English Studies Information Server

U.S.A. Reading List

History and society

Biography and oral history

  • Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
    First volume of an autobiographical sequence which provides an ultimately uplifting account of how a black girl transcended her traumatic childhood in 1930s Arkansas.

  • William F Cody, The Life Of Hon William F Cody, Known As Buffalo Bill.
    Larger than life autobiography of one of the great characters of the Wild West. Particularly treasurable for the moment when he refers to himself more formally as "Bison William".

  • Ben Hamper, Rivethead.
    With a great introduction by Michael Moore (director of Roger & Me), Rivethead tells you what it's like to work on the assembly lines of General Motors in Flint, Michigan, and provides an often hilarious tirade against the fat cats of GM.

  • Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom.
    Hugely impressive oral history of the Civil Rights movement, heavily drawn from the TV series.

  • Joyce Johnson, Minor Characters.
    Johnson, Jack Kerouac's girlfriend and "muse", tells her own story and those of the other women in the 1950s East Village scene, revealing the stiflingly reactionary male elitism of the Beats.

  • Malcolm X, with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
    . Searingly honest and moving account of a progress from street hoodlum to political leadership. Written on the hoof over a period of years, it traces the development of Malcolm X's thought before, during and after his split from the Nation of Islam. The conclusion, when he talks about his impending assassination, is painful in the extreme.

  • Muhammad Ali, The Greatest.
    Powerful and entertaining autobiography of the Louisville boy who grew up to become world heavyweight boxing champion. The most memorable parts deal with his fight against the Vietnam draft and the subsequent stripping away of his world championship status.

  • John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks.
    Oglala Sioux healer relates his life and times to the "Nebraskan poet laureate".

  • Tony Parker, A Place Called Bird.
    Fascinating oral history based on interviews with the inhabitants of a tiny town in the very center of Kansas, the heartland of the Midwest.

  • Ishbel Ross, Rebel Rose.
    Evocative rebel-yelling biography of Rose Greenhow, glamorous Washington socialite and remarkably brave Confederate spy. Works equally well as an exciting tale of political espionage and an impeccably detailed historical document.

  • Quinta Scott and Susan Croce Kelly, Route 66.
    Moving oral histories and monochrome photographs trace the life span of the now abandoned 2000-mile highway immortalized in film, novels and song.

  • Ralph Steadman, Scar Strangled Banner.
    Warped, cynical and crazy underview of America, full of sketches and hacked-about photos, from sometime Hunter S Thompson collaborator and illustrator.

  • Joanna L Stratton, Pioneer Women.
    Original memoirs by women - mothers, teachers, homesteaders and circuit riders - who ventured across the Plains from 1854 to 1890. Lively, superbly detailed accounts, with chapters on journeys, homebuilding, daily domestic life, the church, the cowtown, temperance and suffrage.

  • Studs Terkel, American Dreams Lost and Found.
    Interviews with ordinary American citizens. As illuminating a guide to US life as you could hope for.

  • Frank Waters, Book Of The Hopi.
    Extraordinary insight into the traditions and beliefs of the Hopi, prepared through years of interviews and approved by tribal elders.

    Entertainment and culture

  • Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon.
    A vicious yet high-spirited romp through Tinseltown's greatest scandals, amply illustrated with gory and repulsive photographs, and always inclined to bend the facts for the sake of a good story. A shoddily researched second volume covers more recent times.

  • Thomas A Bass, The Newtonian Casino.
    Daydreaming gamblers will love this account of the attempt by a bunch of Californian college dropouts, with computers hidden in their shoes, to beat the casinos in Las Vegas.

  • Thomas Boswell, How Life Imitates The World Series and Time Begins On Opening Day.
    Boswell elevates baseball into something higher than a mere sport. Full of perceptive insights and amusing anecdotes.

  • Peter Guralnick, Lost Highways, Feel Like Going Home
    , and Sweet Soul Music.
    Thoroughly researched personal histories of black popular music, packed with obsessive detail on all the great names.

  • Charlotte Greig, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
    Enthusiastic feminist appraisal of (predominantly American) girl groups from the Fifties (the Chantels and the Crystals) through to contemporary rap stars like Salt'n'Pepa. Lots of photos and personal recollections make it a great read.

  • Gerri Hershey, Nowhere To Run: The History of Soul Music.
    Definitive rundown on the evolution of soul music from the gospel heyday of the Forties through the Memphis, Motown and Philly scenes to the sounds of the early Eighties. Strong on social commentary and political background and studded with anecdotes and interviews.

