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LIST: Underrated Books

“Library in the Woods” by Jon Clary.

 

If you’re like us, you may be most drawn to this list in which each of our Judges champions an underloved yet mighty Southern book (novel or nonfiction). We hope you will be inspired by this reading list (as we are) to expand your own literary landscapes. Please vote for your favorite books in the comments section.  —The Editors

For more information about our esteemed Judges, please click here.

Nearly all of my nominations in fiction and nonfiction are underrated or underappreciated. Because they are too recent or too narrowly literary or not literary enough (too popular) or make use of humor or don’t have wars in them, they seem not yet to be considered ‘significant,’ but I think they are singularly original, enduring, life-changing, life-sustaining literature. —from Wendy Brenner's ballot


Underrated Books: The Big List

(The books below are listed in order of original publication date)

 

 

THE RECORDING ANGEL (1912)

by Corra Harris

“A fine twentieth-century American comic work that needs rediscovery.”
—Peter Schmidt

 

LOVERS OF LOUISIANA (TO-DAY) (1918)

by George Washington Cable

 

THE TIME OF MAN (1926)
(2 votes)

by Elizabeth Madox Roberts

“Roberts was a master stylist who refused to self promote. This particular book looks closely at the life circumstances of a young woman, a tenant farmer, who finds ways to speak her spirit in a world that cannot hear.” —Chris Green

 

SARTORIS (1929)

by William Faulkner

“So full of drama and pathos. Yes, the language is missing the grandeur of As I Lay Dying—“a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth”—but the layers of plot and character weave an intricate, textured tapestry, foreshadowing things to come.”
—Catherine Clinton

 

THE WAVE (1929)

by Evelyn Scott

 

TO MAKE MY BREAD (1932)

by Grace Lumpkin

 

THE SHELTERED LIFE (1932)

by Ellen Glasgow

 

GONE WITH THE WIND (1936)
(2 votes)

by Margaret Mitchell

Gone With the Wind—the novel, not the film—is no Southern romance, either for the antebellum or postbellum South. The most effectual characters are of yeoman rather than aristocratic stock, and Mitchell’s portrait of New South Atlanta is a devastating critique.”
—James Cobb

 


RIVER OF EARTH (1940)

by James Still

“One of the finest Appalachian novels ever written—an Appalachian Grapes of Wrath in which the crops fail and the mines close and the Baldwin family sets out from place to place in a rattletrap car looking for work. For me as a writer, this novel was absolutely crucial. I picked it up by chance in a library when I was in college, and after one paragraph, I was hooked. I sat down in the library and read the entire novel straight through, then burst into tears and read it again. Not only was the setting familiar to me—the mountains of my childhood, my own country—but the Appalachian dialect was the way I had first heard language. I had no idea that it could be literature as well. Years later, when I went to teach at the writers’ workshop at the Hindman Settlement School in Eastern Kentucky, I was privileged to know James Still himself, not only a novelist but also a fine poet and short story writer who lived all his life in a log house at the Forks of Troublesome Creek.”
—Lee Smith

 

GO DOWN, MOSES (1940)

by William Faulkner

 

THE GREAT BIG DOORSTEP (1941)

by E.P. O’Donnell

“Eudora Welty also claimed it was an underappreciated classic.”
—Joseph Flora

 

HOLD AUTUMN IN YOUR HAND (1941)

by George Sessions Perry

“The best sharecropping novel set in that Southern part of Texas known as East Texas. A warm and excellent portrait of rural Southern life during the Great Depression.”
—Don Graham

 

CROSS CREEK (1942)

by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

 

THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING (1946)

by Carson McCullers

“I have recently read commentary that the novel, and the play based on the novel, are dated because of the relationships between the races—it is set in late ’40s Georgia. But, although the novel contains themes of race relations, and the tragedy of them, the achingly universal feature of the novel is its rendering of a young girl’s loss of childhood, what is left behind, what is lost, in the differentiation of gender that puberty demands. The subject is a soul’s subject: all the action in the novel is symbolic. There is not a single poor sentence in the entire text, not one. And the choices the author makes about what scenes to render and which to leave out are revelatory, daring. The text absolutely shimmers on the page. When I first read this book, I didn’t know such things could be said: The book takes place in a very deep and truthful realm. It is a rare work.”
—Moira Crone

 


GEORGE WASHINGTON: A BIOGRAPHY (1948)

by Douglas Southall Freeman

 


KILLERS OF THE DREAM (1949)

by Lillian Smith

 

YOUNGBLOOD (1954)

by John O. Killens

 

A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE (1956)

by Nelson Algren

“The book is criminally neglected.”
—William Gay



A DEATH IN THE FAMILY (1957)

by James Agee

“In the humble, uneducated opinion of a hillbilly singer with delusions of grandeur, A Death in the Family is powerful and beautiful and very nearly perfect.”
—Steve Earle

