The Greatest, Most Notable American Writers of All Time

From Hemingway to Harper Lee, these famous American authors are all worthy of enduring recognition—and definitely a fresh listen!

It is a well-documented fact that humans love superlatives. We love assigning accolades to anything and everything: the best restaurants, the top models, the most beautiful buildings, the worst failures. The designations we give things are endless, and the disagreements over the assignations are almost as plentiful. It sometimes seems like that’s what the internet was invented to do: give people a place to argue about each other’s opinions on everything. And lists seem to be the internet's favorite way to share likes and dislikes.

One such opinion that is constantly thrown around is the best American author. How does one decide who earns that accolade? Is it by reviews, or book sales, or the number of awards an author receives? I personally don't believe it is possible to label just one American author as the best. 

So, to curate a list of famous American writers who are also considered among the best American authors, I looked at a few things: current ratings for their works, their particular time periods in history, critical reception, their prevalence in the 21st century, and yes, the awards they won. Many of these authors are taught in school today, and hopefully, several more of them will be taught in school in the near future.


19th Century

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Best Work: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

Home State: Missouri

A writer, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer, Mark Twain is considered America's greatest humorist. In fact, a humor award is handed out each year in his name.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Best Work: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

Home State: Missouri

A writer, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer, Mark Twain is considered America's greatest humorist. In fact, a humor award is handed out each year in his name.

The Awakening

Best Work: The Awakening (1899)

Home State: Missouri

An author of short stories and novels, Kate Chopin is considered a pioneer of 20th-century American feminist authors of Southern or Catholic background. One of the most widely recognized writers of Louisiana Creole heritage, she was honored with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1990.

The Awakening

Best Work: The Awakening (1899)

Home State: Missouri

An author of short stories and novels, Kate Chopin is considered a pioneer of 20th-century American feminist authors of Southern or Catholic background. One of the most widely recognized writers of Louisiana Creole heritage, she was honored with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1990.

The Complete Collection of Emily Dickinson's Poems

Best Work: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1890)

Home State: Massachusetts

Emily Dickinson is arguably the most famous woman poet of all time. She lived her whole life in Massachusetts, largely as a recluse. Though she’s iconic today, only 10 of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime.

The Complete Collection of Emily Dickinson's Poems

Best Work: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1890)

Home State: Massachusetts

Emily Dickinson is arguably the most famous woman poet of all time. She lived her whole life in Massachusetts, largely as a recluse. Though she’s iconic today, only 10 of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime.

The Wings of the Dove

Best Work: The Wings of the Dove (1902)

Home State: New York

Though he became a British citizen in the last year of his life, Henry James is regarded as one of the greatest American novelists of all time. He is also considered a key transitional figure between literary realism and literary modernism.

The Wings of the Dove

Best Work: The Wings of the Dove (1902)

Home State: New York

Though he became a British citizen in the last year of his life, Henry James is regarded as one of the greatest American novelists of all time. He is also considered a key transitional figure between literary realism and literary modernism.

Moby-Dick

Best Work: Moby-Dick (1851)

Home State: New York

A novelist, short story writer, and poet of the American Renaissance period, Herman Melville is widely considered to have been unappreciated in his time and throughout his life. His works garnered greater success after his death.

Moby-Dick

Best Work: Moby-Dick (1851)

Home State: New York

A novelist, short story writer, and poet of the American Renaissance period, Herman Melville is widely considered to have been unappreciated in his time and throughout his life. His works garnered greater success after his death.


20th Century

Invisible Man

Best Work: Invisible Man (1952)

Home State: Oklahoma

A literary critic, scholar, and novelist, Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award in 1953 for Invisible Man. It was his only published novel, though he had written more than 2,000 pages of an unpublished second novel at the time of his death.

Invisible Man

Best Work: Invisible Man (1952)

Home State: Oklahoma

A literary critic, scholar, and novelist, Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award in 1953 for Invisible Man. It was his only published novel, though he had written more than 2,000 pages of an unpublished second novel at the time of his death.

The Bell Jar

Best Work: The Bell Jar (1963)

Home State: Massachusetts

Sylvia Plath, is an American poet, novelist, and short story writer. Perhaps her most influential work, The Bell Jar, is a semi-autobiographical novel which was released in 1963 just one month before the writer died by suicide. Plath was awarded the Pulitzer Pride in Poetry posthumously in 1982.

The Bell Jar

Best Work: The Bell Jar (1963)

Home State: Massachusetts

Sylvia Plath, is an American poet, novelist, and short story writer. Perhaps her most influential work, The Bell Jar, is a semi-autobiographical novel which was released in 1963 just one month before the writer died by suicide. Plath was awarded the Pulitzer Pride in Poetry posthumously in 1982.

