Baylor University American Literature Faculty Share 2019 Summer Reading List of 17 Classics

June 20, 2019

American literature faculty in Baylor University's department of English share a list of 17 American classics for your summer reading list. (iStock)

Media Contact: Eric M. Eckert, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-710-1964
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WACO, Texas (June 20, 2019) – It’s summertime. Hopefully, that means many will find more time to rest and crack open the pages of a book. And while it’s wonderful to celebrate new authors and new titles by grabbing the latest and greatest page-turning beach reads, it’s also appropriate to step back and look at literary classics, say American literature faculty in Baylor University’s department of English.

“In his book ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go,’ Dr. Seuss wrote, ‘You're off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So... get on your way!’ For me, these lines have always evoked a sense of adventure, escape and whimsy — the same feelings that I often get when opening a book,” said Mona M. Choucair, Ph.D., senior lecturer of English. “Reading improves our ability to focus our busy minds, to appreciate the beauty of words, to make connections and to simply relax.”

Choucair and her colleagues who teach American literature at Baylor compiled a list of 17 American literary classics they recommend to people looking for enjoyment, escape and education.

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! uses flashbacks to reveal the history of a family – the rise of southern patriarch, Thomas Sutpen, from poverty in birth to wealth in adulthood, and his ultimate downfall. The novel is considered a masterpiece because of its profound engagement with issues of race, gender and class in the American South before and during the Civil War.

Recommended by Kristi Humphreys, Ph.D., lecturer in English

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) follows the story of Edna Pontellier, a woman living near New Orleans in the late 1800s. Edna becomes increasingly detached from the gender role of wife and mother that her society expects her to fulfill but has difficulty finding an alternative. Two other female characters, Adele Ratignolle and Madame Reisz, represent the opposing options of giving in to society’s demands or claiming independence, but Edna finds neither extreme palatable.

Recommended by Sarah Ford, Ph.D., professor of English, director of Beall Poetry Festival

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon offers the reader a glimpse into the remarkable life of Cudjo Lewis, survivor of the Clotilda and eyewitness to the atrocities of the transatlantic journey from Africa to the United States. In a raw, moving interview with Cudjo, Hurston brings his voice forward in his vernacular and in his own timing. My students and I have been transfixed and profoundly moved by Cudjo and his gut-wrenching tribute to those silenced and forgotten.

Recommended by Mona M. Choucair, Ph.D., senior lecturer in English

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Pulitzer-Prize winner Toni Morrison dedicates this novel, Beloved, to “60 million and more” slaves, who were never given proper burials or remembrance. Based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave who killed her own children to spare them from the travesties of slavery, the novel is part ghost story and part historical narrative. It takes place in Ohio after the Civil War, offering the provocative stories of Sethe, Paul D, Denver, and the central character and namesake, Beloved, as they each struggle with memories that cannot be kept at bay.

Recommended by Mona M. Choucair, Ph.D., senior lecturer in English

Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

Herman Melville's Benito Cereno (1855) is a story of an American captain, Amasa Delano, who discovers a slave ship in distress off the coast of Chile in 1799. He boards the ship and attempts to help the Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, but finds the captain's behavior odd. Delano cannot figure out if Cereno is a pirate out to get him or insane to the point that he cannot command his ship or so beleaguered by the ship's many calamities that he cannot think straight. The truth is not revealed until the end.

Recommended by Sarah Ford, Ph.D., professor of English, director of Beall Poetry Festival

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, is a must read. It invites readers to understand the human condition. Should individuals seek self-knowledge or pursue wealth? Should individuals seek an obsessive love over righteousness? Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan will help readers explore these and other pertinent questions.

Recommended by Coretta Pittman, Ph.D., associate professor of English

House Made of Dawn by Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn offers the reader a window into 20th-century Jemez Pueblo culture through the characters of Abel, a World War II veteran struggling with his return to postwar America, and his aging grandfather Francisco, a keeper of native tradition. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is by no means a light read; Abel’s alienation leads to his downward spiral. Yet this novel with its stunning imagery, and haunting culture, speaks to a different America, a vision and a voice worthy of honor.

Recommended by Elizabeth Dell, Ph.D., senior lecturer in English

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s classic novel, The House of Mirth, is set in Gilded Age New York and follows the trajectory of Lily Bart, a beautiful young socialite, who must choose between love and money.