 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1960)

by Harper Lee

“I know, right? How can a book that has sold a gazillion copies and is taught in countless classrooms every year be considered vastly underrated? I deem it so because somewhere along the way To Kill a Mockingbird was successfully exiled to the Young Adult category.” —Ben George



THE GAY PLACE (1961)

by Billy Lee Brammer


NEGROES WITH GUNS (1962)

by Robert F. Williams

 

IT IS TIME, LORD (1963)

by Fred Chappell

“Fred Chappell’s first novel, published when he was in his twenties, floored me. Structurally and sentence by sentence, it is a pure-d beauty. Dale Ray Phillips lent me his copy for years, salvaged from the great flood at Hollins University. Inside, someone named Rubin (Louis) had signed his name.”
—Michael Gills

 

NIGHT COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS: A BIOGRAPHY OF A DEPRESSED AREA (1963)

by Harry M. Caudill

“A native and lifelong resident of Eastern Kentucky, Harry Caudill had the courage not only to document the region’s plight but to name those who had oppressed it. And he was equally willing to write of the shameful responses of some of his neighbors who were victims. The attention that this powerful book focused on the Appalachian South had an enormous impact on public policy and on a whole generation of writers of both fiction and nonfiction. It changed people’s view of the South.”
—George Brosi

 

THE KEEPERS OF THE HOUSE (1964)

by Shirley Ann Grau

 

STONER (1965)
(2 votes)

by John Williams

 

KANDY-KOLORED TANGERINE-FLAKE STREAMLINE BABY (1965)

by Tom Wolfe

 

JUBILEE (1966)

by Margaret Walker

 

OF LOVE AND DUST (1967)
(2 votes)

by Ernest J. Gaines

“I read this novel every year, and use it in classes often, and I am always stunned by this entire world recreated in one isolated rural setting, and how an opera of love and hate and revenge is played out in the fields and small houses and dusty roads.”
—Susan Straight


“It is generally considered Gaines's fourth most important novel, but this is the one that is the most fun—it is highly enjoyable and terrifying. Marcus Payne is among the most memorable characters in all of Southern literature, and the novel deserves greater attention than it has received. I am amazed that it has never been made into a major film.”
—Reggie Scott Young

 

TRUE GRIT (1968)
(2 votes)

by Charles Portis

 

COMING OF AGE IN MISSISSIPPI (1968)

by Anne Moody

 

THE SOUTHERN TRADITION AT BAY: A HISTORY OF POSTBELLUM THOUGHT (1968)

by Richard Weaver

 

GERONIMO REX (1970)

by Barry Hannah

 

 

THE THIRD LIFE OF GRANGE COPELAND (1970)

by Alice Walker

 

THE CHILDREN OF PRIDE: SELECTED LETTERS OF THE FAMILY OF THE REV. DR. CHARLES COLCOCK JONES FROM THE YEARS 1860–1868 (1972)

by Robert Manson Myers

“A searing portrait of daily life during the Civil War, this book seems to be completely overlooked.” —Connie May Fowler



CHILD OF GOD (1973)

by Cormac McCarthy

“It is by far McCarthy’s most underrated work.” —Keith Lee Morris


NIGHTWATCHMEN (1973)

by Barry Hannah

 


THE MYSTIC ADVENTURES OF ROXIE STONER (1974)

by Berry Morgan

“Mrs. Morgan’s stories were gems of precision and brevity, and this book about her delightfully zany and spiritual Mississippi woman named Roxie Stoner was a triumph of originality in the tradition of the Christian Existentialists such as Walker Percy.”
—Kenneth Holditch

 


ALL GOD’S DANGERS: THE LIFE OF NATE SHAW (1974)

by Theodore Rosengarten

“I was also tempted to list this as my number-one best book, because it not only has wonderful literary qualities but is a first-rate history of the late-nineteenth and twentieth-century South.” —Timothy Tyson

 

THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE ARKANSAS OZARKS (1975)

(2 votes)

by Donald Harington

 

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1976)

by Anne Rice

“This book too often gets labeled ‘pop culture fiction’ by those who forget that it was the first major work about vampires to get considerable notice since Dracula. No one captures the lazy decadence of antebellum New Orleans better than Rice, and if you don’t like the thought of vampires, just read it for its piercing rendition of Southern joie de vivre (even among the walking dead).”
—Joy Dickinson Tipping

 

SUTTREE (1979)

by Cormac McCarthy

 

BLOOD AND GRITS (1979)

by Harry Crews

 

RAY (1980)

by Barry Hannah

“This novel hangs in the memory like a fishhook.”
—Harry Crews

 

HANDLING SIN (1983)

by Michael Malone

 

THE COURTING OF MARCUS DUPREE (1983)

by Willie Morris

“It contains simply everything that is true about the South: that we hold our football as a blessing and a sacrament of worship; that race, slavery, and political and economic subjugation reach deep inside the crevices of Southern history; that family is the center of life; that church and faith provide daily sustenance; and that the human spirit endures.” —Farrell Evans

