The United States of Literature: 10 Novels Where the City Is Key

A book lover’s guide to travel around the United States

The United States of Literature: 10 Novels Where the City Is Key

Photo by Kate Ter Haar/Flickr

For as long as novels have been around, authors have been casting cities almost as characters in their own right. Location in these types of novel is much more than an afterthought; the stories revolve largely around the setting and the way the surroundings influence both plot and character development.

Such novels combine two of our favorite things—literature and place—and help us to fall in love with cities through the eyes of the author and the characters. Here are 10 books that offer a unique view of some of the most iconic cities in the United States.

1. Brooklyn: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is set in early-1900s Williamsburg, and the impoverished neighborhood that protagonist Francie and her family live in is far from the hipster haven that it is today. The acclaimed novel revolves around an Irish American family fighting both internal and external struggles to survive in the United States, and embodies the uncertainty that New York City represented for many immigrants.

2. San Francisco: Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin

Tales of the City is the title of the nine-book series (as well as the title of the first book in the series) based in and revolving around San Francisco. Author Armistead Maupin pays great attention to developing his offbeat characters’ relationships with the equally colorful city, bringing San Francisco to life in an unparalleled way.

3. New Orleans: A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

The madcap adventures and hilarious characters in A Confederacy of Dunces would not be possible in any setting but New Orleans. The novel is traditionally considered one of the best and most accurate fictional portrayals of New Orleans culture, especially in terms of real businesses, local detail, and the Yat dialect.


Photo by nestor ferraro/Flickr

4. Chicago: House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros

This coming-of-age story is composed of vignettes told by protagonist Esperanza, a young Latina girl who talks at length about her experiences navigating her ethnic Chicago neighborhood. Her journey is one of self-discovery, and of balancing her desire to leave behind her block and the struggles her family faces there with her need to hold onto the roots she has built at the house on Mango Street.

5. Atlanta: Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

While this classic novel is most remembered for its portrayal of the complexities of romance, it is also an acclaimed representation of the South during the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era. Many of the intertwining relationships, major plot points, and timely references are dictated by historical events both in Atlanta and throughout the region.

6. Las Vegas: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson

If there’s one author who has most helped perpetuate this town’s “Sin City” nickname, it’s Hunter S. Thompson. A view of Las Vegas in the 1960s based on autobiographical incidents, the story is heavy on illegal drug use, property destruction, and overall debauchery. However, the book isn’t all fun and games—it is also noteworthy for its insightful critique of the “American Dream.”

7. Los Angeles: White Oleander, Janet Finch

One of the most haunting mother-daughter relationships to ever grace literature is at the heart of White Oleander. As protagonist Astrid is passed between foster homes, she’s also passed between parts of Southern California. Astrid’s own internal struggles are reflected in the diverse landscapes that accompany her road to self-discovery and understanding.

8. Long Island: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

A classic story of love, loss, and longing, the setting of The Great Gatsby is essential to the evolution both of Nick, the protagonist, and of the romance between Daisy and Gatsby. The physical distance between the fictional East Egg (modeled after Great Neck) and West Egg (modeled after the North Shore) separates the two former lovers, and nearby Manhattan offers Daisy’s husband Tom a guilt-free setting in which to indulge in an ongoing affair. The space in between, marked by the omniscient eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, is representative of the strife between the characters.

9. Pittsburgh: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Jesse Andrews

An indie take on a familiar plotline, this story revolves around complicated friendships between three Pittsburgh teens—one of whom is dying of cancer. The story of Rachel, Earl, and narrator Greg is set against the backdrop of Pittsburgh, a city not often noted for its cinematic quality. However, the pairing of the industrial landscape with the emotional plotline adds to the complexity of the story. The film adaptation, released in January of this year, stayed true to its roots by filming in the city.

10. Monterey: Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

The worlds of literature and Monterey share one important thing: They have each found a hero in John Steinbeck. One of our country’s most renowned authors, Steinbeck pays homage to the beachfront street in Monterey, just 30 minutes from his hometown of Salinas, in his novel Cannery Row. The story is primarily set on the “row” itself, which was named for the fishing canneries that once lined the block.

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