Beloved

Best Work: Beloved (1987)

Home State: Ohio

A novelist, essayist, and college professor, Toni Morrison entered the literary scene as the first Black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City. She was the recipient of dozens of awards and commendations, including the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she won in 1993. She was the first—and remains the only—Black woman to have won the award.

Beloved

Best Work: Beloved (1987)

Home State: Ohio

A novelist, essayist, and college professor, Toni Morrison entered the literary scene as the first Black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City. She was the recipient of dozens of awards and commendations, including the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she won in 1993. She was the first—and remains the only—Black woman to have won the award.

East of Eden

Best Work: East of Eden (1952)

Home State: California

John Steinbeck was a novelist, memoirist, and short story writer who published more than 33 books in the first half of the 20th century, many of which are now considered classics of the Western canon. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

East of Eden

Best Work: East of Eden (1952)

Home State: California

John Steinbeck was a novelist, memoirist, and short story writer who published more than 33 books in the first half of the 20th century, many of which are now considered classics of the Western canon. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Great Gatsby

Best Work: The Great Gatsby (1925)

Home State: Minnesota

F. Scott Fitzgerald was the most famous writer of the Jazz Age—a term that he popularized. The novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and short story writer was known as much for his lavish lifestyle as his literary works.

The Great Gatsby

Best Work: The Great Gatsby (1925)

Home State: Minnesota

F. Scott Fitzgerald was the most famous writer of the Jazz Age—a term that he popularized. The novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and short story writer was known as much for his lavish lifestyle as his literary works.

The Fire Next Time

Best Work: The Fire Next Time (1963)

Home State: New York

James Baldwin was an award-winning novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist Hailed as the voice of the civil rights movement, he was renowned for his incisive analysis of racism in Western society, particularly the United States.

The Fire Next Time

Best Work: The Fire Next Time (1963)

Home State: New York

James Baldwin was an award-winning novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist Hailed as the voice of the civil rights movement, he was renowned for his incisive analysis of racism in Western society, particularly the United States.

The Sound and the Fury

Best Work: The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Home State: Mississippi

One of the South's most esteemed literary figures, William Faulkner wrote novels, short stories, screenplays, poetry, essays, and a play. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949.

The Sound and the Fury

Best Work: The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Home State: Mississippi

One of the South's most esteemed literary figures, William Faulkner wrote novels, short stories, screenplays, poetry, essays, and a play. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Best Work: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Home State: Alabama

Harper Lee's only novel published during her lifetime, To Kill a Mockingbird is considered by many to be the greatest American novel of all time. It earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Best Work: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Home State: Alabama

Harper Lee's only novel published during her lifetime, To Kill a Mockingbird is considered by many to be the greatest American novel of all time. It earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

The Stand

Best Work: The Stand (1978)

Home State: Maine

One of the world's most successful and prolific writers, Stephen King has published more than 90 horror, suspense, crime, science fiction, and fantasy novels in his lifetime to date. Many of his best-selling books have been adapted into films and television series.

The Stand

Best Work: The Stand (1978)

Home State: Maine

One of the world's most successful and prolific writers, Stephen King has published more than 90 horror, suspense, crime, science fiction, and fantasy novels in his lifetime to date. Many of his best-selling books have been adapted into films and television series.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Best Work: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

Home State: California

Shirley Jackson was a prolific writer, known primarily for her works of horror and mystery. In addition to six novels and two memoirs, she published more than 200 short stories in just two decades, including “The Lottery,” widely deemed as one of the greatest American short stories of all time.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Best Work: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

Home State: California

Shirley Jackson was a prolific writer, known primarily for her works of horror and mystery. In addition to six novels and two memoirs, she published more than 200 short stories in just two decades, including “The Lottery,” widely deemed as one of the greatest American short stories of all time.

Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (Dramatised)

Best Work: The Long Goodbye (1953)

Home State: Illinois

Raymond Chandler is regarded as a founder of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. Now considered one of the greatest masters of this literary genre, he started writing at age 44, after losing his job as an oil company executive during the Great Depression.

Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (Dramatised)

Best Work: The Long Goodbye (1953)

Home State: Illinois

Raymond Chandler is regarded as a founder of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. Now considered one of the greatest masters of this literary genre, he started writing at age 44, after losing his job as an oil company executive during the Great Depression.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Best Work: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

Home State: Alabama

Zora Neale Hurston was an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker, as well as a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Her nonfiction book Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo was published posthumously in 2018.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Best Work: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

Home State: Alabama

Zora Neale Hurston was an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker, as well as a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Her nonfiction book Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo was published posthumously in 2018.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Best Work: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

Home State: Georgia

Carson McCullers was a Southern Gothic novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and poet. Several of her works have been adapted for the screen and stage.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Best Work: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

Home State: Georgia

Carson McCullers was a Southern Gothic novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and poet. Several of her works have been adapted for the screen and stage.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

Best Work: The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1980)

Home State: Mississippi

Eudora Welty was a short story writer, novelist, and photographer who wrote about the American South. Her novel The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. She was the first living author to have her works published by the Library of America.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

Best Work: The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1980)

Home State: Mississippi

Eudora Welty was a short story writer, novelist, and photographer who wrote about the American South. Her novel The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. She was the first living author to have her works published by the Library of America.

Kindred

Best Work: Kindred (1979)

Home State: California

The first Black woman to dominate the genre, Octavia E. Butler is considered one of the greatest American science fiction writers of all time. In 1995, after winning multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, she became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.

Kindred

Best Work: Kindred (1979)

Home State: California

The first Black woman to dominate the genre, Octavia E. Butler is considered one of the greatest American science fiction writers of all time. In 1995, after winning multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, she became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.

The Age of Innocence

Best Work: The Age of Innocence (1920)

Home State: New York

Edith Wharton was a novelist, short story writer, and designer who wrote about the upper class New York aristocracy of the Gilded Age. In 1921, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

The Age of Innocence

Best Work: The Age of Innocence (1920)

Home State: New York

Edith Wharton was a novelist, short story writer, and designer who wrote about the upper class New York aristocracy of the Gilded Age. In 1921, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

O, Pioneers!

Best Work: O Pioneers! (1913)

Home State: Virginia

Willa Cather achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains. In 1923, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, a novel set during World War I.

O, Pioneers!

Best Work: O Pioneers! (1913)

Home State: Virginia

Willa Cather achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains. In 1923, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, a novel set during World War I.

Cat's Cradle

Best Work: Cat's Cradle (1963)

Home State: Indiana

Kurt Vonnegut published 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of nonfiction during his 50-year career. His work was often darkly humorous and satirical, and much of it was considered speculative fiction.

Cat's Cradle

Best Work: Cat's Cradle (1963)

Home State: Indiana

Kurt Vonnegut published 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of nonfiction during his 50-year career. His work was often darkly humorous and satirical, and much of it was considered speculative fiction.

The Martian Chronicles

Best Work: The Martian Chronicles (1950)

Home State: Illinois

Ray Bradbury was one of the most famous and prolific American writers of the 20th century. He worked in a variety of genres, including fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mystery fiction.

The Martian Chronicles

Best Work: The Martian Chronicles (1950)

Home State: Illinois

Ray Bradbury was one of the most famous and prolific American writers of the 20th century. He worked in a variety of genres, including fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mystery fiction.

The House on Mango Street

Best Work: The House on Mango Street (1984)

Home State: Illinois

Sandra Cisneros is a novelist, short story writer, and poet whose vibrant stories exploring working-class lives make her a key figure in Chicana literature. Her numerous awards include a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Medal of the Arts.

The House on Mango Street

Best Work: The House on Mango Street (1984)

Home State: Illinois

Sandra Cisneros is a novelist, short story writer, and poet whose vibrant stories exploring working-class lives make her a key figure in Chicana literature. Her numerous awards include a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Medal of the Arts.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Best Work: Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

Home State: California

Joan Didion is an award-winning essayist, memoirist, and novelist. She won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Best Work: Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

Home State: California

Joan Didion is an award-winning essayist, memoirist, and novelist. She won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Best Work: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)

Home State: Missouri

Maya Angelou was a poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry over her 50-year career. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Best Work: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)

Home State: Missouri

Maya Angelou was a poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry over her 50-year career. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Best Work: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

Home State: California

A prolific writer, Ursula K. Le Guin was best known for her works of science fiction and fantasy. Over the span of six decades, she published 21 novels, 12 children’s books, and more than 100 short stories, in addition to poetry, literary criticism, and translations.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Best Work: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

Home State: California

A prolific writer, Ursula K. Le Guin was best known for her works of science fiction and fantasy. Over the span of six decades, she published 21 novels, 12 children’s books, and more than 100 short stories, in addition to poetry, literary criticism, and translations.

True Grit

Best Work: True Grit (1952)

Home State: Arkansas

A journalist and author, Charles Portis was known as one of the greatest comedic writers of Western fiction. He released just five novels during his lifetime.

