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The 10 Best American Adventure Books

December 2023
1min read

Let me apologize in advance for leaving out many people’s favorites, like Ernest Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa , for example, or Buffalo Bill’s autobiography, or anything by Jack London (adventurous indeed, but it’s fiction). The choices reflect my personal taste. My fondest hope for them is that they provoke people to argue with me. I have arranged the books in chronological order.

1 The Journals of Lewis and Clark , 1809.

Certainly the closest thing we have to an American epic, and still fresh and alive.

2 Washington Irving, A Tour on the Prairies , 1835.

This short book is a delight, and it breathes the air of what was still known as the Great American Desert, the sea of grass extending west from the Mississippi.

3 Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast , 1840.

Dana was a clear, intelligent observer and a small d democrat, open to all sorts of people; the result is an extraordinarily appealing book about life at sea and on remote shores.

4 Francis Parkman, The California and Oregon Trail , 1849.

Parkman was, like Dana, a Boston patrician testing his mettle, this time on dry ground, and he achieves just the right tone describing what happened to him:

“A month ago I should have thought it rather a startling affair to have an acquaintance ride out in the morning and lose his scalp before night, but here it seems the most natural thing in the world.”

5 Clarence King, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada , 1872.

Superb description and great story-telling mark this enduring book. King was a geologist by trade but an adventurer by inclination, and he outran robbers, fought off grizzly bears, hung out with gamblers, tracked and captured in a gunfight a soldier who had deserted his geological team, and made the West come alive.

6 Mark Twain, Roughing It , 1872.

Martin Green calls Twain’s book an anti-adventure, a young man avoiding war, heading West, and making comedy out of it. But Twain was a reporter before he was anything else, and his is perhaps the true West, the reality before the romance, the exception that proves the rule. Also, it’s Twain, and nobody writes like him.

7 John Wesley Powell, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons , 1895.

In 1871 Powell, geologist and one-armed Civil War veteran, ran the Colorado through the Grand Canyon with nine other men, the first ever to do so, and six of them survived.

8 Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone Around the World , 1900.

Slocum was Canadian by birth, but he lived in the United States and left from Boston on his great trip, so I include him here. The book is justly famous, not least for the hallucinations Slocum suffered during his months of isolation at sea.

9 Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire , 1968.

Cantankerous and in-your-face, Abbey fell in love with the little-known wastes of the Southwest, and this is his hymn to surviving in one of the last places in America where you can still get lost and die because of it.

10 Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff , 1979.

Space, the final frontier. Here are Chuck Yeager, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, here are the breaking of the sound barrier, the first American earth orbits, the last American heroes.

—A.B.

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