While the United States has produced thousands of talented writers, a few dozen have penned the novels, poems and stories that comprise much of the nation’s literary heritage. Here’s a summary of 20 of America’s most celebrated and influential writers.
Willa Cather (1873-1947)
Born in Virginia’s Back Creek Valley in 1873, Cather was 9 years old when her family moved to Red Cloud, Neb., where she drew inspiration for some of her most famous works—O Pioneers!, 1913; and My √Åntonia, 1918—about life on the American frontier.
James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
Cooper, who grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., is best known for his five-book Leatherstocking series, including The Last of the Mohicans, first published in 1826. In his frontier tales, Cooper introduces the first American hero, Natty Bumppo, a white child raised by Delaware Indians who matures into an adventurous, honorable and fearless woodsman.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
One of the nation’s most prolific poets, Dickinson wrote nearly 1,800 poems while leading a reclusive life at her family’s home in Amherst, Mass. Few of Dickinson’s poems about art, gardens, joy, love, death and grief were published during her lifetime, and most of her work was discovered in her bedroom after her death.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
An ordained minister, Boston-born Emerson was a philosopher, essayist and poet whose insightful prose explored the mind of man and his relationship with nature. Emerson’s uniquely American vision and writing style is illustrated in the 1836 essay Nature and the 1841 essay Self-Reliance.
William Faulkner (1897-1962)
The Nobel Prize-winning novelist and short story writer depicted the people, history and settings of his native Mississippi in most of his works, including the literary classics The Sound and the Fury, 1929; Absalom, Absalom!, 1936; Go Down, Moses, 1942; and The Reivers, 1962.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
A native of St. Paul, Minn., Fitzgerald wrote novels and short stories about the optimism, aspirations and excesses of the Jazz Age, including This Side of Paradise, 1920; The Beautiful and the Damned, 1922; and The Great Gatsby, his 1925 masterpiece. While sales of its initial printing were disappointing, The Great Gatsby is considered among the greatest novels of the 20th century.
Robert Frost (1874-1963)
Born in San Francisco, the four-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote much of his poetry about rural New England. Some of his best-known poems—”After Apple-Picking,” “Mending Wall,” “Birches,” “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—were inspired by his life and observations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Visit frostfriends.org or frostplace.org
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Known for his stories about sin, guilt and witchcraft in Puritan New England, the Salem, Mass.-born Hawthorne is revered for his 1837 short story collection, Twice-Told Tales; his 1850 masterpiece The Scarlet Letter; and the 1851 classic The House of the Seven Gables.
Visit hawthorneinsalem.org or hawthorneassoc.com
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Considered among the best writers of his generation, the Oak Park, Ill., native is renowned for his action-packed stories about boxing, bullfighting, big-game hunting, fishing, war and human relationships, including the novels The Sun Also Rises, 1926; A Farewell to Arms, 1929; For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940; and The Old Man and the Sea, 1952.
Washington Irving (1783-1859)
One of the earliest American fiction writers, New York City-born Irving wrote the famous and timeless tales Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, first published in 1819 and 1820, respectively.
Harper Lee (1926- )
To Kill a Mockingbird is her only published novel, winning the Monroeville, Ala., native the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the best-seller about 1930s race relations in the South.
Jack London (1876-1916)
Drawing on his experiences as a sailor, gold prospector and adventurer, San Francisco-born London wrote a profusion of stirring stories, including tales about canines in the frozen North and voyages on the high seas in his best-selling novels: The Call of the Wild, 1903; The Sea-Wolf, 1904; and White Fang, 1906.
Herman Melville (1819-1891)
New York City-born Melville is best remembered for his 1851 masterpiece Moby-Dick, an epic novel about a ferocious whale that destroys a whaling ship, its vengeful captain and crew.
Visit melville.org or mobydick.org
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949)
Atlanta-born Mitchell authored Gone with the Wind, the best-selling romantic novel set in the Civil War South. Published in 1936, the novel won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize and since has sold more than 30 million copies.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A literary critic in his time, Boston-born Poe may have been the nation’s first published horror, mystery and science fiction writer. Poe wrote eerie, grim and cryptic tales exemplified in his 1839 short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” 1843 short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” and 1845 poem “The Raven.”
Visit eapoe.org or poestories.com
J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)
Salinger’s 1951 The Catcher in the Rye is one of the best-selling American novels of all time, with more than 65 million copies sold. Though the only full-length novel by the New York City-born writer, the once scandalous story about teenage angst, rebellion and lust remains a standard in American literature curriculum.
John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
A native of Salinas, Calif., the Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author captured the social conscience of the nation with his captivating stories about California’s various ethnic and immigrant groups, migrant workers and displaced sharecroppers. Among his best works are Of Mice and Men, 1937; The Grapes of Wrath, 1939; and East of Eden, 1952.
Visit http://as.sjsu.edu/steinbeck or steinbeck.org
Henry David Thoreau(1817-1862)
An author, philosopher and naturalist, the Concord, Mass., native is best known for his writings about independence, spiritual discovery and self-reliance depicted in his 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” and 1854 book, Walden, written about a two-year retreat to the woods near Walden Pond.
Visit thoreausociety.org or walden.org
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Born Samuel Clemens in Florida, Mo., Twain was inspired to write his classic novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884, based on his childhood experiences in Hannibal, Mo., and his job as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot. Known for his witty and satirical prose, and the colloquial dialogue of his characters, Twain has been dubbed the Father of American Literature.
Visit marktwainmuseum.org or marktwainhouse.org
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
One of America’s greatest poets, the West Hills, N.Y.-born Whitman is best known for Leaves of Grass, his Emerson-inspired 1855 poetry collection, and his 1865 poem “O Captain! My Captain!” about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.