Over the last couple years, I have put together several rankings for books. I started with the best Ernest Hemingway books, then the best Mitch Albom books and the best John Steinbeck books. I made a list of best books for writer’s to read, and also a list of the best recent non-fiction books that I read. For a while now I have wanted to put together a list of best American authors from the 20th century, since that era produced so many heavy hitters, but ranking authors, I found early in the process, was far more difficult than books.
For one thing, when you are ranking the best books by one author, the scope is fairly narrow. All of the books generally share the same style. When you get into ranking authors, however, a long list of variables comes into play — time period, style, personality, genre, production.
I have spent the last several months researching these authors, reading their work and trying to understand their place in the American literary canon. The American authors on this list span nearly a century and have written some of the most iconic books in American literature.
Undoubtedly you will see some of the most famous American authors below — there was a reason, after all, why they were so famous. What I hope to achieve with these types of rankings is to expose people to new literature — or at least provide reminders to some books and authors that may have been lost to memory.
For the purpose of this ranking, I tried to keep the scope to American authors who were actively publishing books and finding the vast majority of their success during the 20th century, with only a couple exceptions.
Here are the 10 Best 20th Century American Authors
While I almost began this list with T.S. Eliot, I decided to go with J.D. Salinger simply because he spent all of this writing years in America. Though born in America, Eliot spent all of this adult life in England. Salinger, on the other hand, was born and raised in New York.
Along with Harper Lee, Salinger could be considered a “one-hit wonder” in the literary world. His 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye exploded onto the scene, making him one of the most instantly famous authors in America. To date, it has sold more than 65 million copies and continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies annually.
His literary career started out slowly. He published several short stories across various publications, but he struggled to land one in The New Yorker, what he considered to be the highest prize for a short story writer. Finally, in 1948, he published “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in The New Yorker, where he went on to debut many of his future stories.
While deployed in Europe during World War II, Salinger worked on The Catcher in the Rye, hoping to publish when he returned to the United States. Following its success, Salinger retreated to a home in the woods in Cornish, New Hampshire, becoming one of the most famous recluses in American history. Though he published more work after The Catcher in the Rye, including the story collections Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories, he never again entered mainstream society.
Over the last several years, a couple interesting films have been made about Salinger. The first is a documentary simply called Salinger, and the second is a biopic called The Rebel in the Rye. If you are a fan of his, or just a fan of literature, I highly encourage you to watch both.
Harper Lee, much like J.D. Salinger, is famous essentially for one novel: To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird won Lee the Pulitzer Prize and 1961 and nearly five decades later the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature.
It may seem odd for someone who has only published two books to be placed on a list of best American authors, but when the first of those two books sells over 40 million copies and the second — Go Set a Watchman, a rediscovered manuscript from the 1950’s that was published in 2015 — adds 3 million more, the evidence is clear.
If my ranking criteria were simply mainstream success and fame, King would rank much higher on this list. The reality is that he often gets left off of these types of author rankings, which also frustrates me. While his work is rarely (if ever) referred to as literary, anyone who has read his memoir, On Writing, understands the depth of his dedication to his craft.
His versatility, given his reputation as a horror author, should be noted. Many people don’t realize that his stories inspired the films The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Misery and The Green Mile. People rarely forget, though, that he wrote the books that inspired Carrie and It.
All told, King has sold over 350 million copies of his books. Few American authors have garnered the fame that he has over the last several decades. And while he has written many books in the 21st century, I felt comfortable including him on this list due to books like The Shining and Different Seasons being written in the 20th century.
Perhaps not the most conventional choice for this list, Maya Angelou nonetheless rightfully deserves a spot for her unwavering writings about life and justice. Her first book, an autobiography of her early life, was her most famous; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969 to critical acclaim.
Angelou went on to write six more memoirs throughout her life, as well as a few books of essays and poetry. Similarly poignant today as they were when first published, Angelou’s writing will certainly continue to influence Americans for generations.
What differentiates Angelou from most authors is not simply her writing, but the impact she had outside of her books. As famous as she was for her memoirs, her civil rights activism was just as powerful.
Though he is usually left off these types of lists, it’s difficult to argue against Dr. Seuss’s place in American history. While he wrote children’s books instead of adult literature, his impact on American reading culture cannot be overstated. Our youth are our future, right? And for generations those youth have been reading Dr. Seuss.
