Leaves of Grass and Other Writings by Walt Whitman (Norton, $22). Whitman's poetry defines what is American and not European in our national literary tradition. Its originality and humane stance have a healing function, which is what he so deeply desired. Whitman was more than our greatest poet. I would go so far as to nominate him as Abraham Lincoln's only rival for greatest American.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (Bantam, $5). Melville's magnificent prose epic is at once a superb sea yarn and a profound critique of Yahweh, source of the unwarranted suffering of Job. I cannot think of any other American fictive prose as memorable and transfixing as that with which Melville constructs his tragic vision of Captain Ahab.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (Dover, $4.50). The other crucial American epic. Huck is admirable, astonishingly wise, and always open to the suffering of others. Nothing in American literature has quite the majesty and serenity of the life Huck and Jim live on the raft carrying them down the Mississippi River.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Dover, $4.50). Hester Prynne remains the grandest, most poignant, and most enduring female character in American literature. She is our truest feminist in that she will not yield to the Puritan morality that condemns her and her heroic sexuality.
Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose (Library of America, $40). Stevens spoke for the voice that is great within us. His poetry, fecund and beautiful in its relation of sound to sense, was dedicated to our accepting things as they are — the enterprise of making friends with the necessity of dying. His poems have helped me to live my life.
Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters (Library of America, $40). My favorite American poet, Hart Crane, destroyed himself at 32. Despite his truncated career, Crane stands with Whitman and Stevens at the apex of our national poetry. I have loved Crane's poetry for three-quarters of a century, since I received an immortal wound when I first read him at the age of 10.