It’s summer, when many of us make plans to visit beautiful or historic places, but we also like the idea of relaxing on our vacations. In today’s post, I offer you a way to do both. You can tour all of 19th and early 20th century American literary history without leaving your chair. Read one of these classic short stories each day for 20 days, and you’ll have a great sense of the variety, richness, and evolution of American fiction, from the Romantic era beginning in 1820 right through the late Gilded Age, ending in the first few years of the 20th century.
If you read through the whole list, you’ll be reading famous works by America’s most celebrated writers from the 19th century.
You’ll also be touring many areas of the country, and even the world, from New England forests and villages to a plantation in the south to a battlefield in Tennessee to Switzerland and Rome to the Wild West to the Yukon to Nebraska and back to New York City. All these stories are absorbing to read, though written in many different styles. It’s especially appropriate to approach American literature via the short story genre, since American writers were instrumental in developing this genre into an art form.
You can find all 20 of the stories on our tour list online; all but two are available on Americanliterature.com, a wonderful website that preserves and promotes classic American literature. For the stories that aren’t on that site, I provided a link to another online text. I also provide a brief note about each story and why I chose it for this list.
Pick and choose, or read them all! If you do read any or all of them, I would love to hear your thoughts and reactions. Please leave a comment at the end of the post. (You will enter your nickname and email, but your email will not appear on the site.)
20 Classic American Short Stories
1. “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving, 1820
Irving shot to international fame by importing plot devices of German folk tales into American settings. He also uses “Rip Van Winkle” to showcase how American culture changed from a slow-moving rural culture to a bustling, politically-oriented culture after the Revolutionary War brought Americans independence from Britain. “Rip Van Winkle” is the granddaddy of the American short story.
2. “The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Edgar Allen Poe, 1839
3. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, 1843
Great examples of the American romance (not the love-story kind of romance, but the supernatural, spooky-story kind). Poe doesn’t just tell a scary tale; he examines the roots of fear and guilt in the human psyche.
4. “The Birthmark,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1843
5.“Rappacini’s Daughter,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1844
Like Poe, Hawthorne’s romances touch on the supernatural and feel a bit spooky. In these two stories, he presents two men of “science” who think they can play God, and how their overstepping affects the women who love them. He also ponders on the difference between true love and obsession.
6. “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street” by Herman Melville, 1853
This tale has its romantic (supernatural) elements, but is also an examination of the nature of working in business, and how becoming too dedicated to a job can suck the life out of people and put up walls between them.
7. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” by Mark Twain, 1865
This story is purely humorous. It also offers the quintessential description of a familiar American character: the tall-tale teller. The story-teller in this tale will say just about anything as long as he can keep his listener pinned to his chair.
8. “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” by Mark Twain,1876
This story is broadly humorous as well, but Twain also enters into a more serious discussion of the nature of guilt and responsibility when the central character meets his own conscience face to face.
9. “Daisy Miller,” Henry James, 1878
We can’t tour the American literary 19th century without taking in a work by Henry James, the father of American psychological realism. His style is elaborate, which can make reading him a little difficult at times. But it is well worth any effort, not just for the elegance of expression but also for interesting,detailed observations of how people think about other people, and how they influence each other moment by moment as they interact.
In “Daisy Miller,” a young American man who grew up in Europe meets a very free-seeming American girl who doesn’t follow any of the usual social strictures that European young ladies do. He spends the whole story trying to decide what to make of her; is she an innocent girl who just doesn’t know the rules, some kind of rebel, or a girl who is not very “nice” in her behavior with men? What does she want and expect of him? James keeps readers inside this young man’s point of view, with no glimpses into the mind of Daisy, forcing readers to try to figure out Daisy as well. Besides presenting relationship difficulties between young men and women, this story describes the contrast between European and American social values that many might still recognize today.
This is a lovely piece of Regionalism, which are stories that highlight customs of a particular region of America. Regionalism was the most popular type of fiction in America for much of the 19th century. This story is about a young girl growing up isolated near a New England forest in close proximity with nature. What happens when a beautiful young man, an ornithologist, comes to the woods looking for the rare white heron for his collection?
11. “Chickamauga” by Ambrose Bierce, 1889
Known as “bitter Bierce,” this author emerged from service in the Civil War with great cynicism about human kind. In this story, a little boy wanders away from his cabin home into the nearby woods, which just happens to be near one of the biggest battles of the Civil War. What does, indeed, what can, the little innocent make of his experiences of the battle’s aftermath? A powerful story about the hellishness of war.