True Grit

Best Work: True Grit (1952)

Home State: Arkansas

A journalist and author, Charles Portis was known as one of the greatest comedic writers of Western fiction. He released just five novels during his lifetime.

So Big

Best Work: So Big (1924)

Home State: Michigan

Edna Ferber was a novelist, short story writer, and playwright whose works were adapted into films or musicals like the celebrated Show Boat. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel So Big.

So Big

Best Work: So Big (1924)

Home State: Michigan

Edna Ferber was a novelist, short story writer, and playwright whose works were adapted into films or musicals like the celebrated Show Boat. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel So Big.

The Master Butcher's Singing Club

Best Work: The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)

Home State: Minnesota

Louise Erdrich is an award-winning writer of novels, poetry, and children's books featuring Native American characters and settings. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the owner of an independent bookstore in Minneapolis that focuses on Native American literature and the Native community in the Twin Cities.

The Master Butcher's Singing Club

Best Work: The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003)

Home State: Minnesota

Louise Erdrich is an award-winning writer of novels, poetry, and children's books featuring Native American characters and settings. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the owner of an independent bookstore in Minneapolis that focuses on Native American literature and the Native community in the Twin Cities.

The Secret History

Best Work: The Secret History (1992)

Home State: Mississippi

Donna Tartt Donna Tartt is an acclaimed American author who has won a multitude of awards for her craft including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Goldfinch in 2014. At just 29 years old, Tartt’s first novel The Secret History was greeted with such critical success that it set the stage for the rest of her career establishing her as something of a literary genius.

The Secret History

Best Work: The Secret History (1992)

Home State: Mississippi

Donna Tartt Donna Tartt is an acclaimed American author who has won a multitude of awards for her craft including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Goldfinch in 2014. At just 29 years old, Tartt’s first novel The Secret History was greeted with such critical success that it set the stage for the rest of her career establishing her as something of a literary genius.


21st Century

The Good Lord Bird

Best Work: The Good Lord Bird (2013)

Home State: New York

James McBride is a writer and musician. He was the recipient of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction for his exceptional novel, The Good Lord Bird.

The Good Lord Bird

Best Work: The Good Lord Bird (2013)

Home State: New York

James McBride is a writer and musician. He was the recipient of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction for his exceptional novel, The Good Lord Bird.

The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club)

Best Work: The Underground Railroad (2016)

Home State: New York

Colson Whitehead is a novelist and essayist who has received two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, on top of dozens of other literary awards and honors. He has already secured his legacy as one of the greatest American writers of the 21st century.

The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club)

Best Work: The Underground Railroad (2016)

Home State: New York

Colson Whitehead is a novelist and essayist who has received two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, on top of dozens of other literary awards and honors. He has already secured his legacy as one of the greatest American writers of the 21st century.

Bad Feminist

Best Work: Bad Feminist (2014)

Home State: Nebraska

Roxane Gay, is a best-selling author who has established herself as a leading modern feminist voice. While Gay has been writing since her teenage years, it was the success of her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist that made her visible to the literary world. She has since released Hunger, Not That Bad, Ayiti, and Difficult Women, all books which center her characteristic rawness and which unpack what it means to exist as a woman in the world.

Bad Feminist

Best Work: Bad Feminist (2014)

Home State: Nebraska

Roxane Gay, is a best-selling author who has established herself as a leading modern feminist voice. While Gay has been writing since her teenage years, it was the success of her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist that made her visible to the literary world. She has since released Hunger, Not That Bad, Ayiti, and Difficult Women, all books which center her characteristic rawness and which unpack what it means to exist as a woman in the world.

The Known World

Best Work: The Known World (2003)

Home State: Washington, DC

Edward P. Jones is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. His stories focus on the Black working class in 20th-century Washington, DC, while his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel deals with slavery in the Civil War era.

The Known World

Best Work: The Known World (2003)

Home State: Washington, DC

Edward P. Jones is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. His stories focus on the Black working class in 20th-century Washington, DC, while his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel deals with slavery in the Civil War era.

Salvage the Bones

Best Work: Salvage the Bones (2011)

Home State: California

Jesmyn Ward is a novelist, memoirist, and an associate professor of English. She received the National Book Award for Fiction twice, in 2011 and 2017, and a MacArthur Genius Grant.

Salvage the Bones

Best Work: Salvage the Bones (2011)

Home State: California

Jesmyn Ward is a novelist, memoirist, and an associate professor of English. She received the National Book Award for Fiction twice, in 2011 and 2017, and a MacArthur Genius Grant.

  


Liberty Hardy is a Book Riot senior contributing editor and velocireader in the great state of Maine, where she reads 500-600 books a year and lives with her three cats, who hate to read.

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