Since its start in 2007, AMC’s Mad Men has mentioned, discussed, or alluded to a considerable amount of classic literature, from authors like Dante to Mark Twain to Edward Gibbon. Each mention or allusion serves a purpose within the show’s plotline, working either to explain a character, set a scene, or provide context for decisions made or actions taken. Here are 12 classic works mentioned throughout the first six and a half seasons of Mad Men.
1. 'Atlas Shrugged' by Ayn Rand
“The Hobo Code,” Season 1, Episode 8
Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957 and set in a dystopian U.S., is the quintessential novel advocating capitalism and capitalist ideals. Bert Cooper, a big fan of Rand and one of the heads of Sterling Cooper, recommends creative director Don Draper read the book. Later, during a pitch to a client, Don appears to have been influenced by the book’s philosophies, saying, "If you don't appreciate my hard work, then I will take it away and we'll see how you do.” Viewers see in Don an egotism reminiscent of Rand’s philosophies throughout the series.
2. 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' by Irving Stone
“Flight 1,” Season 2, Episode 2
A biographical novel of artist Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy was written in 1961 and was sourced almost entirely from Michelangelo's correspondence—495 letters in all. Sterling Cooper secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson’s mother, a devoutly religious woman simultaneously proud of Peggy’s work and concerned with her lack of church attendance, mentions reading a copy of the book from the public library: “I have to renew The Agony and the Ecstasy. It’s taking forever.” In essence, Peggy’s mother is, perhaps unknowingly, exploring the dichotomy of religion in that it can seem both beneficial and like a chore.
3. 'Babylon Revisited and Other Stories' by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Three Sundays,” Season 2, Episode 4
Babylon Revisited and Other Stories is a collection of 10 of Fitzgerald’s most popular short stories published between 1920 and 1937. Don’s wife, Betty, carries on a short flirtation with Arthur Case, a younger, engaged man learning to ride at the stables she frequents, and he recommends she read “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” a story about a family who, materialistically, had it all but whose patriarch was never happy (which is reminiscent of Don). Later, Betty is seen reading the collection, which includes the story Arthur recommended.
4. 'The Sound and the Fury' by William Faulkner
“Jet Set,” Season 2, Episode 11
Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929, chronicles a dysfunctional Southern family in Mississippi as their reputation is damaged by financial ruin and the questioning of their religion. While Don is in California on business, he meets a young woman named Joy, and after dinner with her friends and spending the night together, Joy is seen reading The Sound and the Fury in bed. When Don asks, “Is it good?,” Joy replies that their sex was good, but that the book was merely OK. Later, Don jots down an address in the margins of the book—he’s going to visit Anna, the original Don Draper’s wife. The allusion to The Sound and the Fury hearkens to Don’s own troubled and fractured family life.
5. 'The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' by Edward Gibbon
“My Old Kentucky Home,” Season 3, Episode 3
Published in six volumes between 1776 and 1789, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire traces the trajectory of Western civilization. Gene, Betty’s father, moves in with the Drapers as his dementia worsens, and Sally reads Gibbon to him nightly, despite the subject material and structure being perhaps too advanced for a child. This is directly contrasted to Sally’s childish behavior later, when she steals $5 from Grandpa Gene and lies about it.
6. 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain
“Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency,” Season 3, Episode 6
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, tells the story of Tom Sawyer, a young boy growing up in the fictional town of Petersburg, Mississippi. Lane Pryce, Sterling Cooper’s chief operating officer fresh in town from a London firm, mentions to Don he has been reading Tom Sawyer. The two are standing in a hospital waiting room after a gory accident with an executive who was poised to replace Lane as COO but now, due to his injury, would not. Lane alludes to Tom’s desire to be present at his own wake when he tells Don, “I feel like I just went to my own funeral. I didn’t like the eulogy.” Essentially, Lane knew the company’s plan was to relocate him, though now he was forced to stay due to the extenuating circumstances—all while knowing his superiors wish he was gone.
