The Best Books About All Fifty States -Part 1

The Best Books About All Fifty States -Part 1

Each country has its classic novel, the book that epitomises the place and creates an atmosphere so vivid you can imagine yourself there, even when you’ve never been before in real life. Not all writer’s have the ability to create a sense of place, to integrate a location in a way that feels authentic and exciting. Books are the ultimate way to travel in your head, and can be the perfect guide when you’re planning your next IRL trip. 

The 50 states that make up the union are no different. You may not be able to visit all them before you die, but you can definitely read about them. Over the course of a few articles, we will round up our favourite books by state. In some cases, it was nearly impossible to pick just one. You will probably have strong opinions about some of these - and don’t hesitate to share them in the comments below!


So in no particular order….


  1. MONTANA, Norman Maclean -A River Runs Through It

There could be no novel more so in which the location is one of the principal characters in the story. The setting is everything and shapes nearly all of the story in the book. The soul is in the landscape and the characters seek solace and meaning in the natural world, as the human world seems to crumble around them. 

This slim novel, just 231 pages, follows the paths of two brothers in rural 1920s Montana. As they reach adulthood, their paths begin to diverge in multiple ways. Norman, the narrator, goes out of state for college, while his brother, rebellious and headstrong Paul, stays home. They come together throughout the story through their shared love of fly fishing. Fishing and the river is the glue that holds them together, until the wider world intervenes. 

The story is rooted in the true family history of Norman Maclean, whose own brother Paul shared the a similar fate as Paul in the book. Maclean's family was also from Montana, and he as well left for school, retaining a deep connection to the state.

The book is a small masterpiece, packing a whole world in an extremely short amount of pages. Even if you don’t have the chance to ever visit yourself, this novella will transport you there. 

Where: Missoula, Montana. Both devotees to the book and the 1996 movie flock to find the locations. Most of the film was actually located in Livingston, Southern Montana, with fishing scenes in Paradise Valley on the Yellowstone River and the Gallitin River, south of Bozeman.



2. NEW ENGLAND, Robert Frost, Collected Poems

You could say Frost’s poems permeate the landscape of rural New England. While he was born and raised in San Francisco until the age of 10, after the death of his father the family returned to their New England roots. He grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts and he briefly went to college at Dartmouth before to a variety of jobs. Once his writing and teaching career took off, Frost lived all over the U.S. and eventually emigrated to (old) England. Yet the rugged and beautiful landscape of his childhood and adolescence never left him.

These northern states are remote and wild, comprised of isolated farms, forest of maple and spruce and low stone walls, a la “Mending Wall” separating the wary and reticent neighbours (the likely inhabits of New England). The harsh winters blanket everywhere in the “downy flake”, or heavy snow in his poem “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening”. But it wasn’t just winter that could inspire his poetry. Spring brings new life and melts the snowbanks into freezing-cold crystalline lakes with granite bottoms that sparkle in the sun. In fact, Frost wrote for all the seasons and obviously relished the minute changes to the landscape he loved so much. 

Where: The Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire is a now a museum open to the public year round. You can also visit the cottage that Frost lived-in while he was a professor at Bennington College.

3. MASSACHUSETTS, Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Essential Writings

Robert Frost wasn’t the only author who was at home in New England. Essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson is also synonymous with his home state of Massachusetts. Like the peripatetic Frost, Emerson did travel widely throughout his life, but retained strong ties to his hometown that would shape his writing and his worldview. Born in Boston, Emerson graduated from Havard in 1821, following which he would teach at his brother’s school for young ladies in Roxbury and lived in a cabin in the woods. It was here he would start writing in earnest on the themes that would become his core subjects : nature. 

He settled down in Concord, Massachusetts with his wife Lydia Jackson, where he bought a home. It is now a Historic Landmark and a museum that you can go visit. Around this time, he met the fellow writer who would become his lifelong friend, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau encouraged him to start keeping a journal, which he did until his death. These many volumes make up the bulk of Emerson’s literary output. 

