 12087

Miller, Henry (1891-1980)

Tropic of Cancer

An autobiographical novel about the American author's stay in Paris during the early 1930s. It tells of his poverty, reading, relationships, and growth during this time. Explicit descriptions of sex. 1931

RC 17191

BR 18702 volume 1

BR 18702 volume 2

BR 18702 volume 3

Mitchell, Margaret (1900-1949)

Gone with the Wind

A romantic Civil War epic in which Scarlet O'Hara, a forceful and ruthless heroine, and Rhett Butler, a war profiteer, play out their tempestuous love affair against the background of the war-torn South. Pulitzer Prize. 1936

DB 33082

RC 33082

BR 11427 volume 1

BR 11427 volume 2

BR 11427 volume 3

BR 11427 volume 4

BR 11427 volume 5

BR 11427 volume 6

BR 11427 volume 7

BR 11427 volume 8

BR 11427 volume 9

O'Hara, John (1905-1970)

Appointment in Samarra

Fast-moving first novel by journalist/critic John O’Hara (1905-1970) set in 1930s small-town Pennsylvania. As Gibbsville celebrates Christmas with parties, music, and liquor, aristocratic drunkard Julian English breaks with polite society in one rash moment, beginning his rapid descent to self-destruction. 1934

DB 58197

RC 58197

BR 15398 volume 1

BR 15398 volume 2

Rolvaag, O.E. (1876-1931)

Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie

A saga of American pioneer life. Per Hansa, a Norwegian, becomes the founder of a settlement in the bleak Dakota territory. The struggle to tame the prairie means life and freedom to him, but for his beloved wife, their isolated existence is a nightmare of loneliness, terror, and despair. 1924-1925

RC 22285

BR 6205

Saroyan, William (1908-1981)

The Human Comedy

Story of a mother and her four children who live in Ithaca, California, during World War II. Features fourteen-year-old Homer, who is exposed to a lot of sadness in his job as telegraph messenger. 1943

DB 10137

RC 10137

BR 11931 volume 1

BR 11931 volume 2

Sinclair, Upton (1878-1968)

The Jungle

Grim account of the deplorable conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry around 1900, as seen through the eyes of Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus. When first published, the novel aroused the indignation of the American public and forced government investigations that led to the passage of pure food legislation. Some violence. 1906

DB 52961

RC 52961

BR 13742 volume 1

BR 13742 volume 2

BR 13742 volume 3

BR 13742 volume 4

Steinbeck, John (1902-1968)

The Grapes of Wrath

The story of the depression farmers and their families driven from the dust bowl of their Oklahoma farms to the promised land of California to find work. Instead they face organized opposition to their struggle to survive. Strong language. 1939

DB 68308

RC 68308

BR 9954 volume 1

BR 9954 volume 2

BR 9954 volume 3

BR 9954 volume 4

BR 9954 volume 5

Of Mice and Men

Lennie, strong but mentally deficient, and George, his responsible friend, are two itinerant laborers during the depression who dream of owning their own farm. Their hopes are shattered when Lennie accidentally kills the boss's daughter-in-law. 1937

RC 12212

BR 5106

BR 8851 volume 1

Tarkington, Booth (1869-1946)

Alice Adams

The story of a small-town girl of the Midwest who has charm and ambition but lacks imagination, money, and background. Her social-climbing mother and unsophisticated father complicate her attempts to find an appropriate career. Pulitzer Prize. 1921

DB 47570

RC 47570

Wescott, Glenway (1901-1987)

The Grandmothers: A Family Portrait

In the old home in southern Wisconsin, young Alwyn Tower learns of his American family from pioneer days to the 1920s through family albums and the stories of his elders. 1927

RC 46733

West, Nathaniel (1903-1940)

The Day of the Locust

A man arrives in Hollywood hoping for success as a scene designer, but he becomes only another nondescript, unsuccessful character on the fringes of Hollywood studios. 1939

DB 12925

RC 12925

BR 18383 volume 1

BR 18383 volume 2

Miss Lonelyhearts

Novella about a newspaperman who takes on the lovelorn column as a joke, but becomes hopelessly involved in the problems of the people who write to him. 1933

RC 12538

BRJ 1212

Wharton, Edith (1862-1937)

The Age of Innocence

A novel of manners set in New York society in the 1870s, an age of convention, propriety, and tribal solidarity. Newland Archer is torn between his attraction to a woman separated from her husband and his security in a bland, but proper, marriage. Pulitzer Prize. 1920

DB 65343

RC 65343

BR 12711 volume 1

BR 12711 volume 2

BR 12711 volume 3

Ethan Frome

A tale of retribution about a discouraged New England farmer and his hypochondriac wife. Their empty lives are suddenly changed when her cousin, a young girl who still finds joy in life, comes to visit them. 1911

DB 17455

RC 17455

BR 9404 volume 1

BR 9404 volume 2

BR 9404 volume 3

The House of Mirth

The orphaned daughter of a New York merchant is endowed with beauty and charm and is hopelessly addicted to the pleasures of luxury and wealth. Though she wants to marry someone with money, she is attracted to a lawyer of modest means. 1905

DB 35369

RC 35369

BR 9091 volume 1

BR 9091 volume 2

BR 9091 Volume 3

Wilder, Thornton (1897-1975)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Surveys the lives of five Peruvian travelers, victims of the collapse of a famous Incan bridge, and weaves a story of why these people were linked together at such a significant point in their lives. 1927

DB 41185

RC 41185

BR 18244 volume 1

Wister, Owen (1860-1938)

The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains

Known as the Virginian, the handsome, rough Wyoming cowboy finally convinces Molly, the New England schoolteacher, that violence is sometimes necessary to bring law and order to the frontier community. A classic novel of the American West. 1902

RC 36421

BR 16196 volume 1

BR 16196 volume 2

BR 16196 volume 3

BR 16196 volume 4

Wolfe, Thomas (1900-1938)

You Can't Go Home Again

Bitter and nostalgic, Wolfe's fourth autobiographical novel continues the story of George Weber, now a successful novelist but unsuccessful lover. He returns home to old Catawba, only to be sadly disillusioned by the discovery that everything he once loved there no longer exists. 1940

DB 50279

RC 50279

BRJ 1971

Wright, Richard (1908-1960)

Native Son

Showing the plight of victimized African Americans fighting against the political and social conditions of Chicago in the 1930s, this novel centers on a frustrated and resentful man driven to violence and murder. 1940

RC 25087

BRX 0110

Also contained in:

Early Works

This volume covers Wright’s prose through 1940. The editor restores Wright’s original manuscripts, which had been extensively changed for publication. Includes Lawd Today!, Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, How "Bigger" Was Born, a literary chronology, and notes by Arnold Rampersad. Prequel to Richard Wright: Later Works (RC 41553, BR 10300). Violence, strong language, and some descriptions of sex.

DB 41552

RC 41552

BR 10299 volume 1

BR 10299 volume 2

BR 10299 volume 3

BR 10299 volume 4

BR 10299 volume 5

BR 10299 volume 6

BR 10299 volume 7

BR 10299 volume 8

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Posted on 2017-04-04