I've managed to finish Part 2 of my literature book (now entitled "Literature and the Rise of Toxic Inequality") before the break.
Part 1 (England and France During the Age of Revolution) has chapters on Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, and Balzac's Pere Goriot. Part 2 (England from the 1840s Through World War I) has chapters on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Trollope's The Way We Live Now, and Forster's Howards End. Each part opens and closes with short intro and then summary sections that knit the three works together and find overall themes or trajectories, related to that of the book as a whole.
I'm now ready to start Part 3 (The United States Between the Civil War and World War I, or perhaps just pre-World War I). I'm planning 3 chapters, the second and third of which will be Dreiser (The Financier and/or The Titan) and Wharton (The House of Mirth). While I do plan to take a true break between semesters, I've thought I could read and cogitate a bit on this part, which leads to the question of what book from earlier in the era I should put first.
My first choice was Horatio Alger's aptly-named Ragged Dick (despite recognizing what a comedown it would be in terms of literary quality from everything else on the list so far). But my gawd is it thin. There are a few interesting points here - e.g., these really aren't the Horatio Alger myth as we think of it but something different (handsome boy uses older male benefactors to find modest success), but this point has already been well written about, plus is tangential to the themes I have in mind in this project. There are a few other interesting aspects to think about - e.g., hatred of rich boys who are described as effeminate, the role of villains, intense self-consciousness about putting on airs and acting "aristocratic," looks plus honesty plus "pluck" are the keys to success as distinct from intelligence or hard work - but I'm still not feeling it at the moment.
Two other possibilities are Howells' The Rise of Silas Lapham and Twain/Warner's The Gilded Age. But I've never read either, so I don't start out with the feeling that either or both might feel right. I'll probably read them over the break.
A more out-of-the-box idea is urban/office life from 3 shorter works that straddle the Civil War: Poe's The Business Man (1840), Melville's Bartleby The Scrivener (1853), and then Alger's Ragged Dick (which is from 1867). But only if I can make it all fit together, which actually strikes me at the moment, perhaps unreasonably, as not entirely impossible. It would certainly be a change of pace, possibly a good thing in terms of sustaining the overall scheme.
Any other suggestions out there?
UPDATE: Based on suggestions plus my own looking around, I may add Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, if it passes the test when I read it. Will also consider Twain/Warner The Gilded Age. Plus, Silas Lapham still in play. Poe / Melville / Alger will probably just show up in the Intro to Part 3, where I think they can help set the stage re. a couple of central themes.