10 Books That Shaped America

10 Books That Shaped America

“To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and your own consciousness.” ― Allen Ginsberg


Ever since the publication of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary “Common Sense”, it is undeniable that America has continuously been shaped by literature. As the woes of slavery, the rise of social classes, environmental controversies, and social strife plagued the nation, landmark novels have been published as literary commentaries on the social injustices that Americans were most passionate and divided amongst.

1. "Common Sense" by Thomas Paine (1775)

A people's history of the American revolution - Howard Zinn

Not only did this pamphlet unite Americans in their fight for a more representative government, it also inspired the colonists to carry out the American Revolution in hopes of breaking from Great Britain. Thus, this insurgent pamphlet helped shape the political identity of America while simultaneously redefining the moral and intellectual virtues of a burgeoning nation.

2. "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

As an advocate for the abolition of slavery, Stowe wrote this novel as a means to emphasize the need to overcome the cruel practice of slavery. Written just years before the Civil War, this book undeniably influenced the thoughts of Americans, fueling the slavery and anti-slavery arguments to an apex as the nation grew increasingly more and more divided.

3. "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman (1855)

Along with ushering in the Romanticist and Transcendentalist movement to America, Whitman’s collection of poetry changed the way people viewed life. By preaching the beneficial power of our our role amidst nature, Whitman incensed within readers a sentiment of yielding a greater purpose upon the world.

4. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain (1884)

This book broke literary records by being the first major American book written in the American-south vernacular. It approaches the subject of slavery in a satirical yet serious manner that grasped the perspective of a young, open-minded child living in a nation deeply divided over slavery. This novel aimed, and succeeded, at pointing out the flaws, corruptness, and immoral attributes of slavery in America.

5. "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair (1906)

Written in the early 20th century, public knowledge of food procedures and food safety was generally lacking and the rise of big cities yielded lower wages for thousands of workers. Sinclair opted for this book to shockingly portray the meatpacking industry in the hopes of awakening Americans to the importance of food safety. Written during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, this novel sparked alarming federal responses as the FDA (food and drug administration) was soon created and began regulating food packaging procedures.

6. "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925

This novel concerns the consequences of idealism, expectations of social classes, and the societal trials of the Roaring Twenties.

It drastically contrasts the beliefs of American wealth as well as the illusion of the American Dream, thus invoking a revitalized view of 20th century America.

7. "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller (1949)

This is the quintessential ‘American Dream’ play that upends the concept of achieving a successful life in America. Brutally depicting a man of the working class who ultimately fails to achieve his 'American dream' is a blunt commentary on the intangible goals Americans are intrinsically inclined to hope for.

As a result, it led many Americans to perceive the 'American Dream' to be a dead concept, something unattainable and hopeless. Other people interpret the play to mean the 'American Dream' has evolved into a new, modern concept of success. Thus, this novel daringly prompted the idea of a generally evolved mindset and way of life in America.

8. "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger (1951)

As arguably the most popular novel of teenage angst and dissatisfaction, this novel has earned its place amongst the most powerful books dealing with identity, self-discovery, and transition from childhood to adulthood. The rebellious and anxious tribulations of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, are just as applicable to today’s generation as they were in the 1950s.

9."Howl" by Allen Ginsberg (1956)

This book, belonging to the literary Beat movement, aimed to socially and politically influence post-World War II America by advocating for a more non-complacent and introspective nation of people. Although this book was initially critiqued and condemned for its sexual liberation, references to psychedelics, and dissatisfaction with mainstream society, it is now appreciated for its raw and unapologetic 'howl' for normalcy in a world of satiated beliefs. In all, it left readers with a desire to revolutionize the ideals of a potentially regressive world.

10. "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson

This book not only encouraged the American people to become more informed and interested in the effects of the chemical industry, but it also led to the creation of the EPA (environmental protection agency) and a ban on DDT. Overall, this book provided insight on the dangerous effects of pesticides not only on the environment but on our own health, too.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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