Discover who are the best American authors of all-time and learn what books you should read to explore their works.
America might not be one of the oldest countries, particularly when compared to England, but the United States has had its fair share of prolific authors over the years. Even though many American authors draw inspiration from their English counterparts, the United States is a country of immigrants. One of the unique facets of its literary history is the multiculturalism that shines through.
This is reflected in the numerous books that you can pick up and read for yourself. So, who are some of the best American authors of all time, and what are their best works? With authors such as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, there is no shortage of famous American authors to read.
- 1. Mark Twain, 1835 – 1910
- 2. Ernest Hemingway, 1899 – 1961
- 3. Herman Melville, 1819 – 1891
- 4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1896 – 1940
- 5. John Steinbeck, 1902 – 1968
- 6. Toni Morrison, 1931 – 2019
- 7. J. D. Salinger, 1919 – 2010
- 8. Joseph Heller, 1923 – 1999
- 9. William Faulkner, 1897-1962
- 10. Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007
- 11. James Baldwin, 1924-1987
- Final Word on Best American Authors
- FAQs About Best American Authors
- Best Authors Reading List
1. Mark Twain, 1835 – 1910
Without a doubt, one of the best American authors of all time is Mark Twain. Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Clemens, who had an interesting life during the 19th and early 20th century. He worked in the mines of Nevada, served in the Confederate Army, and piloted a steamboat on the river. His unique life experiences gave him a treasure trove of information with which he crafted countless works over the years.
The first work that put marks playing on the map was The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. He would go on to write a variety of bestsellers, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Prince of the Pauper. There is a reason why many people refer to him as the father of American literature.
2. Ernest Hemingway, 1899 – 1961
Another prolific American author is Ernest Hemingway. He was raised in Oak Park, Illinois. When World War 1 broke out, he served as an ambulance driver. He was wounded in the line of duty, forcing him to return home. After the war, he worked as a journalist for a few years. Then, he decided to become a novelist.
The book that positioned Ernest Hemingway as a prolific novelist is The Sun Also Rises. While the book did not receive amazing reviews at a time, it is widely considered to be an iconic piece of literature from the early 20th century. From there, Ernest Hemingway produced several works considered to be among the best books of all time. Some of his best-known works include A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man in the Sea.
Undoubtedly, Ernest Hemingway is one of the greatest American writers ever and has had a massive influence on 20th-century writing. If you want to read more of his works, check out our guide to the best Ernest Hemingway books.
3. Herman Melville, 1819 – 1891
Herman Melville is a poet, writer, and novelist of the 19th century. He was born in New York City to a merchant who did well for himself. However, after his father died in 1832, the family was in a dire financial situation. At the age of twenty, he got a job as a sailor on a merchant ship. He spent much of his life chasing whales in the ocean. He spent a lot of time adventuring on the Marquesas Islands. His first book, Typee, was about the people he ran into on that island.
Herman Melville would go on to produce several other books during his literary career. He published various short fiction works, including Bartleby the Scrivener, but his marquee work is Moby Dick, which he published in 1851. In the early 20th century, there was a significant Melville Revival, positioning him as one of the greatest American authors of all time.
4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1896 – 1940
F. Scott Fitzgerald may have had a short life, but he is still considered one of the greatest American authors of all time. He was born into an upper-class family but had difficulty finding love. He used his struggles as inspiration for his work, publishing one of his greatest novels in 1920 at the age of 24, This Side of Paradise. This work ultimately led to him marrying the love of his life.
Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda Sayre became a celebrity couple. In 1924, they moved to Paris. The following year, F. Scott Fitzgerald published his most famous work, The Great Gatsby. Even though the book received a lot of negative attention at the time, it is one of the greatest books ever.
Unfortunately, the couple drank and suffered from mental health issues due to the book’s negative criticism. Because the family was having a hard time, they moved to Hollywood and got a job as a scriptwriter. In 1940, he died of a heart attack. However, his work remains popular. The Great Gatsby was turned into a hit film in 1974 and again in 2013.
5. John Steinbeck, 1902 – 1968
John Steinbeck is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He always desired a career in literature, and he studied English literature at Stanford University. However, he never graduated. After leaving Stanford, he moved to New York City. He picks up various jobs, trying to make it as a writer. Unfortunately, he could not publish any of his work, eventually returning to California.
He published his first novel, titled Cup of Gold, in 1929. He also achieved significant success in 1935, thanks to Tortilla Flat. He would go on to write 33 books in his career. Some of his most famous works include The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden. Many of his books have gone on to become classics in the world of Western literature.
6. Toni Morrison, 1931 – 2019
Toni Morrison is one of the most popular contemporary American writers. She was born in Ohio and graduated from Howard University after studying English. She continued to earn a master’s degree at Cornell University. She took a job as an English teacher at Howard University and Texas Southern University.