Emerson earned an income by lecturing across New England, sometimes giving as many as 80 lectures a year. His reputation grew in the Concord area, and towards the end of his life he had become a lauded local figure whom they called “The Sage of Concord”. So much so that, following a trip to Europe with his daughter, his return to Concord was met with celebration and the day off school for the children of the town.

Just as his writing defies easy characterization, his work is both part of the land that adopted him as well as transcending into the realms above. 

4. MISSISSPPI, WIlliam Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury


Faulkner  set nearly all his novels in the thinly fictionalised county where he lived, Lafayette County. Mississippi is a much maligned, misunderstood state, painted as both a turgid and unknowable backwater. Along with several other authors, Faulkner mythologised his home state into literary history. He is, as of yet, the only Mississippi author to win the Nobel Prize.

Faulkner was raised and spent  most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi. His novels, vivid, absorbing stories of Southern life, were rooted in the stories told to him by his grandfather of the civil war, slavery and Mississippi history.  

Although he developed a love of writing and poetry early, he was a disinterested student. He enrolled in the University of Mississippi, only to receive poor grades and drop out after a few semesters. He took on a series of odd jobs as he slowly established himself as a writer and make his living out of it. 

After a series of fairly unsuccessful novels, Faulkner wrote his magnum opus, The Sound and the Fury. This sprawling novel, spanning several decades, follows the diminishing fortunes of the Compsons, a once aristocratic family that are slowly drifting into oblivion. The book is divided into four sections,  narrated by three Compson siblings, and a fourth section that looks over the events recorded in the third person. Some call it enthralling, others have called unreadable. Whether or not you can stomach his stream of consciousness style, it is undeniable that his writing shaped 20th century literature and defined Southern writing. 

Where: After finding some success, Faulkner purchased Rowan Oak, the home where he would spend the rest of his life. Following his death, his widow left it to the University of Mississippi, who preserved it exactly as it was when Faulkner lived there. You can visit the house and see Faulkner’s scrawls on the walls of his study, where he would map out his novels.  The house and grounds was his vision of Mississippi life, with the gardens full of native plants and fauna and tasteful renovations, mostly done by him personally, undertaken over the years. Like many author’s homes, it is a popular pilgrimage site for would-be writers. 

5. NEW YORK, Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Capote is the epitome of a New York writer. Capote moved with his mother and his step-father to New York when he was eight years old, but continued to use his Southern New Orleans charm to ingratiate himself into New York high society, the darling of its doyennes. He lived far too large, dazzling his admirers with his crazy antics whilst manouvering people and situations behind the scenes, eventually crashing and burning in a haze of alcohol and drugs. He made history with his iconic Black & White Ball, a masquerade party where anyone who was anyone important in New York was present. He has just published In Cold Blood, established him as a serious writer and making him money for the first time in his career.

However, it was nearly a decade since he wrote the novella that would be the work he is now remembered for. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the writer narrator moves into the same Manhattan building as Holly Golightly, played by the captivating Audrey Hepburn in the movie version. Golightly eeks out a bohemian existence as a kind of escort, who is taken out by wealthy men in exchange for dinners and jewellery. It is soon revealed that Golightly has escaped a desultory past , which will catch  up to her eventually. 

Capote no doubt plucked elements of Tiffany’s story from the many colourful characters who crossed his path, with many women claiming to be the “real” Holly.  While the film paints the story as a romantic comedy, Capote’s novella is sadder and does not wrap up with a happy ending. Capote captured New York at its most exciting and glittering, when writers and artists were the real celebrities, before the rot set in. Tiffany’s is a little jewel box of a story, a snapshot of a golden era already fading away.

