During the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States produced several literary geniuses whose works defined and shaped Americana. You will likely find your favorites and perhaps discover new ones among this list of famous American authors.
Who Are the Most Famous American Authors?
1. Mark Twain
Birthdate: November 30, 1835
Birthplace: Florida, Missouri, United States
Died: April 21, 1910
Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in the now-abandoned village of Florida, Mark Twain was the sixth child of Jane Lampton and John Marshall Clemens.
Samuel left school after the fifth grade to start a printer apprenticeship. He later received an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Oxford in 1907. Twain achieved acclaim and money after writing humorous tall tales, like the Jumping Frog story published in New York’s “The Saturday Press.”
- The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1867)
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald
Birthdate: September 24, 1896
Birthplace: Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States
Died: December 21, 1940
His birth name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. He was the third child of Mary McQuillan and Edward Fitzgerald.
Francis’ early education prepared him for a writing career, including St. Paul Academy and Newman School. Those preparatory schools were followed by Princeton University, although he left to join the army during World War I.
His talent was nurtured and honed from a teen to an adult, as he became one of the famous American authors of his generation.
- This Side of Paradise (1920)
- The Great Gatsby (1925)
- Tender is the Night (1934)
3. Ernest Hemingway
Birthdate: July 21, 1899
Birthplace: Oak Park, Illinois, United States
Died: July 2, 1961
Ernest Miller Hemingway’s mother (Grace Hall) was an opera singer, and his father (Clarence Hemingway) was a physician. He was one of six children they had.
Ernest attended Oak Park and River Forest High School before joining the Red Cross during World War I. Hemingway became injured on the Italian front, and his time during the war inspired A Farewell to Arms.
Hemingway received the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature. He had been nominated three times previously. It celebrated his influence on contemporary writing, with The Old Man and the Sea cited as the most recent example at the time.
- The Sun Also Rises (1926)
- A Farewell to Arms (1929)
- For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
4. Toni Morrison
Birthdate: February 18, 1931
Birthplace: Lorain, Ohio, United States
Died: August 5, 2019
Chloe Ardelia Morrison was one of four children of Ramah Willis and George Wofford. She attended Lorain High School, where she participated in the debate team, drama club, and the yearbook staff.
Toni got her B.A. in English from Howard University and Master of Arts from Cornell University. In 1967, Toni Morrison became the first black woman editor for Random House’s fiction department.
She is one of the famous American authors to receive accolades in her lifetime, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
- Sula (1973)
- Song of Solomon (1977)
- Beloved (1987)
5. J.D. Salinger
Birthdate: January 1, 1919
Birthplace: Manhatten, New York, United States
Died: January 27, 2010
Jerome David Salinger was one of two children for Marie Jillich and Sol Salinger.
He attended public schools for several years before enrolling in the preparatory McBurney School. Jerom later attended Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge Military Academy, graduating in 1936.
The Catcher in the Rye has built a reputation as one of the greatest novels of the last century. It is #15 on the BBC’s “The Big Read,” while making both Time Magazine’s and Modern Library’s list of top 100 English novels of the 20th century.
- A Perfect Day for Bananafish (1948)
- The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
- Nine Stories (1953)
6. Edgar Allan Poe
Birthdate: January 19, 1809
Birthplace: Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Died: October 7, 1849
Edgar’s parents were the actors Elizabeth Hopkins and David Poe. He became orphaned when he was two and subsequently raised by Frances and John Allan.
Poe attended the University of Virginia for one year, leaving because of money issues. He later became a cadet at West Point but left to pursue writing.
Poe is considered the first American writer that earned a living from his written works. History looks back to him as one of the famous American authors for his poetry, pioneering work in science fiction and the invention of the detective fiction genre.
- The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841)
- Lenore (1843)
- The Raven (1845)
7. Nathaniel Hawthorne
Birthdate: July 4, 1804
Birthplace: Salem, Massachusetts, United States
Died: May 19, 1864
Born to Elizabeth Clarke Manning and Nathaniel Hawthorne Sr., he was one of three children.
After some primary education, Nathaniel’s uncle Robert supported him financially to enter Bowdoin College. He graduated in 1825. After school, Nathaniel Hawthorne became an editor to earn wages while writing.
Hawthorne was elected Phi Beta Kappa in 1824, and he became a well-received author during his lifetime. Accolades from critics and other authors through the years have cemented his place as one of America’s best authors, especially in dark romanticism.
- Twice Told Tales (1837)
- The Scarlet Letter, A Romance (1850)
- The House of the Seven Gables, A Romance (1851)
8. John Steinbeck
Birthdate: February 27, 1902
Birthplace: Salinas, California, United States
Died: December 20, 1968
John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. spent his younger years working on ranches and in migrant fields, which inspired later literary works. His mother (Olive Hamilton) was a school teacher, and his father (John Ernst Steinbeck) was known as a county treasurer.
After graduating from Salinas High School, John attended Stanford University near Palo Alto but did not graduate. Besides writing short stories and novels, Steinbeck was also a war correspondent.
The Grapes of Wrath became a Pultizer Prize winner, and he is the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature recipient.
- Of Mice and Men (1937)
- The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
- East of Eden (1952)
9. Harper Lee
Birthdate: April 28, 1926
Birthplace: Monroeville, Alabama, United States
Died: February 19, 2016
Nelle Harper Lee was born to Frances Cunningham and Amasa Coleman Lee. She was the youngest of four children and is a descendant of General Robert E. Lee.
Lee went to Huntingdon College before transferring to the University of Alabama. She left one semester before graduating with a degree.
To Kill a Mockingbird made Harper Lee a 1961 Pulitzer Prize winner. It became a literary American classic and contributed to her earning the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
- Love – In Other Words (1961)
- Go Set a Watchman (2015)
10. Herman Melville
Birthdate: August 1, 1819
Birthplace: New York City, New York, United States
Died: September 28, 1891
Herman’s mother was Marie Gansevoort, and his father was Allen Melvill. He was the third of eight children.
Melville attended several preparatory schools, where he was a good speaker. Financial woes after his father’s death prevented him from advancing further in his studies.
His legacy as a writer grew in importance during the 1980s, with honors including works inducted into the Library of America and release of United States Postal Service stamps.
- Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846)
- Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851)
- Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) (1891, 1924)
11. Emily Dickinson
Birthdate: December 10, 1830
Birthplace: Amherst, Massachusetts, United States
Died: May 15, 1886
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was the middle of three children, born to Emily Norcross and Edward Dickinson.
Her education was heavily “classical” for a girl in the Victorian Era. After primary schooling, she spent several years in Amherst Academy.
Most of Dickinson’s works were published posthumously, leaving accolades for future Americans to bestow. She is considered one of the greatest poets, and her style and poetry is taught across the country.
- I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain
- My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun
- Wild Nights – Wild Nights!
Giants of American Literature
A glance at the works attributed to these writers is enough to include them on any list of famous American authors.
The diversity of backgrounds is a testament to the success of the American Dream that these individuals put to paper. Here is to hoping this list grows in the 21st century.