The Best Southern Novels of All Time

This is one of the 305 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

    This novel is a complex narrative about Thomas Sutpen, a poor white man who rises to power in the South, aiming to create a dynasty that would rival the old aristocratic families. However, his ambitions are thwarted by his own flawed decisions and the overarching racial and societal tensions of the era. The story is not told in a linear fashion but rather through a series of interconnected flashbacks and narratives, offering different perspectives on the same events. The book explores themes of family, class, race, and the destructive power of obsession.

    The 56th Greatest Book of All Time
  • All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

    "All the King's Men" is a political drama that revolves around the rise and fall of a Southern governor, loosely based on Louisiana's Huey Long. The story is narrated by a journalist who becomes the governor's right-hand man, offering an inside perspective on the political machinations, corruption, and personal tragedies that accompany the governor's climb to power. The novel explores themes of power, corruption, and the moral consequences of political ambition.

    The 166th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

    The novel is a complex exploration of the tragic Compson family from the American South. Told from four distinct perspectives, the story unfolds through stream of consciousness narratives, each revealing their own understanding of the family's decline. The characters grapple with post-Civil War societal changes, personal loss, and their own mental instability. The narrative is marked by themes of time, innocence, and the burdens of the past.

    The 21st Greatest Book of All Time
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    The novel follows the journey of a young boy named Huckleberry Finn and a runaway slave named Jim as they travel down the Mississippi River on a raft. Set in the American South before the Civil War, the story explores themes of friendship, freedom, and the hypocrisy of society. Through various adventures and encounters with a host of colorful characters, Huck grapples with his personal values, often clashing with the societal norms of the time.

    The 24th Greatest Book of All Time
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    Set in the racially charged South during the Depression, the novel follows a young girl and her older brother as they navigate their small town's societal norms and prejudices. Their father, a lawyer, is appointed to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, forcing the children to confront the harsh realities of racism and injustice. The story explores themes of morality, innocence, and the loss of innocence through the eyes of the young protagonists.

    The 8th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

    The protagonist, a young stockbroker in New Orleans, is alienated, detached, and finds more reality in movies and books than in his everyday life. He searches for meaning in life, often through his relationships with his aunt and his cousin, while also dealing with existential dread and the impending reality of turning 30. This exploration of alienation and search for identity in the modern world won the National Book Award for Fiction.

    The 192nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

    The narrative unfolds through the eyes of 15 different characters over 59 chapters. It is the story of the death of Addie Bundren and her poor, rural family's quest and motivations—noble or selfish—to honor her wish to be buried in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi. As the Bundren family undertakes a journey to fulfill Addie's last wish, they face many hardships and personal revelations. The novel explores themes of existentialism, death, and the nature of family relationships.

    The 67th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

    The novel is a poignant exploration of a young African-American man's journey through life, where he grapples with issues of race, identity, and individuality in mid-20th-century America. The protagonist, who remains unnamed throughout the story, considers himself socially invisible due to his race. The narrative follows his experiences from the South to the North, from being a student to a worker, and his involvement in the Brotherhood, a political organization. The book is a profound critique of societal norms and racial prejudice, highlighting the protagonist's struggle to assert his identity in a world that refuses to see him.

    The 28th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

    "Wise Blood" is a novel about a young man named Hazel Motes, who returns home to Tennessee after serving in World War II and finds his religious beliefs shaken. He becomes a street preacher, founding the Church Without Christ to preach his message of faithlessness. The book explores themes of redemption, faith, and the struggle between belief and atheism as Hazel interacts with a variety of eccentric characters and faces his own internal battles.

    The 488th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

    This novel follows the life of Janie Crawford, a young African-American woman, in the early 20th century. She embarks on a journey through three marriages and self-discovery while challenging the societal norms of her time. The narrative explores her struggle for personal freedom, fulfillment, and identity against the backdrop of racism and gender expectations, ultimately emphasizing the importance of independence and personal growth.

    The 49th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

    The novel explores the spiritual isolation of misfits and outcasts in a small town of the U.S. South. Its protagonist is a deaf-mute who becomes the confidant for various troubled souls including a black physician, a bitter labor activist, a lonely young girl, and a struggling café owner. Each pours their heart out to him, but he remains unable to respond, reflecting the deep human need for connection and understanding.

