The American South has long been seen as the focus of the country’s Civil Rights Movement, carrying with it the stigma of poverty, racism, and anti-intellectualism. Yet the region has also produced a disproportionate number of intellectuals, poets, and writers, possibly because of the complicated and layered identities each Southerner holds within him- or herself. The South has begotten some of our nation’s most important authors, including prize winners like William Styron, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, and that titan of American letters, William Faulkner. These 50 novels are a reminder that the South cannot be defined solely by its failings; it is also responsible for shaping the minds of countless thinkers who offered to American literature essential insights about not only their region but the world at large
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Sure, alphabetically, Absalom, Absalom! is first on this list. But, coincidentally, it is also the greatest Southern novel ever written. A crowing achievement of William Faulkner’s experimentation in narratives and storytelling, it encapsulates all that defines the post-war (that’s the Civil War, you guys) Southern mentality, perfectly summed up in the book’s final line, revealing Quentin Compson’s true feelings about the homeland with which he has such a complicated relationship: “I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The beloved and oft-banned classic is a hilarious romp down the Mississippi River, featuring Mark Twain’s stellar wit, unparalleled ear for dialect, and social commentary.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
One of the greatest novels about American politics, All the King’s Men took inspiration from real-life politician Huey P. Long and earned Robert Penn Warren the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Faulkner’s tour de force follows a poor family struggling together to carry their matriarch’s dead body to be buried with her kin. In this narrative masterpiece, Faulkner allows the reader to go inside the mind of each of his characters — even the deceased woman whose lifeless body is being transported across Mississippi.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
An early feminist classic, Chopin’s short novel follows Edna Pontellier, a New Orleans wife and mother who falls in love while on vacation and returns home to find that she can no longer stand to devote herself to social obligations and domestic drudgery. Although Edna’s fate is ultimately tragic, her embrace of an artist’s life and journey to independence make her one of American literature’s first liberated women. — Judy Berman
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
A searing autobiographical coming-of-age tale from Dorothy Allison, who packs no punches when it comes to providing a detailed look at the pains and horrors of being a woman in a poor, rural, male-dominated Southern society in which violence is an everyday occurrence.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Morrison, herself a a Ohio native, is not really a Southern writer, but Beloved‘s study of the psychological aftermath of slavery in the post-war Midwest is deeply rooted in the Southern tradition.
Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
A crowd-pleaser that was turned into a beloved movie (and something of a flop of a Broadway musical), Big Fish is your classic story about a father-son relationship, heightened by its imaginative and fantastical characters — giants, witches, mermaids, and one huge fish.
Cane by Jean Toomer
One of the must-reads from the Harlem Renaissance, Toomer’s impressionistic and modernist journey from the South to the North and back again features poems, vignettes, and sketches of life in rural Georgia. —Elisabeth Donnelly
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
This tale set in the mountains of Tennessee, about a crazed, necrophiliac killer, might just be McCarthy’s toughest book to get through. —Jason Diamond
The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux
This incredible novel follows two brothers deep in the Louisiana swamp who must repair their fractured relationship to battle a ruthless gangster in the years following World War I.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
This weepy epic earned Charles Frazier the National Book Award; it focuses on an Appalachian woman waiting for her beloved to return from battle as she tries to control her own property amid the chaos of the Civil War.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Walker’s heartbreaking epistolary novel follows a young black woman who struggles to find herself amid much adversity at the hands of her cruel, abusive husband, but whose journey for independence and self-actualization is ultimately rewarded in the (thankfully) happy conclusion.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Toole’s posthumously published comic novel brought the lovable oaf Ignatius J. Reilly and his mishaps around New Orleans’ French Quarter to generations of readers, making it a cult classic.
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
William Styron’s controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel detailed the slave insurrection led by Virginian Nat Turner, offering a first-person point of view of his memories in the final hours of his life.
A Death in the Family by James Agee
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1958 (and published after Agee’s death in 1955), A Death in the Family is an elegiac novel, true to the facts of what it was like growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee after Agee’s father passed away. —Elisabeth Donnelly
Deliverance by James Dickey
A whitewater-rafting trip turns into a fight for survival in James Dickey’s incredible thriller.
A vivid, compelling portrait of a Southern family set on a Mississippi plantation in 1923, as an extended clan prepares for a wedding celebration.
Edisto by Padgett Powell
So many authors try to write from the point of view of a child, but few are truly up to the task. Powell’s debut is a slim but shimmering novel told by 12 year-old Simons Everson Manigault, which heralded the arrival of a strong new Southern voice. —Jason Diamond
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
A story of Dickensian heights, the novel follows the titular orphaned 11-year-old as she manages to make her way through an uncaring world using her own intelligence, wit, and strength.
Father and Son by Larry Brown
The South never seemed as rough as it did in Larry Brown’s novels, and Father and Son is the perfect example of his ability to maintain a highbrow literary sensibility while focusing on the low-down, despicable, and violent people who exist within his fiction’s universe.
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews
You want the Dirty South? It doesn’t get much dirtier than Crews taking us through rural Georgia in this novel that takes Flannery O’Connor’s Southern grotesques and shakes them up into something spellbinding and brilliant. —Jason Diamond
Geronimo Rex by Barry Hannah
Never, ever pass up a chance to read Hannah’s short stories, but also don’t miss out on this, his glorious debut novel. Like his shorter works, it’s full of Hannah’s colorful and imaginative writing -— only more of it. —Jason Diamond
Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner
This novel of short stories incorporate many of the denizens of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, focusing primarily on the McCaslin family. And it features one of his most impressive stories, “The Bear.”
