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NLS Minibibliographies

The Best of American Fiction: Early Period

Content last modified January 2012


Read the best books first or you may not have a chance to read them at all.
Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau's advice seems particularly applicable to today's world where the proliferation of all forms of literary material creates a dilemma for the person attempting to choose something to read. With this advice in mind, the Network Services Section has produced a series of three minibibliographies listing the best of American fiction.

This first minibibliography of the series lists fiction of America's early period, particularly of the mid- to late-nineteenth century when the American novel came of age. American writers had finally freed themselves from imitating the themes and characterizations of the English and established their own literary form with two great masterpieces: Herman Melville's Moby Dick and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. From these novels, American literature moved on to the social and political satire of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn and the new realism of William Dean Howells, Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris.

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, Brown to James, 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.

Alcott, Louisa May (1832-1888)

Little Women

The author's home life in New England is the basis of this book, which has been popular for more than a century. The tale tells the story of the four March sisters--quick-tempered Jo, who is restless for freedom; Beth, who loves her home and family; Meg, who longs for pretty clothes; and self-absorbed Amy. A favorite of both children and adults. 1868



RC 58830

BR 9758 volume 1

BR 9758 volume 2

BR 9758 volume 3

BR 9758 volume 4

BR 11778 volume 1

BR 11778 volume 2

BR 11778 volume 3

BR 11778 volume 4

BR 11778 volume 5

Bellamy, Edward (1850-1898)

Looking Backward, 2000-1887

Julian West, a wealthy young Bostonian is mysteriously transported from the year 1887 forward to the year 2000. He is astonished and relieved to find himself in a world infinitely more just, comfortable, healthy, and moral than the time from which he has come. 1888

DB 19861

RC 19861

Brown, Charles Brockden (1771-1810)

Wieland; or, The Transformation, together with Memoirs of Carwin, the Biloquist: A Fragment

Considered the first American gothic novel. Wieland, whose fanatic father is killed by a mysterious flash of light, is commanded by an unearthly voice to sacrifice his wife and children as a sign of obedience to heaven. 1798

DB 50006

RC 50006

Cooper, James Fenimore (1789-1851)

The Deerslayer

The adventures of Natty Bumppo, also known as Deerslayer, and his days as a young hunter among the Delaware Indians. A rousing story of warfare between the Indians and the white settlers around Lake Otsego before 1745. 1841

DB 22249

RC 22249

The Last of the Mohicans

During the siege of Fort William Henry on Lake George by the French and Iroquois, two daughters of the fort's commander set out from a neighboring fort to join their father. 1826

DB 19920

RC 19920

BR 4092

The Prairie

Portrays the last days of Leatherstocking, an exile whom civilization drives westward to the prairies beyond the Mississippi. Here the old scout becomes a trapper. 1827

DB 52639

RC 52639

Crane, Stephen (1871-1900)

The Red Badge of Courage

A country boy enthusiastically enlists with the Union army during the Civil War. Wanting to prove himself a hero but experiencing shock and fear on the battlefront, he finally revives his courage and self-respect in a crucial war advance. 1895

DB 22405

DB 67263

RC 67263

BR 13144 volume 1

BR 13144 volume 2

Frederic, Harold (1856-1898)

The Damnation of Theron Ware

Concerns the downfall of a Methodist minister who is entangled in religious doubt by the new thinking in science, art, and sex. 1896

RC 16083

Harte, Bret (1836?-1902)

Bret Harte’s gold rush: Outcasts of Poker Flat, The Luck of Roaring Camp, Tennessee’s Partner, and other favorites

Fifteen stories set in California during the 1850s Gold Rush. Archetypal characters--gold-fevered pioneers, gamblers, preachers, drunkards, cattle-robbers, and iron-willed women--experience twists of fortune and the realities of frontier life.  1869

BR 14981 volume 1

BR 14981 volume 2

Stories of the Early West: "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and Sixteen Other Exciting Tales of Mining and Frontier Days

The author tells tales of the rough lives of miners, gamblers, and adventurers in nineteenth-century California. In "The Luck of Roaring Camp" an orphaned boy is adopted by the men in a gold-rush-era mining camp. 1868

DB 21660

RC 21660

Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1804-1864)

The House of the Seven Gables

The fortunes of the Pyncheon family of New England have declined through the generations, leaving them in a decaying house with little money. Interactions among family members are based on past mistakes and misdeeds that now dictate their lives. But love can change everything. 1851


RC 53471

BR 12720 volume 1

BR 12720 volume 2

BR 12720 volume 3

The Scarlet Letter

Set in Puritan New England, this novel traces the effects of one particular sin on the lives of four people. Hester Prynne is forced to wear her sin openly in the form of a scarlet letter "A" for adultery. The other characters are Hester's child; her husband, who seeks vengeance; and the minister, who conceals his guilt. 1850

RC 48457

BR 9407 volume 1

BR 9407 volume 2

Henry, O. (1862-1910)

The Best of O. Henry

Twenty-six short stories originally published in the New York World newspaper, about city life in the early 1900s. Includes such well-known tales as "Gift of the Magi" and less familiar ones, such as "Memories of a Yellow Dog." While their themes vary, the stories share O. Henry’s incisive humor, irony, and pathos.

