As might be expected, many of the major literary works from around the world during the 1940s focused on wartime experiences, and things were no different in the US. But American writing in the ’40s also often turned to reflecting on the previous decade and life during the Great Depression. Both of these subjects can be seen frequently in the following list of classic American books published in the 1940s.
Notably, many of them feature recurring themes of overcoming hardship, poverty, and depending on family. This would give way to the typically more outspoken, rebellious classic American books of the 1950s.
Great American Literature from the ’40s
- A Streetcar Named Desire – An instant classic from the moment it appeared in 1947, this Tennessee Williams work achieved great success on the stage and became one of the most beloved films of the 1950s.
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Published in 1943, this is Betty Smith’s moving story about a second-generation Irish-American girl and her family in Brooklyn, NY in the early 20th century and overcoming hardships.
- All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren won a Pulitzer Prize for this 1946 work about the rise of a cynical populist politician in the 1930s American South.
- Black Boy – This 1945 memoir by Richard Wright—whose most famous work is also further down on this list—is a hallmark of African-American writing, recounting the author’s childhood in the South and early adult years in Chicago.
- Cannery Row – Jon Steinbeck’s most famous works may have come in the 1930s and 1950s, but this excellent novel from 1947 offers a fascinating glimpse into the Great Depression years.
- Cheaper by the Dozen – Appearing in 1948, this book by siblings Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey tells their semi-autobiographical tale of growing up as two of 12 brothers and sisters.
- Complete Poems of Robert Frost – Frost is one of America’s most well-known and treasured poets, and 1949’s compilation of his collected poems is a landmark in American poetry.
- Death of a Salesman – Debuting in 1949, this Arthur Miller play explores the concept of the American dream, so integral to the post-WWII years, in an insightful and timely way.
- Farewell, My Lovely – A classic work of American detective fiction, this Raymond Chandler work from 1940 is the second to feature the author’s famous private eye character Philip Marlowe.
- For Whom the Bell Tolls – One of Ernest Hemingway’s later classics, this 1940 novel takes a close look at death and violence in the context of the Spanish Civil War of the mid to late 1930s, drawing on the author’s experiences as a reporter covering the war.
- The Fountainhead – One of the most famous works by Russian-American writer Ayn Rand, this 1943 novel illustrates the author’s concept of the ideal man, who values individualism over the collective good.
- Four Quartets – An important series of poems by British-American poet T.S. Eliot, first published together in 1943, exploring many lofty concepts and making a significant mark on modern American poetics.
- The Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams’ second play on our list (only because we’re going in alphabetical order by title) came out in 1944 and catapulted this writer to fame.
- Goodnight Moon – Arguably the most famous children’s bedtime story in the US, it was written by Margaret Wise Brown and published in 1947.
- The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter – The 1940 debut novel from Carson McCullers, who was only 23 when it was published, paints a vivid picture of the life of a deaf-mute man in 1930s Georgia.
- The Lottery and Other Stories – This 1949 collection of 24 short stories by Shirley Jackson is a pivotal publication for the short story genre in American literature.
- Make Way for Ducklings – This 1944 children’s classic about a pair of mallards in Boston is by beloved American children’s author Robert McCloskey.
- The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer’s 1948 book made him a well-known name, centered around his experiences in the South Pacific during WWII.
- Native Son – Published in 1940, this seminal work of African-American literature by Richard Wright portrays African-American life in the impoverished South Side of Chicago during the 1930s.
- Stuart Little – E.B White’s first children’s book, published in 1945, is undoubtedly one of the most famous and beloved American children’s tales of all time.