I love reading American classical literature, especially books written between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Three standout authors from this time period include Mark Twain, Jack London, and John Steinbeck. While most have read the iconic works of these individuals (e.g. Huckleberry Finn, The Call of the Wild, and The Grapes of Wrath), few have delved into their lesser-known pieces. If you’re looking for a great read this summer, check out these hidden gems.
Roughing It by Mark Twain
I appreciate Mark Twain’s humor and biting satire and this novel doesn’t disappoint. Published in 1872 before his more famous works, the book details Twain’s travels through the western United States. He provides colorful accounts of stagecoach transit, mining, and Mormonism during his cross-country adventures. He even visits Hawaii (Sandwich Islands), providing a wonderful description of island life during the 1860s. I originally read this novel while living in Albuquerque, which brought the vivid portrait of the western landscape closer to home. Although a bit lengthy (a little over 600 pages), Twain’s separate and distinct episodes break the novel into manageable sections that make for a quick read. Bonus hidden gem: Pudd’nhead Wilson.
The Star Rover by Jack London
Published in 1915, this book is London’s attempt at mystical fantasy, relying heavily on the concept of reincarnation. The protagonist, Darrell Standing, is imprisoned within a Californian jail for murder and forced to endure long periods bound in a straight jacket to elicit a confession. To survive the suffocating ordeal, Standing meditates and travels back in time to one of his three past lives. I found London’s approach fascinating, from the detailed descriptions of former personas to the grueling, physical anguish of life in the jacket. Interestingly, London used true accounts from former San Quentin resident Ed Morrell to accurately portray prison confinement and bodily injuries from time spent in a straight jacket. Bonus hidden gem: “A Piece of Steak.”
The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck
Probably one of my favorite books of all time, this novel is actually a collection of twelve stand-alone, yet interconnected short stories. Each tale chronicles a different character or family that live in the same community within a central Californian valley. The Munroe family is a constant in each story and provides continuity for the book. I love the versatility of the novel, which can be read straight through or piecemealed as a short story collection. The book is both comical and sad at the same time, dealing with themes of nature, human relationships, and lost potential. Published in 1932, The Pastures of Heaven is often overshadowed by Steinbeck’s later achievements, but is no less a masterpiece in its own right. Bonus hidden gem: The Pearl.
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