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
The winner of the 2013 National Book Award, James McBride’s romp through the pre-Civil War South follows a young slave who, posing as a girl, manages to travel across the country relatively unnoticed, meets Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and joins John Brown’s abolitionist army.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic melodrama is, sure, a typical romance novel set amid the Civil War and the years following it, but it is also one of the most enduring popular novels to come out of the South in the first half of the 20th century.
The Hamlet by William Faulkner
The first book in the Snopes Family Trilogy, The Hamlet includes some of Faulkner’s most recognizable characters — those that made up the despicable Snopes clan — who appeared in various novels and short stories set in Yoknapatawpha County.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
The hit novel written by the 23-year-old McCullers centers on the story of a deaf man and the people he meets in small-town Georgia — black and white (a tomboy, a diner owner, a physician, and an alcoholic). The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a moving work about human connection. —Elisabeth Donnelly
Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice
Anne Rice launched her empire of Southern Gothic horror with this classic novel set primarily in pre-Civil War Louisiana, with jaunts to 19th-century Europe.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Ellison’s debut novel, which earned him the National Book Award, is an engaging and explosive study of the Southern black experience, taking its unnamed narrator from the painful realities of a Southern black community to Harlem.
Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price
The middle-aged title character seeks out the son she gave up as a teenager in Reynolds Price’s compelling and heartbreaking award-winning novel.
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel details a little-known bit of Southern history: free men of color who were not only landowners, but slaveowners as well.
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
A schoolteacher and an innocent man on death row bond over their struggles in a small Cajun community in the 1940s in Gaines’ classic novel.
Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron
Styron’s glorious and tragic debut novel about the decay of an Upper Class Virginia family takes inspiration from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury — it is, in fact, a rewrite of Faulkner’s classic accomplishment set after World War II.
Light in August by William Faulkner
Light in August is a complex novel that follows three central characters: Lena Grove, desperately searching for the father of her unborn child; Reverend Gail Hightower, plagued by visions of ghostly Confederate soldiers on horseback; and Joe Christmas, full of inner turmoil over his mixed-race ancestry.
Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
Wolfe’s autobiographical novel follows Eugene Gant as he breaks free from his small, rural North Carolina town, arriving at Harvard University in a quest to find himself and experience a larger world outside of the one he knows.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
Lost soul Binx Bolling aimlessly wanders through his native New Orleans during Mardi Gras, desperately seeking meaning and awareness, in Percy’s National Book Award-winning novel.
The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
The young Laurel McKelva must cope with the death of her father and her complicated relationship with her stepmother and her family in Welty’s autobiographical, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
The 13 year-old Joel Knox travels to the decaying Skully’s Landing to visit his estranged father, only to find him typically absent. Instead, he must navigate the decrepit mansion that is filled with haunting, ghost-like figures in Capote’s Gothic debut novel.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Conroy’s melodrama follows a doomed family living in the South Carolina low country, with protagonist Tom Wingo delving deep into his tragic childhood memories to help his suicidal poet sister Savannah come to terms with her emotional pain.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Ward’s National Book Award-winning story follows a family in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi struggling to stay alive and together as a hurricane blows over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening their safety and their ties.
Sanctuary by William Faulkner
Faulkner famously wrote off this novel as an attempt at commercial success. While it features some of his more sensational characters and events (central character Temple Drake is raped — with a corn cob, no less — by a gangster who then holds her hostage in a New Orleans brothel), it’s also a powerful examination of the true nature of evil.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Set in 1980s Atlanta, Silver Sparrow explores the secrets we keep from our loved ones, and what happens when those secrets are exposed. —Jason Diamond
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Focusing on the Compson family, Faulkner’s novel — perhaps his best-known and his greatest — allows his readers to see the world through the perspective of four different protagonists: the fool Benjy, the manic Quentin, the ruthless Jason, and the compassionate Dilsey.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Sensual and lush, Their Eyes Were Watching God is the epic story of the life of Janie Crawford and her journey from girl to woman. Hurston writes of life in Florida so well that you can nearly feel the humidity on the book’s pages. —Elisabeth Donnelly
A Tidewater Morning by William Styron
William Styron’s last work of fiction before his death features three stories of a young man, Paul Whitehurst, at various points in his younger life, each a poetic reflection on life in a simpler, yet emotionally fraught, time.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Considered by many to be the Great American Novel, Harper Lee’s only novel is a gorgeous and bittersweet tale of youth, innocence, and injustice.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
This abolitionist classic is credited with sparking the movement that led to the Civil War. The best-selling novel of the 19th century, it’s now a bit antiquated (more sophisticated readers will see that its characters are thinly drawn stereotypes of African Americans), but it’s worth reading as a historical text.
The Unvanquished by William Faulkner
The closest Faulkner ever got to writing about the Civil War was in the stories that make up The Unvanquished. Following the Sartoris family, The Unvanquished is a powerful, unforgettable novel that documents one family’s attempts at survival on the home front during and after battle.
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
Although she’s known for her popular (and, in my opinion, vastly superior) short story collections, Flannery O’Connor’s first published book was her debut novel, Wise Blood, which includes her usual blend of a darkly comic sensibility and unavoidable religious themes.