7. 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain
“Tomorrowland,” Season 4, Episode 13
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the mid-1880s and is told from the first-person perspective of Huck Finn, a friend of Tom Sawyer. It is often considered satire on attitudes like racism, though criticized for its use of racial stereotypes and phraseology. Henry Francis, Betty’s second husband after her divorce from Don, is seen reading it before confronting Betty about her firing Carla, her children’s longtime black nanny.
8. 'Nature' by Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The Other Woman,” Season 5, Episode 11
Nature is an essay written by Emerson in 1836 and is widely considered to be the foundation of transcendentalism, or the idea that God or the Universe explains reality through nature, therefore implying that reality can be understood by the study of nature. During a conversation between Peggy and Ted Chaough, creative director at rival firm Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, where he is trying to woo her into taking a job, he tells her that Emerson said, “You have to be a transparent eyeball. What he meant was, you have to take in the world and pass it through you. I am tired of people who treat this like math.” This is an accurate representation of Ted’s approach to the advertising profession; as the seasons progress, he gets burnt out on the business side and misses being purely creative, leading to a near-breakdown.
9. 'The Inferno' by Dante Alighieri
“The Doorway,” Season 6, Episodes 1 and 2
The Inferno follows Dante’s journey through hell as he is guided by the poet Virgil. Don is seen reading The Inferno while on a beach in Hawaii with his second wife, Megan; the opening lines are narrated: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” The book was a gift from his neighbor, with whom he is having an affair. Though he once told her he wanted to cut the affair off, he continued to see her, proving that he is often unable to navigate back to the light after straying down a dark path.
10. 'Frankenstein' by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
“Field Trip,” Season 7, Episode 3
First published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein tells the story of scientist Victor Frankenstein, who creates a “monstrous” yet sentient creature during an experiment. When Betty goes as a chaperone on a field trip with her son Bobby, they are discussing his favorite monsters during the bus ride. He says, “There's basically Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. There's also King Kong, too, but he's not really a monster. I like all of them, but I guess Wolf Man's my favorite because he changes into it.” In a way, this discussion of transforming monsters foreshadows Betty’s extreme mood swings regarding her children; for instance, later in the episode, after a fun day exploring farm life as part of the field trip, Betty becomes irrationally angry at Bobby for giving away her packed lunch and lets it ruin their entire day.
11. 'From the Earth to the Moon' by Jules Verne
“The Monolith,” Season 7, Episode 4
From the Earth to the Moon, published in 1865, chronicles several weapons enthusiasts’ attempts to build a cannon that can launch three men into space, with the end goal of a moon landing. When Roger Sterling, one of the heads of Sterling Cooper, attempts to convince his daughter, Margaret, to return home from a hippie commune to her husband and son, they discuss the book as they are laying in a barn with the other commune members looking up at the moon. Margaret says, “I’d like to go to the moon. Don’t you want to go?” Roger replies that yes, of course he wanted to be an astronaut as a boy, and Margaret points out that astronauts didn’t exist during his childhood. He disagrees, citing From the Earth to the Moon, and Margaret reminisces on how he read the novel to her as a child. This conversation illustrates that Margaret feels a freedom in her life to make her dreams a reality, whereas when Roger was growing up, he was not afforded the same opportunities.
12. 'Meditations in an Emergency' by Frank O’Hara
“For Those Who Think Young,” Season 2, Episode 1
Meditations in an Emergency is a collection of poetry published in 1957. Don picks up the book after seeing a man reading it in a bar. After reading it, Don sends a copy to Anna Draper, believing that she’d enjoy it but also in an attempt to share his vulnerabilities with her, because at that time, she was the one other person who knew his secret. At one point in the show, Don narrates a telling excerpt from the poem “Mayakovsky,” helping viewers understand the internal emotional struggles he faces but cannot confront or move past:
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.
It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.
[h/t NYPL's 'Mad Men' Reading List]