Seuss’s career as a children’s book author really took off in the 1950’s, following years of illustrating political cartoons during the war. His success seemed to come in pairs. In 1950, he published both If I Ran the Zoo and Yertle the Turtle. In 1957, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and The Cat in the Hat. In 1960, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and Green Eggs and Ham.
All told, Dr. Seuss wrote and illustrated more than 60 books. The average sales for those books is over 10 million copies apiece.
Naming Hemingway merely the fifth best American author of the 20th century may come as a surprise to some who know me well. I have written about Hemingway numerous times, including ranking the best Hemingway books and exploring his forgotten childhood years in northern Michigan, a place that also influenced my own writing. But his place on this list is less a commentary on his talent and more about an admiration for the four authors who follow.
For his part, Hemingway had a tremendous impact on American literature. His sparse style and realistic stories, most of which were inspired by true events, have given his books the longevity to continue thriving a half century after his untimely death.
His youth in the northern woods, his early adulthood in Paris, his hunting trips in Africa, his fishing in the Caribbean and his remote cabin in the mountains of Idaho all helped him churn out some of the best books of the early 20th century, including The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, to name his most successful.
Though at times his larger-than-life celebrity status overshadowed his actual work, there is no doubt he deserves a spot on this list of best 20th century American authors.
Toni Morrison lived one of the most well-rounded literary lives on this list. With an English degree from Howard University and a master’s in American literature from Cornell, she jumped right into a career in books. By the late 1960’s, Random House, one of the largest publishers in the industry, named Morrison the fiction editor, the first black female to carry that distinction.
Over the course of her writing career, she penned 11 novels to go along with seven children’s books (which came later in her career) and several non-fiction books. Her awards include the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Tragically, despite being the third best American author of the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald was often overlooked during his short life. A friend of Ernest Hemingway from their time together in Paris during the 1920’s, Fitzgerald took the young writer under his wing and introduced him to Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s. From that point on, Fitzgerald took a back seat to Hemingway and others.
His first novel, This Side of Paradise, got him onto the scene, and his second, The Beautiful and the Damned, established him as an author to remember. It seemed he was destined to be a household name for years to come.
Interestingly enough, his third novel, The Great Gatsby, garnered underwhelming reception upon its 1925 release. It wasn’t until decades later, after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, that The Great Gatsby began earning its deserved recognition as one of the greatest American novels ever written.
While every author on this list is unique in his or her own right, Fitzgerald had a special way of using poetic and perceptive prose in a remarkably accessible way. One can’t help but wonder what book his short life of only 44 years kept us from experiencing.
William Faulkner’s many books were marked with artistic language and a depth that most authors, and even some on this list, simply could not replicate. This unique combination puts him in a league of his own. The primary aspect of his books that keeps him from earning the top spot on this list of best American authors is the difficulty much of his writing poses to readers. In fact, Faulkner was famous for his eloquence and expansive vocabulary. In the 1950’s, he and Ernest Hemingway even exchanged some words over it.
Faulkner broke onto the literary scene with the publishing of The Sound and the Fury in October 1929, just weeks before the Great Crash of the stock market. From there, his fame exploded throughout the 1930’s with classics such as As I Lay Dying, Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!
Though he published 19 novels and won both the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize over his career, perhaps we would have seen even more literary success had he not spent so much time in Hollywood. With film studios paying screenwriters far more money than most authors made from selling books, Faulkner often found himself churning out scripts in order to maintain a certain lifestyle back in his home state of Mississippi.
While the 20th century produced a number of incredible American authors, none was more skilled and perhaps represented his era better than John Steinbeck. His greatest talent was living an empathetic life for the everyman and then exploring emotion, conflict and place in such a captivating way.
Steinbeck has a marvelous ability to combine the talents of many of the other authors on this list. He had the detailed, artistic scenery. The unique voice. The engaging stories. And he wrote about topics that were truly important, topics that most authors would not attempt to tackle.
Like many authors, it took Steinback a little while to find commercial success. But once he did, he crafted some of the most unforgettable books in American history (see how I rank them here). It wasn’t until the mid-1930’s that Tortilla Flat got him noticed. From there, he rounded out the decade with two American classics: Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps his greatest masterpiece came in 1952 when he wrote the epic East of Eden.
Just like Faulkner writing so much about his home state of Mississippi, Steinbeck set the majority of his writing in California. Also like Faulkner, Steinbeck took home both the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize.
What is incredible for me to think about is the American writing talent that all originated at the start of the 20th century. F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896), William Faulkner (1897), Ernest Hemingway (1899), Thomas Wolfe (1900) and John Steinbeck (1902) were all born within six years of one another.