She eventually left teaching and became the first African-American female editor at Random House, one of the largest publishing companies in the world. She published her first novel in 1970, The Bluest Eye. However, Song of Solomon, published in 1977, was her breakthrough book. This work went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978.
In 1987, Morrison published her most famous work, Beloved, a bestseller for 25 weeks. Her book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988 and was eventually turned into a movie. Sadly, she died in 2019. She is characterized as a prolific, influential, and visionary writer who has indelibly influenced the future of American writing.
7. J. D. Salinger, 1919 – 2010
Jerome David Salinger, usually shortened to J. D. Salinger, is one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. He’s spent a short amount of time studying at New York University and Columbia University. However, he devoted himself entirely to writing with his work starting to show up in periodic publications in 1940. In 1942, he was drafted to serve in World War II. He saw combat overseas and was present at some of the war’s biggest battles, including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.
When he returned from the war, he picked up his career as a writer. His most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye, was immediately successful. It has been listed among some of the greatest books of the 20th century. Unfortunately, his success also brought him much-unwanted attention, forcing him to become a recluse. He continued to publish other works, including Seymour: An Introduction and Raise High in the Roof Beam, Carpenters. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American authors.
8. Joseph Heller, 1923 – 1999
Joseph Heller was the son of Jewish immigrants who migrated to the United States from Russia. He graduated high school in 1941 and picked up a job as a clerk at a local Insurance Agency period when the United States joined World War Two, Heller enlisted in the Army as well. If word 60 combat missions as a bombardier and a B-25 Bomber. After the war, he returned to the United States, receiving an English degree from Columbia in 1949. He got a job as a teacher before he decided to begin writing.
He positioned himself among the race of American literature by publishing Catch 22. It has become one of the greatest literary works of all time. He went on to write six other novels, which also sold well. However, none of his future works would perform as well as Catch 22. He also wrote an autobiography of his life as a soldier in World War 2 and a writer after the war. Some of his other famous works include Closing Time, and Something Happened.
9. William Faulkner, 1897-1962
William Faulkner is considered the great American writer of Southern literature. Before becoming a successful author, he served during World War I, although did not experience combat. He wrote short stories and novels set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional county in Mississippi. His most famous works include The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Go Down Moses.
He typically wrote about themes and topics such the Ku Klux Klan, racism, the impact of the American Civil War and the Confederacy. When not writing novels, he earned money from writing screenplays for Hollywood. Faulkner’s last book, The Reivers was published in 1962 and won the Nobel prize for fiction. Faulkner died in 1962 from a heart attack after falling from his horse a month previously.
10. Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007
Kurt Vonnegut wrote dozens of novels, plays, short stories and fiction during his prolific fifty-year career. He was also an artist. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis and served during World War II like many successful American writers. The Germans took him prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he became a reporter and wrote fiction on the side with the support of his wife.
Vonnegut achieved critical and commercial success with his sixth book, Slaughterhouse-Five, also known as the Children’s Crusade. Published in 1969, it resonated with an American public, wrestling with the Vietnam War. It remains his most famous work. Vonnegut died in 2007 as a result of brain injuries from a fall. To learn more about his process, read our guide to Kurt Vonnegut’s rules of writing.
11. James Baldwin, 1924-1987
James Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York City, to a single mother. He experienced much hardship and poverty during his early life and never knew his father. Baldwin said about his early life, ” “I never had a childhood … I did not have any human identity … I was born dead.”
He moved to Paris aged 24, attempting to find success as a writer and artist. There, he began to write and publish essays and stories, including what became Go Tell It On a Mountain. He moved back to America after nine years and went on to write the American classics Notes of a Native Son and Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin became a good friend to novelist Toni Morrison, too. He died of stomach cancer in France in 1987.
Final Word on Best American Authors
These are a few of the many amazing American authors who have contributed their talents to the history of Western literature. American works come from all periods, with many drawing on their authors’ personal experiences. Each generation of authors inspires the next, as American writers of all backgrounds share their works with the world.
Many of these works are readily available so you can find them quickly. If you are looking for a new book, consider checking out a few of the titles from the authors mentioned above. Then, don’t hesitate to read a few books by other authors. These books have the power to transport you to another place and time, creating a lasting impact on your life.
FAQs About Best American Authors
What is the best way to find some of the books by the greatest American authors of all time?
Now, many of these books are available online. Even though you can probably find a lot of them from your local bookstore, you can also find them easily on Amazon. Multiple editions are available, so you may want to take a look at the reviews to make sure people are happy with the quality of the book.
Are there any other authors I should consider reading?
Yes, there are lots of amazing writers in American history. You may want to check out works by Jack London, including The Call of the Wild. You might also want to take a look at a few books that have been written by Henry James, such as The Portrait of a Lady.
How do I become a successful writer?
If you would like to become a successful writer, the best way is to start writing. Get all of your ideas on the page, and organize them later. Get feedback on your work from other people as well.