    The 129th Greatest Book of All Time
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

    The novel is a comedic satire set in New Orleans in the early 1960s, centered around Ignatius J. Reilly, a lazy, eccentric, highly educated, and socially inept man who still lives with his mother. Ignatius spends his time writing a lengthy philosophical work while working various jobs and avoiding the responsibilities of adulthood. The story follows his misadventures and interactions with a colorful cast of characters in the city, including his long-suffering mother, a flamboyant nightclub owner, a beleaguered factory worker, and a frustrated hot dog vendor.

    The 176th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Light in August by William Faulkner

    Set in the American South during the 1930s, this novel explores complex social and personal issues through the intertwining stories of its characters. The narrative primarily follows a man of ambiguous racial identity on a quest to find his father, a pregnant woman searching for the father of her unborn child, and a disgraced minister attempting to navigate his own moral compass. The book delves into themes of identity, race, and the human struggle for understanding and redemption, all set against the backdrop of the deep-rooted prejudices and social norms of the time.

    The 163rd Greatest Book of All Time
  • A Death in the Family by James Agee

    The novel centers around the tragic death of a young father in a car accident, exploring its profound impact on his family. The narrative delves into the grieving process of his wife, children, and extended family in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1915. The story explores themes of love, loss, and the struggle to find meaning in the face of tragic circumstances. It is a poignant examination of the human condition and the inevitable experience of loss.

    The 565th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

    The novel tells the story of Eugene Gant, a brilliant and restless young man whose passion for a greater intellectual life shapes his adolescent years in rural North Carolina. Eugene's story is a deeply personal reflection of the author's own life, filled with vivid, poetic descriptions of the North Carolina landscape. The narrative explores themes of family, ambition, and the desire for a life beyond the confines of a small town.

    The 306th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison

    This novel tells the story of a former African-American slave woman who, after escaping to Ohio, is haunted by the ghost of her deceased daughter. The protagonist is forced to confront her repressed memories and the horrific realities of her past, including the desperate act she committed to protect her children from a life of slavery. The narrative is a poignant exploration of the physical, emotional, and psychological scars inflicted by the institution of slavery, and the struggle for identity and self-acceptance in its aftermath.

    The 26th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin

    "The Awakening" is a novel set in the late 19th century New Orleans, which explores the life of a young woman trapped in societal and marital expectations. She embarks on a journey of self-discovery and independence, defying the norms of her time. The protagonist challenges the traditional roles of women as she seeks personal fulfillment, experiences sexual awakening, and struggles with her desires and responsibilities. The book is a critique of the repressive social norms, particularly regarding women and marriage, of the Victorian era.

    The 200th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker

    Set in the early 20th century, the novel is an epistolary tale of a young African-American woman named Celie, living in the South. She faces constant abuse and hardship, first from her father and then from her husband. The story unfolds through her letters written to God and her sister Nettie, revealing her emotional journey from oppression to self-discovery and independence, aided by her relationships with strong women around her. The narrative explores themes of racism, sexism, domestic violence, and the power of sisterhood and love.

    The 51st Greatest Book of All Time
  • Native Son by Richard Wright

    This novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man living in Chicago's South Side during the 1930s. Bigger's life takes a tragic turn when he accidentally kills a young white woman. The incident leads to his arrest and trial, revealing the deep-seated racial prejudices and injustices prevalent in American society at the time. The narrative explores themes of poverty, systemic racism, fear, and the effects of oppression.

    The 69th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

    The story revolves around a woman who returns to her southern hometown to care for her ailing father. After his death, she is confronted by the harsh realities of her past and the complexities of her present. She navigates through the difficult dynamics of her family, her father's young second wife, and the superficial social circle of her community, all while grappling with her own grief. The novel explores themes of memory, loss, and the often complicated relationships within families.

    The 940th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

    Set in 1950s Knoxville, Tennessee, the novel follows the life of a man who has renounced his former existence of privilege to live among society's outcasts on the river. He is an educated man, who has chosen a life of fishing and surviving on the fringes of society. The narrative is filled with his encounters with various characters from the underbelly of the city, including criminals, prostitutes, and other outcasts. Despite his attempts to isolate himself, he finds himself drawn into the problems and tragedies of those around him.

    The 770th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner

    This novel is a collection of interconnected stories that explore the complex relationship between race, heritage, and land in the American South. The narrative primarily focuses on the McCaslin family, a family of white landowners, and their relationships with the African American individuals who were formerly enslaved by them. The book explores themes of racial exploitation, inheritance, and the destructive power of obsession, particularly through the character of Ike McCaslin, who renounces his inheritance due to its roots in slavery.

