Back Fifty more great opening lines from American novels

The fun continues!

As a lockdown diversion this spring, we entertained ourselves by coming up with a list of one hundred of our favorite opening lines from American novels published up through the year 2000.

We presented the first fifty lines in this space back in June; as we explained then, some of them begin novels we publish, others begin novels we don’t publish, and still others begin novels we might hope to publish one day.

We now give you Part Two: a second set of fifty opening lines, offered below without any attribution. How many of them do you recognize?

Once you’ve had a chance to enjoy the entire list, click here to see the author, the title of the novel that the sentence opens, and its date of first publication.

Walter Shirlaw, Among the Old Poets, oil on canvas, c. late-19th-century. (Smithsonian American Art Museum / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

1. I feel little reluctance in complying with your request.

2. When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.

3. One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.

4. The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.

5. He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.

6. to wound the autumnal city

7. The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.

8. Dusk—of a summer night.

9. Though he was probably about the right age for it—fifty-eight—Druff didn’t suppose—not even when he was most fitfully struggling to bring forth a name like something caught in his throat, or spit out the word momentarily stuck on the tip of his tongue—that what he was experiencing was aphasia, or Alzheimer’s, or the beginnings of senility, or anything importantly neurological at all.

10. I am an invisible man.

11. My name is Frank Bascombe.

12. Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.

13. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

14. The street was darkened by a smoky sunset, and light had not yet come on in the lamps near the empty house.

15. Lately I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me.

16. The evening before my departure for Blithedale, I was returning to my bachelor-apartments, after attending the wonderful exhibition of the Veiled Lady, when an elderly-man of rather shabby appearance met me in an obscure part of the street.

17. By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.

18. Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.

19. At least once during the cyclone season, Anne Wendel and her four girls raced through the pouring yellow rain to the cellar.

20. The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.
21. It was a Saturday afternoon on La Salle Street, years and years ago when I was a little kid, and around three o’clock Mrs. Shannon, the heavy Irish woman in her perpetually soup-stained dress, opened her back window and shouted out into the courtyard, “Hey, Cesar, yoo-hoo, I think you’re on television, I swear it’s you!”

22. On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

23. No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

24. There was something about the coast town of Dunnet which made it seem more attractive than other maritime villages of eastern Maine.

25. They’re out there.

26. Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

27. The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.

28. Probably I was in the war.

29. From the small crossed window of his room above the stable in the brickyard, Yakov Bok saw people in their long overcoats running somewhere early that morning, everybody in the same direction.

30. City of Indianapolis, a cold spring day, late.

31. They shoot the white girl first.

32. My name is Q___P___ & I am thirty-one years old, three months.

33. To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new.

34. Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?

35. A screaming comes across the sky.

36. A True Sport, the Mayor of New Orleans, spiffy in his patent-leather brown and white shoes, his plaid suit, the Rudolph Valentino parted-down-the-middle hair style, sits in his office.

37. She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seemed to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.

38. Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York.

39. On a winter afternoon, unseasonably warm, a car was racing over country roads toward town.

40. Now I believe they will leave me alone.
41. Father Egan left off writing, rose from his chair and made his way—a little unsteadily—to the bottle of Flor de Cana which he had placed across the room from his desk.

42. The patient, an old-fashioned man, thought the nurse made a mistake in keeping both of the windows open, and her sprightly disregard of his protests added something to his hatred of her.

43. This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.

44. You better not never tell nobody but God.

45. It was the close of day when a boat touched Rodney’s Landing on the Mississippi River and Clement Musgrove, an innocent planter, with a bag of gold and many presents, disembarked.

46. The Miss Lonelyhearts of The New York Post-Dispatch (Are-you-in-trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.

47. When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.

48. “Undine Spragg—how can you?” her mother wailed, raising a prematurely-wrinkled hand heavy with rings to defend the note which a languid “bell-boy” had just brought in.

49. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

50. A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.

Library of America
Curator

A champion of America’s great writers and timeless works, Library of America guides readers in finding and exploring the exceptional writing that reflects the nation’s history and culture.

Learn More
Publisher

From poetry, novels, and memoirs to journalism, crime writing, and science fiction, the more than 300 volumes published by Library of America are widely recognized as America’s literary canon.

Browse our books Subscribe
Non-Profit

With contributions from donors, Library of America preserves and celebrates a vital part of our cultural heritage for generations to come.

Support our mission