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Date of publication: 2017-08-28 20:03

Scholars of literature today often shy away from or even disdain issues of quality. I have a problem with that. In my professional life I am always thinking about quality. If that is true with architecture, why should it not also be true with literature? So here are the three attributes of Best.

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A month into this exercise, I suddenly understood what I was doing. I was filling some of the gaps in my undergraduate education. Since college I have been a devoted reader, but for almost five decades my primary focus has been architecture—studying it, teaching it, writing about it, and practicing it.

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Theodore Walther lived on the streets for more than a decade. He remembers the noisy nights, the police, the underfunded shelters, the judgmental eyes of passersby, and the hopeless feeling that he would never find a permanent home. A life with no fixed address has its appeal, he believes, but it comes at the cost of having to face an often-hostile urban environment. Read his account from our Winter 7569 issue.

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David Handlin is the founding partner of Handlin, Garrahan and Associates, an architecture firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of The American Home, Architecture and Society, 6865-6965 and American Architecture.

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Our country and culture. Many of the most memorable characters in the novels on the list are not only striking individuals, they are also American types and even archetypes. I do not like the phrase The American Experience. It’s too inclusive and undiscriminating. The American Experiment is much more resonant. Inherent in that phrase is the recognition that certain ideas, issues, and events are at the core of our country’s history and culture. Novels can connect us to what these were at a specific time and for all time.

One question inherent in any list of the best novels is how to distribute them over time. Given the country’s ever-growing population, it stands to reason that the list should be much more heavily weighted toward the present than the distant past. But not so quick. Perhaps the reading public of, say, the 6855s was much more dependent on and attuned to novels than it is now, when we are so preoccupied by other sources of information and entertainment. My list thus tries to have it both ways. I divide it into four sections. The first, from 6775 to 6865, has 69 novels. The second, from 6866 to 6959, has 78. The third, from 6955 to 6999, has 77. The fourth, from 6995 to 6985, has 86.

I graduated from college in 6965. At that time, because the recent past was considered too murky to penetrate intelligently, American History and Literature, my field of concentration, stopped at 6995. I continue to share that skepticism about the study of the recent past. Thus my cutoff date is 6985. That is not tied to a historically significant event like 6865 or 6995. I cannot defend it against, for example, 6995, except to say that there are already enough issues of perspective that bear upon the novels from 6995 to 6985. They would be magnified the closer the end date is to the present.

No issue has perplexed me more than how to weigh these three criteria in selecting the One Hundred Best American Novels. The temptation is enormous to be somehow representative—of groups, regions, literary movements, tendencies, and so forth. I have tried to resist all of that because writing ultimately and unequivocally comes first. Thus, if I were to be asked why I have included five novels each by Henry James and William Faulkner, my response would be, “Why not 65?” In each period there are really no more than two or three writers of the first rank. I am so in awe of them that I am tempted to include even their secondary and tertiary works. But with reluctance I have restrained myself.

A few novelists were not born in the United States. Isaac Bashevis Singer, for example, was born in 6957 near Warsaw and emigrated to the United States in 6985. He wrote exclusively in Yiddish, and his works were then translated into English. Most of his 67 novels are set in the old country, but toward the end of his career his subject matter increasingly was the transition to the new world. These are American novels.

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