Before I set out on a new project, I like to read a handful of novels written (and ideally set) in the time period in which I’m about to immerse myself. My new novel, The Lincoln Highway, takes place over 10 days in June of 1954, so in anticipation I read a number of American works from the mid-50s, including the four listed below.
What I love in particular about this list of concurrent classics is how varied they are in terms of geography, tone, and theme. In aggregate, they provide a snapshot of America’s socio-economic, regional, and racial diversity. They also showcase very different approaches to effective storytelling.
The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler
The sixth of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, The Long Goodbye was written relatively late in his career and it shows—in all the best ways. In the book we still have the delightfully cynical viewpoint of Marlowe and the alluring aura of crime in Los Angeles, but this novel is Chandler’s most sophisticated in terms of structure and psychology.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
Baldwin’s debut novel is a semi-autobiographical portrayal of a Black family’s life in Harlem in the 1930s, largely told from the point of view of the young protagonist, who is the son of a storefront preacher. Among other themes, the novel delves into how community, church, and family can each be comforting, energizing, or stultifying forces.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O’Connor
One of the greatest American short-story collections, O’Connor’s book is an enthralling depiction of societal iniquity, familial dysfunction, individual idiosyncrasy, and moral chaos—all set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson
A best-seller upon publication, this novel is an incisive depiction of a Manhattan media professional in the decade after World War II. Investigating the anonymity of the office, the emptiness of professional ambition, and the conformity of the suburbs, the book anticipated many of the themes addressed by John Cheever and John Updike and later revisited by Matthew Weiner in Mad Men.