Truman Capote "Breakfast at Tiffany's" Quote Print, Shop here


6. FLORIDA, Ernest Hemingway -To Have and Have Not


Hemingway moved to Key West, Florida following his marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer in 1928. Pauline’s uncle bought them a crumbling Spanish style villa, eventually making a carriage house in the grounds his writing studio. Key West fulfilled two of his great loves : deep sea fishing and heavy drinking. He was enthralled with the stories of bootleggers, rum-runners and other shady folk who populated Southern Florida. The loose lifestyle attracted characters who enjoyed living dangerously or on the fringes of society. Hemingway, who chased excitement like it was his job, no doubt felt at home amongst others who valued freedom and fishing. 

His quintessential Key West book is his 1936 novel To Have and Have Not. The protagonist, Harry Morgan, is a fishing boat captain. After a wealthy client leaves him high and dry in Cuba, he is forced to start running booze and other contraband, and eventually human cargo, between Cuba and Florida. His desperate descent into a life of crime is contrasted with the dissolute lifestyles of wealthy yacht dwellers around Key West. Overshadowed by the movie adaptation with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, where the location and must of the plot was altered, this book paints a vivid picture of people living a fringe existence and the social ills that caused this dire economic pressures in the first place. 

Meanwhile, in Hemingway’s life, he met journalist and future third wife Martha Gellhorn in 1939 while she was vacationing on Key West. He soon left Pauline and went to live in Cuba with Martha. Pauline continued to live in the Key West home until her death. With Cuba just 90 miles away from Key West, Hemingway wrote and entertained friends in much the same way, until Castro’s government drove them out. Both homes are now restored and open to the public for visits. 



7. CALIFORNIA, John Steinbeck - Cannery Row


No writer has captured the beauty and desolation of California as aptly as John Steinbeck, a vast state that was the emblem of the gold rush and the final destination of the American Dream. Steinbeck was born and raised in Salinas, a small rural town 25 miles from the Pacific coastline. While he would later make his living holding a pen, he was no stranger to the hardscrabble jobs he would write about in novels such as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.  As a teen he spent summers working on ranches and later worked as a laborer at a beet farm alongside migrant workers. Building a career as a writer did not come easily to him either. He and his wife struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression, relying heavily on support from Steinbeck’s father, who gave them a place to live for free so that Steinbeck could concentrate solely on writing.

After a string of unsuccessful novels, Steinbeck struck gold with Of Mice and Men, a slight novel about two desperate migrant workers who travel to dry and dusty central California in hopes of making a living. Following that, he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that would cement his status as one of the greatest American’s writers of the 20th century.

Much has been written about those books, but less so about a another novel he wrote in 1930, called Cannery Row. Named after a street of sardine canning plants in Monterey, the book follows the lives of several characters who live there. They live off beat and sometimes difficult existences on the outer edges of polite society. One of the main characters, Doc, is based on Steinbeck’s close friend, Ed Ricketts. Ricketts was marine biologist and something of a philosopher. He and Steinbeck would travel up to coast to find marine specimens for Ricketts to sell. They even published a book together in 1941 called The Sea of Cortez, a travelogue about one of these trips together. They had a shared interest in ecology and this relationship would be hugely influential in Steinbeck’s writing. In 1948, Ricketts died suddenly in an accident. Steinbeck was deeply affected by his death, with some biographers claiming that his writing never quite recovered after this loss. 

The characters in Cannery Row make up part of a huge migration that happened during the Great Depression. They are trying to build lives of substance amongst the ruins. Its hero, Doc, supports his neighbours with an unusually high level of empathy, in spite of their seedy lifestyles. Steinbeck writes about this part of California and its inhabitants with great vividness and affection. No one has painted a better picture. So much so that this area is often referred to as “Steinbeck Country”. The real Cannery Row was actually called Ocean View Drive, but the named was later changed to mimic the novel. The inhabitants of Monterey are still proud to have Steinbeck as their resident biographer and storyteller. 

John Steinbeck Quote Print, Shop here


What is your favourite novel on this list, and what books would you suggest for other states? Comment below!

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