Recommended by Tara Foley, Ph.D., lecturer in English

House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros’ 1984 work, House on Mango Street, like Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, invites the reader to experience another America; Cisneros’ novel of interlacing vignettes reveals the hopes and dreams of Esperanza, a Chicana teenager. Esperanza lives with her working-class family in an overcrowded house in a barrio of Chicago. The poverty, racial segregation and sexism of the barrio intrude on her world, sometimes disturbingly, just as she enters adolescence and its physical and emotional awkwardness. The delicacy of Cisneros’ prose — deceptively simple yet powerful and emotive — reveal both Esperanza’s vulnerability and strength as she negotiates family and friendship, culture and identity. It is not surprising that when Cisneros visited Baylor in spring 2019, student after student stood in moving tribute to thank this writer for her novel.

Recommended by Elizabeth Dell, Ph.D., senior lecturer in English

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the first slave narrative penned by an African American woman in the United States. It is the story of Harriet Jacobs, born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, who eventually became a voice for abolitionism in Rochester, New York. While this story has important historical value, it is also a searing, painful, powerful book of one woman’s harrowing path through the terrors of slavery.

Recommended by Alexander Engebretson, Ph.D., lecturer in English

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Louis May Alcott’s Little Women is a coming-of-age drama that follows the trials and triumphs of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, each of whom searches for her identity as a sister, daughter and woman during the fraught years of the Civil War and afterward.

Recommended by Tara Foley, Ph.D., lecturer in English

My Antonia by Willa Cather

Willa Cather’s My Antonia follows the destinies of two characters — the orphan Jim Burden and the Bohemian immigrant Antonia — coming of age in the Nebraskan frontier. Out of this landscape of red grass and corn fields, gorgeously rendered by Cather, Antonia emerges as a great American heroine, stoically enduring personal tragedies and the hardships of immigrant life.  

Recommended by Alexander Engebretson, Ph.D., lecturer in English

The Narrative of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass’s autobiography remains a seminal work in American literature. His authenticity, vulnerability and poignancy in narration captivate readers. He tells us his stories of bondage to freedom and illiteracy to authorship in a beautifully crafted, lyrical style.  

Recommended by Mona M. Choucair, Ph.D., senior lecturer in English

The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

Willa Cather's The Professor's House (1925) tells the story of Professor Godfrey St. Peter, his wife Lillian and their two married daughters. Godfrey and Lillian have built a new house with money he was awarded for writing a history of Spanish explorers of the American southwest, but Godfrey wants to keep his office in his old house. The book details how Godfrey, living in two houses, confronts memories of the past, particularly of a brilliant former student who discovered Indian pueblos in Colorado.

Recommended by Sarah Ford, Ph.D., professor of English, director of Beall Poetry Festival

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of a war veteran trying to write about his experiences in the fire-bombing of Dresden 25 years earlier. It comes out as the bizarre and tragic story of Billy Pilgrim, the clownish and hopelessly unsuitable “earthling” who “comes unstuck in time,” is captured by aliens (who bear an interesting resemblance to medieval philosophers) and is put in a cage with a movie star in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. The book is “short and jumbled and jangled” because “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” The birds in Dresden get the last word: “Poo-tee-weet?”

Recommended by Luke Ferretter, Ph.D., associate professor of English

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee       

One reason that Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winner has endured as an American literary classic since its publication in 1960 must be that it has a genre for just about everyone. The novel is simultaneously a courtroom drama, a Southern Gothic ghost story and a young adult coming-of-age tale. Its protagonist, Scout Finch, narrates the story of her Alabama hometown undergoing a harrowing trial that incorporates still-relevant themes of race and sexual assault. Though the subject matter is serious, Lee imbues the narrative with a relatable sense of childlike wonder that makes it a joy to read. As a bonus, after finishing the novel, readers can enjoy the 1962 film and its Oscar-winning performance from Gregory Peck.

Recommended by Nicole Kenley, Ph.D., lecturer in English

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

“Tom Sawyer is simply a hymn, put into prose form, to give it a worldly air,” Mark Twain commented on his classic tale, The Adventure of Tom Sawyer (1876). A hymn to childhood, to summer, to the American past and to the natural world God created, Tom Sawyer is a great summer read.

Recommended by Joe B. Fulton, Ph.D., professor of English



Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 17,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.