DB 42891

RC 42891

BR 10794 volume 1

BR 10794 volume 2

Howells, William Dean (1837-1920)

The Rise of Silas Lapham

A wealthy, self-made businessman attempts to win acceptance for his family in high society of nineteenth-century Boston. 1885

DB 17384

RC 17384

BR 11064 volume 1

BR 11064 volume 2

BR 11064 volume 3

BR 11064 volume 4

Irving, Washington (1783-1859)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Ichabod Crane, schoolmaster, disappointed in his wooing of the fair Katrina, is pursued late one night by a headless horseman. Originally published as part of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. 1820

RC 16731

BR 8876 volume 1

"Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

Two unforgettable stories of lore--the twenty-year sleep of Rip Van Winkle and the midnight ride of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. Originally published as part of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. 1820

DB 16731

RC 16731

James, Henry (1843-1916)

The American

A wealthy American in Paris falls in love with a French widow of noble family. Although the match is a good one, the social pressures of the exclusive aristocratic world separate the couple. 1877

RC 17612

The Portrait of a Lady

Isabel Archer, an attractive, wealthy American in Europe, discovers both the beauty and the deception of European society and in the process gains self-knowledge. 1881

RC 51264

BR 5515 volume 1

BR 5515 volume 2

BR 5515 volume 3

BR 5515 volume 4

BR 5515 volume 5

BR 5515 volume 6

The Turn of the Screw

A somewhat neurotic new governess is convinced her two beautiful young pupils are subject to the evil influence of two ghosts, a former steward of the estate and a former governess. She pits her will against the ghosts and is determined to exorcise the demons from her young charges. 1898

RC 18129

BR 6763

Jewett, Sarah Orne (1849-1909)

"The Country of the Pointed Firs" and Other Stories

The title story embodies the spirit and character of a Maine seaport town during its declining years. 1896

DB 45218

RC 45218

Melville, Herman (1819-1891)

Billy Budd

A naive, innocent sailor, Billy Budd, is cruelly antagonized and unjustly accused by his evil master-at-arms. Speechless with rage over the accusation, Billy strikes and kills his petty officer, forcing their captain to order his execution. Published posthumously. 1924

DB 34260

RC 34260

BR 3614

Moby Dick; or, The Whale

The sailor Ishmael tells the story of Captain Ahab's obsessive pursuit of the white whale in this novel which includes chapters on the natural history of the whale, the whole making an allegory of human potential and limitations. 1851

DB 34184

RC 34184

RC 38812 Spanish language

RC 47779 For grades 5-8

BR 14641 volume 1

BR 14641 volume 2

BR 14641 volume 3

BR 14641 volume 4

BR 14641 volume 5

Norris, Frank (1870-1902)

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco

A murder mystery concerning a dentist who loses his practice when the authorities find out he lacks both license and diploma. He kills his avaricious but miserly wife in frustration and meets a terrible death himself. 1899

RC 12689

Poe, Edgar Allan (1809-1849)

The Complete Stories

Sixty-eight short stories by the nineteenth-century American master of the macabre. Contains familiar favorites such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Gold Bug," and "The Pit and the Pendulum," as well as such lesser known works as "MS. Found in a Bottle," "King Pest," "The Man That Was Used Up," "The Devil in the Belfry," "The Balloon-Hoax," and "Some Words with a Mummy." 1908

DB 44929

RC 44929

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

A horror tale, presented in journal form by Pym, a young man who is smuggled aboard the big Grampus in 1827. Mutiny, cannibalism, fantastic animals and natives of Antarctica, and supernatural happenings comprise a story of adventure in the South Seas. 1838

RC 12488

Tales of Horror and Suspense

Eight mysterious stories by American author Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), beginning with "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "The Cask of Amontillado." Concludes with detective stories "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter." For grades 6-9. 1908

DB 69542

BR 18491 volume 1

BR 18491 volume 2

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

This collection includes several of Poe's most popular tales such as "The Gold Bug," "Premature Burial," and "The Cask of Amontillado." 1908

RC 21734

BR 10839 volume 1

BR 10839 volume 2

BR 10839 volume 3

BR 10839 volume 4

BR 10839 volume 5

BR 10839 volume 6

Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1811-1896)

Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly

This tale of slavery recounts the hardships of Uncle Tom, who was sold to brutal Simon Legree, and of gentle Little Eva and her child, who escape from the bloodhounds. 1852

DB 50070

RC 50070

BR 12749 volume 1

BR 12749 volume 2

BR 12749 volume 3

BR 12749 volume 4

BR 12749 volume 5

Twain, Mark (1835-1910)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer's Comrade

Huck's adventures begin as he runs away from home and floats down the Mississippi on a raft with a runaway slave. He encounters a variety of characters on the river and in the towns and undergoes a difficult moral challenge. 1885

DB 57349

RC 16949 Spanish language

RC 57349

BR 9247 volume 1

BR 9247 volume 2

BR 9247 volume 3

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The escapades and high jinks of schoolboy Tom Sawyer, who lives with his Aunt Polly in a small Missouri town on the Mississippi River. Tom angles for the affections of Becky Thatcher, runs away with Huck Finn and Joe Harper, and tells the truth when it matters. 1876

DB 53084

RC 29965 Spanish language

RC 53084

BR 11823 volume 1

BR 11823 volume 2

Wallace, Lewis (1827-1905)

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Accused of attempting to assassinate the new governor of Jerusalem, Judah Ben-Hur is sentenced to life at the galleys. The novel tells of his escape, revenge, and conversion to Christianity. 1880

DB 32240

RC 32240

RC 29968 Spanish language

BR 15150 volume 1

BR 15150 volume 2

BR 15150 volume 3

BR 15150 volume 4

BR 15150 volume 5

Compiled by Ellie Friedman
Revised by Julie Lexcen

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Posted on 2017-04-04