  • Bill Malone, Country Music, USA: A Fifty Year History.
    An academic but thoroughly engrossing study of the roots and development of country music up to 1968.

  • Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis.
    Vastly entertaining overview of the many Elvis myths, if a little hastily put together from previously published articles. Marcus' Mystery Train is an intelligent and absorbing overview of American popular music, from Robert Johnson to Elvis Presley and Randy Newman.

  • Robert Palmer, Deep Blues.
    Readable history of the development and personalities of the Delta Blues.

  • Randall Reise, Nashville Babylon.
    Thrashes the squeaky clean image of the country music scene. Cocaine, whiskey, infidelity, murder, rape, and other skeletons are dug up from the cupboards of some unlikely characters.

  • John Williams, Into The Badlands.
    Williams` interviews with a batch of America's very best crime writers build a picture of the underbelly of US society from the Montana mountainsides of James Crumley to the mean streets of Elmore Leonard's Detroit. He lapses into sexism, however, when dealing with Chicago's Sara Paretsky, who "is learning as she goes along".

    Travel writing

  • Edward Abbey, The Journey Home.
    Hilarious accounts of whitewater rafting and desert hiking trips alternate with essays, by the man who inspired the radical environmentalist movement Earth First! All of Abbey's many books, especially Desert Solitaire, a journal of time spent as a ranger in Arches National Park, make great travelling companions.

  • James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
    A deeply personal but also richly evocative journal of travels through the rural lands of the Depression-era Deep South, complemented by Evans' powerful photo-graphs.

  • Stephen Brook, New York Days, New York Nights.
    An Englishman's drily witty impressions of the Big Apple, with chapters on every aspect of the place from flotation chambers to Jewish restaurants. Brook's Honky Tonk Gelato (also in Picador) treats Texas in a similar, if sometimes patronizing, vein.

  • Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent.
    Using his boyhood home of Des Moines in Iowa as a benchmark, the author travels the length and breadth of America to find the perfect small town. At times hilarious but marred by some very smug, self-indulgent comments.

  • J Hector St-John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America.
    First published in 1782, a remarkable account of the complexities of Revolutionary America.

  • Ian Frazier, Great Plains.
    An immaculately researched and well-written travelogue containing a wealth of information on the people of the American prairielands from Native Americans to the soldiers who staff the region's many nuclear installations.

  • Bill Kaysing, Great Hot Springs of the West.
    If you like the idea of soaking your bones in pools of naturally hot water in some of America's most beautiful locales, this fact-packed guidebook will point you in the right direction.

  • Jack Kerouac, On The Road.
    Definitive account of transcontinental Beatnik wanderings which now reads as a curiously dated period piece. Not as incoherent as you might expect.

  • James A MacMahon (ed), Audobon Society Nature Guides.
    Attractively produced, fully illustrated and easy to use guides to the flora and fauna of seven different US regional ecosystems, covering the entire country from coast to coast and from grasslands to glaciers.

  • Virginia and Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses.
    Well-illustrated and engagingly readable guide to America's rich variety of domestic architecture, from pre-colonial to post-modern.

  • John McPhee, Encounters with the Arch Druid.
    In three interlinked narratives, environmental activist and Friends of the Earth founder David Brower confronts developers, miners and dam builders, while trying to protect three different American wilderness areas - the Atlantic shoreline, the Grand Canyon, and the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest.

  • William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways.
    Account of a mammoth loop tour of the US by backroads, in which the author interviews ordinary people in ordinary places. A good overview of rural America, with lots of interesting details on Native Americans. His next book, Prairyerth, opted for the microcosmic approach, taking six hundred loving pages over the story of Chase County, Kansas.

  • Jonathan Raban, Old Glory.
    A somewhat pompous though always interesting account of Raban's journey on a small craft down the Mississippi River from the headwaters in Minnesota to the bayous of Louisiana.
    Bad Land: An American Romance. A hard-scrabble journey through rural life in the American West, from a Brit "trying to find my own place in the landscape and history."

  • Bernard A Weisberger (ed), The WPA Guide to America.
    Prepared during the New Deal as part of a make-work programme for writers, these guides paint a fairly comprehensive portrait of 1930s and earlier America. Also available are state by state guides, most of them out of print but easily found in US libraries and secondhand bookshops.

  • Edmund White, States of Desire: Travels in Gay America.
    A revealing account of life in gay communities across the country, focusing heavily on San Francisco and New York.


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