I’m about 9.000 kilometers away from America, in Athens, Greece. And yet, I’ve read many novels and short stories from American soil. But that wasn’t because of our school system.
Even though we spent months reading international literature in high school, we were limited in European authors like Tolstoy and Dickens.
It wasn’t until I got my hands on a Stephen King book when I discovered the open roads, the vast cities, and the untamed spirit of Americans.
King was just the tip of the iceberg though. I handpicked a few authors to check out.
At that time, I was also trying to write short stories. Naturally, I gravitated towards reading and breaking them down to understand how this literary medium works.
A few half-baked novels sitting on my desktop…
The good news is that this endeavor led me to curate a list containing some of the best American short stories — from the perspective of a “foreign”.
Sit back, relax, and get ready to add to your TBR list!
The 8 Most Impactful American Writers (And their stories)
First of all, this list is 100% subjective. I don’t have a degree in literature or anything like that. I’m just a regular guy who enjoys reading. So take everything I say with a grain of salt.
I don’t want to just dump a bunch of stories on your lap and tell you to read them. It’ll be better if we take a closer look at some of the authors that wrote these short stories.
1. Mark Twain
We all know Mark Twain and his legendary work. The “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a Great American Novel and remains a cultural treasure of America.
But what jump-started Twain’s career as a writer was a short story called: “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”.
A witty retelling of an incident regarding gambler Jim Smiley and his jumping frog.
“If he even seen a straddle bug start to go anywhere, he would bet you how long it would take him to get to wherever he going to, and if you took him up, he would holler that straddle bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road.”The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Mark Twain
This a great example of the author’s style that echoes through the rest of his prolific writing.
If you want to revisit an old-time classic, alongside 168 short stories, check this out.
2. Ernest Hemingway
If I had to pick one writer that has lived the stories he penned down, that would be Ernest Hemingway.
A tortured man. A man who overcame adversity. A man whose spirit IS a pure fire!
He witnessed many wars and the ugliness of human nature. Even though he was a “tough guy”, his prose is free, it flows. Revolutionary, some would call it.
There are two short stories I’d like to mention.
The first one is quite short, you can read it right now: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
The other one is his most “popular” — a term he’d hate: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
A very intimate story about a wounded soldier. I can’t help but notice the author reliving his experiences through his writing.
You can find all of his short stories right here. Don’t miss out. Hemingway was a true adventurer. A journeyman of life.
3. Edgar Allan Poe
An enigmatic figure that helped create a new genre of fiction.
His stories are filled with horror and mystery and offer a raw introduction to an unknown world.
Poe has this unique ability to make every moment last an eternity. Every turn of phrase slightly opens the door to a room full of possibilities — and other more sinister “creatures”.
Even if you’re not a fan of horror fiction, you’ll get hooked by the author. “The Black Cat” is your best choice since you’ll be quickly introduced to the labyrinth that is Poe’s mind.
And if you want to get even deeper, this collection of short stories will certainly keep you up at night…
4. F. Scott Fitzgerald
One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Fitzgerald is in a league of his own.
“The Great Gatsby” is “something new — something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” And even though it didn’t meet the author’s expectations during his lifetime, it became perhaps America’s greatest novel of all time.
We have only 5 novels from the writer but he was more prolific when it comes to short stories.
One that stands out is the “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was also adapted to a movie.
The plot is quite imaginative: A man born old and aging in reverse.
5. William Faulkner
Welcome to Yoknapatawpha County.
Out of all the writers in this list, Faulkner is the one that helped me truly understand the culture of rural America.
The author creates an uncanny sense of familiarity with the environment and the different characters.
(Another interesting trait of his writing is the stream-of-consciousness technique, something I’ve been using myself whenever I write the first draft.)
Even though some of the best American short stories come from his pen, I feel that “A Rose of Emily” is a great introduction to his style.
But don’t stop here. Read the rest of his short stories and explore the Yoknapatawpha County!
6. Stephen King
One of the most well-known writers of our time, Stephen King represents the new blood of American literature.
I’ve been an avid reader of his in the past and I have to say that he never disappoints.
He has a unique writing style, albeit hard to get used to in the beginning.
Some of King’s most famous books have become movies and TV series. It’s undeniable that he can grab the audience’s attention.
But did you know many of his novels started as short stories?
I believe that short stories are where the author truly shines!
Fist clenching, gut-wrenching stories about our childhood nightmares.
Start with “The Boogeyman.” I don’t want to spoil the end. Just make sure to read it at night.
And if you want more, the “Night Shift” is the collection I recommend.
7: H.P Lovecraft
Even though Lovecraft isn’t as celebrated as the rest of these authors, I regard him as one of the greats!
He managed to merge his fantasy with real-life and create vibrant, modern mythology.
A controversial writer that died in poverty, he pushed the limits of literature creating the suffocating genre of cosmic horror.
You might not realize it but many of today’s mystery TV series is inspired by the Lovecraftian mythology of the unknown (eg “Stranger Things”).
If I had to recommend one short story, that’d be “The Call of Cthulhu”. A creature lays asleep in the deepest ocean, waiting to be awakened.
Fun fact: When I tried to purchase one of his collections, the bookstore owner warned me that “they’re quite terrifying”.
What makes the best American short stories so unique?
In the 19th and 20th centuries, America went through massive changes. Writers, being the antennas of society, had the responsibility to pen down and broadcast what was going on around them.
They had to describe the brave new world!
Some traits all of these authors possessed:
- Prolific writers
- Polemic critics
- Hard workers
- Real-life experience
- Spotted patterns
They were writing a LOT, they always spoke their minds, they had a passion for their craft, they used their own experiences, they changed literature, they were avid observers of humanity.
These are some of the qualities I seek to emulate when I write.
It’s not always easy but it helps me stay focus and on track.
If you’re a writer yourself – or just an avid reader who wants to understand this subject better – you may benefit from breaking down and analyzing these stories.
Dive deep into the American mythos, learn what differentiates American authors from the rest of the world, and take a shot at writing a short story yourself!
For a limited time, you can save up to 70% on courses from the library of The Great Courses, our affiliate partner. Click here to view the library, including the course on the Great American Short Stories!
About the Author
George Kourakos is an ad-man by day, a writer by night. He is a mathematician with a creative side. Working full time as a copywriter, George wants to explore his creative side by writing about his favorite topics.