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10 Books That Shaped The American National Identity

We Americans aren’t too big readers. However, books have had a lasting and deep effect on our national life. If we compare it with the Russians, whose insatiable thirst for books — especially contraband ones — is legendary, we usually don’t pay as much attention as we should.

Walker Percy once gloomily estimated that the truly dedicated readers in this country of more than 330 million are perhaps one or two million. This is well below 10% of the American population.

Whether it is true or not, we cannot overlook the fact that there have been a number of hugely influential books that shaped our country. So it’s safe to say that without them, America may well be a completely different place.

So without further ado, here’s a list of 10 books that made a huge impact on our history!

walt whitman
Photo by Everett Collection from Shutterstock

1. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, 1855

This 1855 collection of poetry ushered in the US equivalent of the Romantic Era of literature. Whitman, considered one of America’s first democratic poets, is also known to have used his poetic words to influence new ideas in the country, and Leaves of Grass is no exception.

He used this collection of poems to help develop new ideas of individualism, democracy, and equality, which all played a major role in shaping America.

The book was a groundbreaking work of literature that represents praise and optimism in a humanly and culturally diverse America. Furthermore, Whitman’s book became a tool for unity in our country during times of division and hardship. Leaves of Grass also discusses American beliefs and the country’s ever-changing state.

2. The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr, 1905

Unfortunately, not every book has a positive influence on society. The Clansman, written by Thomas Dixon, recounts the Civil War and Reconstruction, highlighting the so-called redemption of the South by the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, this book made the right-wing group look like heroes and also led to a scandalous anti-black movie (The Birth of the Nation).

With more than a century passing since Dixon’s book (his first novel), readers may find it difficult to believe that the author’s views on race were once considered normal.

As the bestselling author of his day and the literary champion of white supremacy, Dixon’s literary works weren’t just popular; they also played a significant role in shaping the national perception of racism.

3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, 1939

This novel was a powerful and stunning literary work. It’s the best-known book written by John Steinbeck and even won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The author was inspired by the true story of poor Midwestern farmers who relocated to California looking for work and eventually ended up in tragedy and slave conditions. When it was first published, The Grapes of Wrath stirred up a lot of controversy, causing such indignation that Congress actually passed several laws to help the migrants and their families.

This thing would never have happened without Steinbeck’s book. But that’s not all: his literary work wasn’t just popular in its time, but also turned into a classic.

4. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass, 1845

The full title of this literary work is The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The author published his book — an autobiography — in 1845, and it turned out to be a real success.

The intriguing title may have played a part in this, but there were other things that really opened people’s eyes: Douglass’s great poetic fables, prose, and exceptional writing skill. As a result, this book was quite influential in advocating the cause of abolitionism.

The author was a true believer in the equality of all people, whether Native American, black, white, female, immigrant, or Chinese. With this excellent writing, others realized that Douglass’s perspective was valid and that his literary works (he wrote several autobiographies) referring to slavery were too hard to miss.

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5. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, 1962

This simple yet influential book turned out to be a bestseller, catching the attention of millions. Even though it was published over a half-century ago, a reader today would definitely find it still relevant.

The book was a cry of protest against environmental degradation that finally pushed Congress to listen, spawning the modern ecology movement. This book caused DDT to be banned in the US and helped save hundreds of animals, including the Bald Eagle.

The legacy of Silent Spring still impacts the public’s support for sustainability in all aspects of our lives and the chemistry community’s focus on green chemistry practices.

6. Native Son by Richard Wright, 1940

This book, written by Richard Wright, was highly remarkable and shocked the whole country by making a seemingly dangerous black man (and a murderer) a hero, or at the very least an anti-hero.

Bigger Thomas, the main character and protagonist of the book, embodied the angry black man whose life is ruled by those who make the rules — the white people.

He is pushed too far away not only by a society that despised him because of his skin color but also by the self-hatred he felt and even by the white socialists who believed they understood but didn’t.

This startling and violent story brought to light America’s racism and savage inequalities, paving the way for the Civil Rights Movement.

7. A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792

This 1792 book was a passionate manifesto, and its effect earned Wollstonecraft the title “Mother of Modern Feminism”. This was the first major literary statement about women’s rights and helped lay the groundwork for every breakthrough to follow.

Invoking the radical British and French political discourse surrounding the French Revolution, the writer sparked many controversial issues, throwing down the gauntlet not only to her male readers but also to the women of her day.

On this premise of sexual equality, Wollstonecraft mounted her movement for the reform of female education, saying that girls should be given the same type of education as boys.

Basically, this book proposed a paradigm of what we would now call “liberal feminism” or “equality”.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

8. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, 1906

Hamburger, anyone? This book was meant to be about not only the meatpacking industry but also the awful conditions of poverty that low-wage workers and immigrants dealt with in the cities.

The Jungle shocked the whole country, and the realization that humans who fell into the vat ended up in hot dogs truly horrified all those who read Sinclair’s book. Long story short, his literary work led Congress to pass several acts targeting safety standards, meat packing, and employment laws.

The US Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, improving the conditions in American slaughterhouses. Many of these laws still remain in effect today.

9. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852

Anyone who has read Uncle Tom’s Cabin can argue that this book is one of the most influential literary works in American history. Not only was this the first book that turned into a bestseller, but it intensified the issue of slavery to the point where it could no longer be ignored.

When Harriet Beecher Stowe met former President Abraham Lincoln, the head of state allegedly said: “So you’re the little woman who started this war.” Whether his words were true or not, it shows the impact she had on America.

This anti-slavery book was even included on the Congress’ official list of literary works that shaped America.

10. Common Sense by Thomas Paine, 1776

It’s almost impossible to argue that this book shouldn’t be on this list. Demanding freedom and the fiery yet intelligent public criticism of the monarchy may have been the most important spark that ignited the Revolutionary War.

Many historians believe Paine’s book was the fuse that helped the blaze spark. More than 100,000 copies were sold in the first three months, and it still remains one of the top American bestsellers.

What’s even more important is that before Common Sense became so popular, most colonists didn’t give a damn about breaking away from Great Britain, so Paine’s book definitely should be on this list.

You may also want to read 8 History Questions Americans Often Get Wrong.


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