American Writers Museum

American Writers Museum Reveals List of Literary Works Named by Writers and Readers as Providing a Better Understanding of America

The Great Gatsby, Leaves of Grass, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Sun Also Rises Top List

“Which works by American writers should world leaders read to help them gain a better understanding of America?” That is the question posed last May to 38 contemporary American writers and the reading public in the first online exhibition of the future American Writers Museum®.

The exhibit, Power of the Word: Leaders, Readers and Writers, was curated to dovetail with the U.S. hosting this year of the G8 and NATO Summits, as well as the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates.

According to Malcolm O’Hagan, chairman of the American Writers Museum Foundation, many readers and writers chose books that grapple with the challenges of American life.

Author Ann Patchett explained her choices by saying, “The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is, to my mind, the quintessential American novel. It gets at the heart of how we strive and desire, and so often fail to take responsibility for our actions. At the other end of the spectrum, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun show what happens to the people who are shut out of the dream, or fail at it.”

One reader chose The Grapes of Wrath “because it shows why it’s so important for world leaders to do their jobs and also that America is not just a country of people aspiring to be wealthy. Some people just want to survive.”

Another reader commented, “In many ways, I feel To Kill A Mockingbird is the definitive American book. Through its diverse characters it addresses the complexity of the American character.”

Combining choices of featured writers and the reading public, the most frequently mentioned literary works that respondents felt should be read by world leaders to best understand America are:

Tied for first place:

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Tied for second place:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Tied for third place:

  • Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Other popular suggestions (in random order):

  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • American Pastoral by Philip Roth
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • Howl by Allen Ginsberg
  • The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • Native Son by Richard Wright
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Mark Twain and Arthur Miller were the only authors for whom two works appear on the most cited list. Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and Emily Dickinson were the most frequently cited poets, and Arthur Miller and Lorraine Hansberry were the only playwrights mentioned.

“The list presented here is just a topline sampling,” O’Hagan explains. “It’s fascinating to go into the online Writers’ Gallery and Readers’ Gallery and browse through all responses — and contribute your own.”

O’Hagan said not all the works suggested were written by Americans.

In naming Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as one of his choices, for instance, writer Jeffrey Eugenides explained that “in order to understand America, you need to understand three things: its origins, its soul, and its trajectory. Democracy in America describes the first.” And Jonathan Lethem selected Australian novelist Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, explaining that she has “somehow captured in it a portrait of everything impossible and ineradicable in the spirit of American optimism.”

The Writers’ Gallery section of the online exhibit offers intriguing glimpses into the lives of writers who discuss their early reading experiences, and identify which books from other countries have influenced them.

The Leaders’ Gallery offers fascinating insight into the literary interests of world leaders such as Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, and Oscar Carlos Arias Sanchez, among others.

The Readers Gallery can be accessed here, but note that after December 31, 2012 the interactive Readers Gallery will no longer be “live,” so this is the last chance to participate in the exhibit before it is archived.

The mission of the American Writers Museum Foundation is to establish the first national museum in the United States dedicated to engaging the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture and our daily lives. Learn more, read the museum’s concept plan, and weigh in on choices for the museum’s next online exhibition at www.americanwritersmuseum.org.

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Media Contact:
Helen Sullivan
703.606.7622
sullivan@americanwritersmuseum.org