    The 4095th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

    Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War and Reconstruction era, this novel follows the life of a young Southern belle, who is known for her beauty and charm. Her life takes a turn when she is forced to make drastic changes to survive the war and its aftermath. The story revolves around her struggle to maintain her family's plantation and her complicated love life, especially her unrequited love for a married man, and her tumultuous relationship with a roguish blockade runner.

    The 47th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty

    "The Golden Apples" is a collection of interconnected short stories set in the fictional town of Morgana, Mississippi. The narratives follow various characters at different stages of their lives, providing a comprehensive picture of the town and its inhabitants. The stories are rich with symbolism and explore themes like love, loss, and the passage of time, all against the backdrop of Southern life and culture.

    The 1962nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • Cane by Jean Toomer

    "Cane" is a collection of vignettes and poems that depict the life of African-Americans in both the rural South and urban North during the early 20th century. The narrative explores themes of racial identity, cultural heritage, and the African-American experience, blending elements of fiction, poetry, and drama. The work is divided into three parts, with the first and third focusing on life in the rural South and the second part on life in the urban North.

    The 800th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones

    "The Known World" is a historical novel set in antebellum Virginia, exploring the complex relationships between slaves, free blacks, and whites. The story revolves around a black man who becomes a slave owner, his wife, and their slaves. It provides a unique perspective on the moral complexities and personal consequences of slavery, while also examining the intricate social hierarchy of the time. The narrative is filled with richly drawn characters, each with their own stories and struggles, offering a vivid portrayal of a little-known aspect of American history.

    The 682nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

    Set in the mid-19th century, this novel follows a violent teenager known as "the Kid" as he joins a group of Indian-hunters led by the enigmatic and brutal Judge Holden. The narrative is a gruesome depiction of the lawless American West, filled with philosophical musings, vivid descriptions of the harsh landscape, and brutal, relentless violence. The story explores themes of human nature, morality, and the inherent chaos and brutality of life.

    The 172nd Greatest Book of All Time
  • Deliverance by James Dickey

    Four friends from Atlanta embark on a canoe trip in the remote wilderness of Georgia, expecting a fun, adventurous weekend. However, their journey quickly turns into a nightmare when they are brutally attacked by a pair of backwoods locals. The friends are forced to kill their attackers in self-defense, leading to a harrowing escape down the river and through the woods, pursued by vengeful locals. The experience forever changes their lives, leaving them with deep physical and psychological scars.

    The 760th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy

    "The Last Gentleman" is a novel about a disoriented and confused man from the South who suffers from a "nervous condition" that causes him to forget who he is. When he meets a young man dying from a brain tumor, he decides to leave his home in New York and travel with the man and his family back to the South. Throughout his journey, he attempts to discover his own identity and grapples with existential questions about life, love, and death.

    The 1973rd Greatest Book of All Time
  • A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

    Set in the pre-Civil Rights South, the novel explores the story of a young black man wrongfully accused and sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit. A local schoolteacher, at the request of the man's godmother, attempts to help the condemned man gain a sense of dignity and self-worth in the final days of his life. The story grapples with issues of racial inequality, justice, humanity, and moral obligation.

    The 1347th Greatest Book of All Time
  • Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

    "Bastard Out of Carolina" is a poignant coming-of-age story set in South Carolina. The narrative follows the life of a young girl who, despite being born out of wedlock, strives to find her place in a world that continuously subjects her to physical and emotional abuse. The book explores themes of poverty, violence, and resilience in the face of adversity, providing a raw and unflinching look at the protagonist's struggle for acceptance and love.

    The 507th Greatest Book of All Time
  • The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

    "The Confessions of Nat Turner" is a fictionalized account of a historical event, the 1831 Virginia slave uprising led by Nat Turner. The book is presented as a first-person narrative from Turner's perspective, exploring his life as a slave, his religious visions, and the violent rebellion he led against white slaveholders. The novel delves into the complexities of slavery, morality, and rebellion, while also examining the psychological trauma inflicted by the institution of slavery.

    The 663rd Greatest Book of All Time
About this list

Oxford American, 32 Books

A list of the best southern novels of all time by Oxford American Magazine judged by 130 experts as well as authors.

Added over 10 years ago.

How Good is this List?

This list has a weight of 64%. To learn more about what this means please visit the Rankings page.

Here is a list of what is decreasing the importance of this list:

  • List: only covers 1 specific small geographical region (Southern United States, etc)
  • Voters: are mostly from a single country/location

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