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Books that Changed America

Like no other mass medium, books have the ability to crystallize a point in history or serve as a catalyst for public opinion.

Great books can foster nationwide discussion or provide a framework for the way people understand an issue. And every once in a while, a book comes along that changes everything.

Last winter, College of Liberal Arts professors took readers on a literary journey through U.S. history in the feature “Books that Changed America.” The story profiled seven bestselling books that changed American hearts and minds.

Find out which books made the list after the jump. And, if you have some time during the holidays, leave a comment and tell us which books you would add to the list, and why.

The following list is excerpted from the feature story “Books that Changed America,” which appeared on the UT homepage Dec. 3, 2007.

Common Sense (1776)
By Thomas Paine

Before “Common Sense,” most Americans assumed it was their duty to obey the laws of the British Crown, but after its publication this deference suddenly seemed absurd, says Lorraine Pangle, associate professor of government, who studies early American political philosophy.

“Government even in its best state is but a necessary evil,” Paine famously stated. “I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.”

Originally published in Philadelphia, the 79-page pamphlet that captured the emerging spirit of the revolution and cost only one shilling was soon republished or extracted in newspapers throughout the colonies, as well as England and Scotland.

“Paine’s polemic was the most effective piece of propaganda in American history,” says H. W. Brands, professor of history and author of “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin.” “It provided the words for thoughts that had been rattling around the American colonies for months and years, and it propelled the American people toward independence.”

The Federalist (1788)
By Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay

Seventy-seven of the 85 articles advocating the ratification of the U.S. Constitution that made up the “The Federalist” originally appeared in New York City newspapers under the pseudonym “Publius.” A two-volume compilation was published in 1788, and subsequent scholarship revealed the authors to be Alexander Hamilton (51 articles), James Madison (29 articles) and John Jay (five articles).

“Prior to the ‘Federalist Papers’ most citizens believed that any expansion of centralized governmental power would curtail liberty,” says Mark Longaker, assistant professor of rhetoric and writing and author of “Rhetoric and the Republic: Politics, Civic Discourse, and Education in Early America.

“Jay, Hamilton and Madison argued that expanding the federal government in careful ways could actually increase liberty. Since their effort, nearly every major expansion of the federal government’s size or authority—from FDR’s (Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s) New Deal to George W. Bush’s Department of Homeland Security—has repeated this argument: more government can mean more freedom.”

Today the papers serve as an important source of interpretation of the Constitution by scholars, lawyers and judges. As of 2000, “The Federalist” was quoted 291 times in Supreme Court decisions, according to historian Ron Chernow.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845)
By Frederick Douglass

One of the most influential leaders in African American history, escaped slave Frederick Douglass challenged the conscience of the American people with his autobiography that vividly described his life as a slave.

“Douglass’s narrative invigorated the abolitionist movement with an intimate and eloquent account of the physical and psychological evils of slavery and endures as one of America’s most powerful meditations on the meaning and value of freedom,” says Shirley Thompson, assistant professor of American studies, who researches narratives of slavery and freedom. “It extended an African American tradition of improvisation and self-making and remains a touchstone for African American literature and political philosophy today.”

Within three years of its publication, Douglass’s “Narrative” had sold thousands of copies and was translated into several languages. The author continued his career as a powerful anti-slavery lecturer throughout the free states and embarked on a 21-month lecture tour in England, Ireland and Scotland.

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe,” Douglass wrote.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
By Harriet Beecher Stowe

National Era, an abolitionist weekly, paid Harriet Beecher Stowe $300 for the serial rights to her novel that profoundly affected American’s attitudes toward slavery. Because of the story’s popularity, J. P. Jewett and Co. convinced Stowe to publish her serial as a book, which immediately became a must-read for concerned citizens.

In 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he is purported to have said, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.” Though scholars dispute whether this conversation ever took place, the role of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in turning public sentiment against slavery is undeniable, says Michael Winship, professor of English.

Today, the novel continues to spark discussion about race due to its stereotypical depictions of African-Americans that inspired a melodramatic theatrical tradition.

“After becoming an American classic, it came to be viewed as an embarrassment,” Winship says. “Only recently have scholars begun the task of reassessing its place in American literary culture. It remains to be seen just how it will be evaluated as we continue to struggle with our vexed history of race relations in the United States.”

The Jungle (1906)
By Upton Sinclair

Muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair wrote the ferocious exposé, “The Jungle,” to raise awareness of the plight of immigrant factory workers in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Instead, the American public was horrified at the thought of finding a finger in their sausage, says Brian Stross, professor of anthropology who researches American food cultures.

Within six months of the book’s publication, President Theodore Roosevelt began an inquiry and Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, laying the foundation for the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration.

“Long before Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’ sent diners scurrying from their local McDonald’s, Sinclair was turning American stomachs and feeding a furor for reform in meat-packing plants that soon spread to other food industries,” says Michael Stoff, director of Plan II Honors and associate professor of history.

Sinclair’s book was meant to expose the horrid conditions in which immigrants worked. Instead it struck a different target. “I aimed for the public’s heart,” Sinclair later complained, “and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

Silent Spring (1962)
By Rachel Carson

After working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 17 years and learning about the abuse of pesticides, Rachel Carson wrote the environmental treatise, “Silent Spring.” She challenged the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and environmentally harmful strategies of industrial agriculture following World War II.

Originally serialized in The New Yorker in June 1962, “Silent Spring” was published three months later in book form by Houghton Mifflin. The book sparked widespread concern about pollution, which led Congress to pass the Pesticide Control Act of 1972.

“‘Silent Spring’ is a testament to how conventional environmental practices and policy can change dramatically when just one person has the courage to challenge the status quo,” says Brian King, assistant professor of geography and the environment who teaches courses on conservation.

In an introduction to the 1994 edition of the book, former Vice President Al Gore called the book a “cry in the wilderness.” Without it, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never developed at all, he asserts.

“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery—not over nature, but of ourselves,” Carson wrote, inspiring a generation of activists.

The Feminine Mystique (1963)
By Betty Friedan

“A woman has got to be able to say, and not feel guilty, ‘Who am I, and what do I want out of life?’ She mustn’t feel selfish and neurotic if she wants goals of her own, outside of husband and children,” wrote Betty Friedan in “The Feminine Mystique,” a book credited with starting the contemporary women’s movement.

“The Feminine Mystique” contributed to big advances in women’s legal rights, such as equal economic opportunity for women, espoused in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and equal educational opportunity for women, included in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, says Gretchen Ritter, professor of government.

“Friedan eloquently articulated the sense of unease and disaffection that many women felt with the limitations imposed on them in post-war America,” Ritter explains. “Today, her work continues to inspire the next generation of women to reconsider the meaning of womanhood in American society and explore the impact that balancing work and family has on gender equality.”


ShelfLife@Texas will be on hiatus for winter break, but check back with us in January for more book news from The University of Texas at Austin.