stack of bestsellers image
Rave Reviews: Bestselling Fiction in America
University of Virginia Library
stack of bestsellers image
Introduction to the Exhibit
The Taylor Collection of Popular American Fiction
Making the Bestseller List
Types of Bestsellers
Beyond the Book
Current Bestsellers
Readers Tell Their Stories
More on the Bestseller Phenomenon

Types of Bestsellers

War Fiction

Novelists articulate and often interpret experiences of war. From promoting to criticizing patriotic impulses during wartime, from extolling to lamenting the aftermath, popular fiction has played an important part in our understanding of war.

This section displays some of the more influential novels that have come from the battlefield and the home front. Unlike the much larger genre of historical fiction, which focuses on wars of the past, these works are intertwined and roughly contemporary with the wars that they address.


Taylor Notebook: v. 7, entry on the Aide to Camp


Ernest Hemingway modeled A Farewell to Arms on his experiences in World War I. Like Hemingway, the novel’s protagonist Lieutenant Frederic Henry serves as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I and, when wounded on the front lines, falls in love with his nurse.


Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner, 1929.
From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers. Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.


A soldier in the German army during World War I, Erich Maria Remarque was wounded during his service in the trenches of the Western front. His novel, originally published in German in 1928, grew out of this time and attacked the horror and wastefulness of war. In the 1930s, the Nazis banned the work for its anti-military tone and, in 1933, burned it publicly. Exiled to Switzerland, Remarque later immigrated to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1947.

Three film adaptations of this novel have been produced, one of them based on a screenplay by F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Trans. A. W. Wheen. Boston: Little, Brown, 1929.
From the Estate of Emily Clark Balch.


Norman Mailer’s experience as a field artillery observer and an infantry rifleman in the Philippines and Japan provided him with the material to write his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. One of the earliest World War II books written by a soldier, the novel established Mailer as a major American writer at the age of twenty-five. As a measure of the controversy surrounding the book and its depiction of the brutality of war, it took Hollywood ten years to make the novel into a movie.


Mailer, Norman. The Naked and the Dead. New York: Rinehart, 1948.
Gift of George Coyle.


Joseph Heller flew sixty missions as a B-25 wing bombardier in World War II and wrote one of the greatest antiwar novels of the century. Nonetheless, in 1961, the satirical message of Catch-22, his first novel, proved ahead of its time. Lacking immediate critical and popular success, the novel gradually gained a following as the 1960s counter-culture developed and the public, in general, became more skeptical of authority.


Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


David John Moore Cornwell, known to the reading public as John le Carré, worked for the British Foreign Service from 1961 to 1964. His third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, represents his earliest foray into the world of espionage and intrigue and proved his first to break through to the annual bestseller lists, where the novel reached number one in 1964. The 1965 film version, in black and white, reflected the book’s stark Cold-War realism.


Le Carré, John [David Cornwell]. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. New York: Coward-McCann, 1964.


Tom Clancy’s military service was limited to the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps, but his first novel, about a defecting Russian submarine captain, became an immediate bestseller. Clancy, “the king of the techno-thriller,” also reigned supreme at the Hollywood box-office in the decade from 1985 to 1995.


Clancy, Tom. The Hunt for Red October. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.



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