12. “The Revolt of ‘Mother’” by Mary Wilkins Freeman, 1890
The character “Mother” is part of a strict religious community where what the men say is pretty much what the women do. For forty years she has been obedient to her taciturn husband, but when “Father” breaks his 40-years’ promise to build her a proper home, and builds a barn instead, how will “Mother” react?
13. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892
No one who reads this story ever forgets it. The story unfolds through the journal entries of a new mother who is suffering from a nervous malady. Following the accepted psychological treatment for depression of that era, her physician husband has moved the family to a remote country house for the summer to help “cure” her. He prescribes copious rest, no excitement, no company, no work, and above all, no journal writing. Instead of curing her, her isolation in a room with ugly wallpaper, along with other factors, drives her slowly mad, and readers watch it all happen. Gilman wrote this story as a protest against the so-called “rest cure” for “female hysteria,” known today as postpartum depression. It is also a feminist protest against the cultural assumptions that men should make all the decisions in marriage, treating their wives as weak and childlike.
14. “Christmas Every Day,” by William Dean Howells, 1892
Howells wrote so many stories it’s hard to choose one that is representative. This one was popular in its day and meant for family reading. It’s a light-hearted moral tale a dad tells his little girl when she wishes that every day could be Christmas. If you like this one, explore other, more serious stories by Howells, who was known for his ultra-realist style, and for championing American realism among other writers through his role as editor of “The Atlantic Monthly.” Howells did not promote Hawthorne-style “romance” but instead argued that fiction should closely mirror reality.
15. “Desiree’s Baby,” Kate Chopin, 1893
St. Louis- born Chopin is famous for portraying the Creole culture of Louisiana, where she lived for many years with her husband, a Louisiana native. She is also famous for protesting patriarchal suppression of women, her work undergoing a great revival during the rise of feminism in the 1970s. This particular story is a beautiful, memorable, and very poignant presentation of the high and senseless cost of racism.
16. “The Wife of His Youth,” by Charles Chestnutt, 1898
Chestnutt was an African-American lawyer and fiction writer, born in Cleveland, Ohio of free black parents two years before the Civil War. Chestnutt was the first African-American writer to be published in The Atlantic Monthly, and was one of the first fiction writers to deal with problems of race after the Civil War. In this thought-provoking story, a fair-skinned African-American man has been “passing” in his community as a white man, and has achieved prominence in the town. How will he respond when his long-lost, darker skinned wife suddenly arrives at his door?
17. “The Blue Hotel,” by Stephen Crane, 1898
Tempers will flare during a “friendly” card game at The Palace Hotel at Fort Romper, Nebraska, leading inexorably to a town tragedy. What are the forces that conspire to push men past civil limits? Crane could be classified as an American Naturalist, a writer of this era who believed that nature and subconscious psychological forces are much more powerful than conscious choice in determining human behavior, and this story is Naturalism’s Exhibit A. There are some wonderful impressionistic writing and scene-painting in this story, propelling readers right into the center of the characters’ experience.
18. “To Build a Fire,” by Jack London, 1902
Author of Call of the Wild, Jack London was an adventurer who became a very famous author in his day. This is another story that most people don’t forget once they read it, and which places London in the group of American Naturalists who see people as outclassed by the forces of nature. Here, the central character’s dog is smarter about the ways of nature than he is. If only he didn’t lack the one human quality that might help him cope with the uncontrollable forces of nature: imagination.
19. “The Other Two” by Edith Wharton, 1904
New York stockbroker Waythorn’s new wife Alice is beautiful, refined, and as comfortable to live with as a well-worn shoe. The only trouble: she is twice-divorced in a culture where divorce just isn’t done, and both husbands are still hanging around. Waythorn starts to wonder whether he likes being just one more share-holder in a “joint stock company.” Wharton keeps her readers locked inside Waythorn’s point of view through this story, so at first readers may tend to see Alice as a shallow social-climber. But just maybe her husband should be regarding her as something other than a fine possession? Perhaps the story is not a portrait of a conniving woman but rather a subtle piece of feminism.
A celebrated American sculptor, Harvey Merrick, has died, and his pupil Steavens accompanies his coffin back to the small out-of-the way Kansas town where Merrick was born. Steavens is shocked to encounter the narrow, uncharitable, materialistic community, completely unsympathetic to the aesthetic values or achievements of Harvey Merrick. The story is an indictment of provincial American places where art, as well has human differences, are unwelcome.
Remember to visit Americanliterature.com to find most of these stories.
Have you read any, or all, of these stories? Do you know of a story you would add to this list? Please leave a reply sharing your thoughts in the comment section!
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.