 

DREAMS OF SLEEP (1984)

by Josephine Humphreys

 

EDISTO (1984)

by Padgett Powell

 

THE DIXIE ASSOCIATION (1984)

by Donald Hays

“Hays makes us realize that the dregs, the convicts, the undesirables are often on to something everyone else is blindly unaware of. That something is plain and potent truth.” —Matt Baker

 

MASTERS OF ATLANTIS (1985)

by Charles Portis

 


A SUMMONS TO MEMPHIS (1986)

by Peter Taylor

 

THE FLORIDA KEYS: A HISTORY AND GUIDE (1987)

by Joy Williams

“Though I personally have never visited the Florida Keys (despite living in Florida for almost a decade), I own all ten editions of this book. (Each update contains new commentary from Williams.) It’s got everything: weird nature facts and Forteana, environmental polemics, Biblical myth, social satire, tabloid-worthy gossip. The book is so distracting and involving and fun to read, one sort of forgets about actually traveling to the Keys, which I think is Williams’s secret intention.” —Wendy Brenner

 

CAN’T QUIT YOU, BABY (1988)
(2 votes)

by Ellen Douglas


THE GREAT DISMAL: A CAROLINIAN’S SWAMP MEMOIR (1990)

by Bland Simpson

“This is a lovely memoir rich in history, natural history, and reminiscence, in the best Southern tradition.” —Jay Jennings

 

JOE (1991)

by Larry Brown

 

THE KING IS DEAD (1992)

by Sarah Shankman

 

THE SECRET HISTORY (1992)

by Donna Tartt

 

WOLF WHISTLE (1993)
(2 votes)

by Lewis Nordan

 

LIVING IN LITTLE ROCK WITH MISS LITTLE ROCK (1993)

by Jack Butler

 

BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA (1993)

by Dorothy Allison

 

HELLO DOWN THERE (1993)

by Michael Parker

 

ON FIRE (1993)

by Larry Brown

“Larry Brown wrote compelling nonfiction, just like his novels and short stories. A product of North Mississippi, he never compromised his vision or took shortcuts in his work. This small volume about his time as a captain at the Oxford, Mississippi fire department explains a man’s journey through manhood, through work, love, danger, and redemption. A copy should be placed in every firehouse in America.” —J.E. Pitts

 

THE SHARPSHOOTER BLUES (1995)

by Lewis Nordan


EDISTO REVISITED (1996)
(2 votes)

by Padgett Powell

 

THE SWEET EVERLASTING (1996)

by Judson Mitcham

 

THE KING OF BABYLON SHALL NOT COME AGAINST YOU (1996)

by George P. Garrett

 

LANCELOT (1977)

by Walker Percy

 


PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS (1997)

by Allan Gurganus

 

THE HEALING (1998)

by Gayl Jones

 

JAYBER CROW (2000)

by Wendell Berry

 

PROVINCES OF NIGHT (2000)

by William Gay

“A wise, spare, hilarious, bighearted tale delivered in language as lovely as the Tennessee hills at dusk.” —Tom Franklin

 


PRODIGAL SUMMER (2000)

by Barbara Kingsolver

 

GLASS HOUSE (2001)

by Christine Wiltz

“One of the few urban novels set in the South and a compelling look at race relations in contemporary New Orleans from a variety of perspectives.” —Suzanne Jones

 


YONDER STANDS YOUR ORPHAN (2001)

by Barry Hannah

 

WHY DID I EVER? (2001)

by Mary Robison

 

DO I OWE YOU SOMETHING?: A MEMOIR OF THE LITERARY LIFE  (2003)

by Michael Mewshaw

“This memoir by the Maryland-born novelist and nonfiction writer Michael Mewshaw is filled with amusing, arresting, revealing portraits of his encounters with such figures as George Garrett and William Styron (while Mewshaw was a student at Virginia), James Jones, the Robert Penn Warrens and many other figures from the worlds of literature and film. I’ve read it twice so far and plan to make another visit later this year.” —Floyd Skloot

 

THE HEMINGWAY BOOK CLUB OF KOSOVO (2003)

by Paula Huntley

“This compelling eight-month memoir comes from a woman reared in Arkansas, who experiences the lives of a minority in Kosovo following the Balkan war and who sees parallels in the society of her youth. It is a book of suffering, deprivation, and hope.” —Thomas Bonner

 

THE KNOWN WORLD (2003)

by Edward P. Jones

“I’m surprised more people don’t know this writer and specifically this novel—nuanced, complex, beautiful." —Hope Coulter


A THIN DIFFERENCE (2005)

by Frank Turner Hollon

 

THE ANGEL OF FORGETFULNESS (2005)

by Steve Stern

 

IF YOU WANT ME TO STAY (2005)

by Michael Parker

 

WORK SHIRTS FOR MADMEN  (2007)

by George Singleton

 

THE MEAT AND SPIRIT PLAN (2007)

by Selah Saterstrom

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