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10 Books That Changed America

Updated on February 9, 2014

10 Books That Caused Radical Change in America

There are books that are revered because of their effect on art, and there are books that are remarkable because they literally change the very society from which they came. Here is a list of ten books that radically changed or shaped American society. I've excluded all religious texts because those are just too obvious. These aren't all great books - because unfortunately not every influential book was a positive one by any stretch of the imagination. A lot of people have a lot of different opinions on this one, so have a good read or take a look at this book about the 13 most influential books in America. So without further delay, here's the list of the top 10 books to change America!

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

This book changed the topics open to art and writing, and was stylistically way ahead of its time.

#10 "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman's 1855 book of poetry ushered in the American equivalent of the British Romantic Era of literature. The sensual and the bawdy became open areas of discussion, a difference between sensual and sexual was noted, and these all become topics that art was now allowed to openly discuss.

Whitman's brilliant work changed art, and changed what could be discussed in art with his bold and bawdy epic poem. Leaves of Grass is celebrated for being both subversive and celebratory, a work that opened the door for discussion of many issues.

This was also an incredibly influential work to American literature in general, and was very much the work that clearly opened the path for the Beat movement of literature that followed nearly a century later.

Without Whitman, writers such as Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and the others of the beat generation would have been hard pressed to find their voice without Whitman's early influence.

The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr.

Disgraceful, but unfortunately very influential to hate groups even today

#9 "The Clansman" by Thomas Dixon Jr.

This book shows that as writing can be used for great good to help society, writing can also be used for great evil to the detriment and harm of society.

Unfortunately, not every book has a good influence on society. This 1905 book made the KKK out to be heroes, and lead to a disgraceful anti-black film that was quoted by then President Woodrow Wilson as being, "Sad because it's true."

This was the racist answer to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and this book was a best seller that eventually led to support for the Jim Crow laws, as well as influence of the other all time white supremacy, racist "classic," "The Birth of a Nation." Sad and sick, but influential all the same.

Grapes of Wrath from Amazon

"The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck

This Pulitzer Prize winning Steinbeck novel led to several laws being passed to protect poor and migrant Americans

#8 "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most famous and celebrated of John Steinbeck's novels. This novel, which won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, was a stunning and powerful novel.

This fictional book was based on the real life plight of the poor Southwestern farmers ("Okies") who went into California looking for work, and ended up in slave like conditions that often lead to blatant exploitation and tragedy.

This book was extremely controversial, and hated in California, but invoked such an outrage that Congress actually passed legislation to help the migrants and their families. This never would have happened without Steinbeck's fantstic novel, which remains a classic to this day.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass

Maybe the most influential autobiography ever written

#7 "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave" by Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass's autobiography was printed in 1845 and was a work that really opened people's eyes not only because of the intriguing title, but because Douglass's exceptional prose, poetic fables, and great writing skill showed what a former slave could aspire to.

With this beautiful writing, others realized that the point of view Douglass has was valid, and the fable referring to slavery was too hard to miss. This opened the way for Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which helped to spark the American Civil War.

Perhaps most importantly above the rest, is that the beauty and mastery of the English language as it was used by Frederick Douglass destroyed any myths that free blacks could not create art equal to, or greater than, any man or woman of any other race.

Silent Spring from Amazon

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

The book that ended DDT use and founded the modern conservation movement

#6 "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson

This simple yet powerful book caught the attention of millions of Americans who were horrified not only at the enviornmental damage being done by pesticides, but at the corruption of pesticide companies and politicians who kept critical information from the public.

This book became a proverbial "lone cry from the desert" that spoke out against the loss of our environmental treasures that finally forced Congress to listen and spawned the modern environmental movement. It was also a strong transition for Rachel Carson, who was known as a natural historian, but not as a social critic, before this book.

This book caused DDT to be made illegal, and helped save the Bald Eagle, among hundreds and hundreds of other animals. Carson made it clear that with this book she was not advocating complete ban of helpful pesticides, but was instead wanted to encourage responsible use coupled with awareness of the chemicals' impact on the entire environmental ecosystem.

Richard Wright Novels from Amazon

Native Son by Richard Wright

The Book that shocked a nation and reminds us today that Richard Wright's voice preceded James Baldwin

#5 "Native Son" by Richard Wright

This novel by Richard Wright was incredible, and shocked the entire nation by making a seemingly vicious black man (and a murderer) a hero, or at least an anti-hero. Bigger Thomas was the epitome of an angry black man, pushed too far not only by a society that hated him because of the color of the skin, but by the self-loathing he felt as a result and by even the white Socialists who thought they understood, but did not.

This violent and startling story brought to attention the savage inequalities and racism in America, and helped lay part of the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement.

My first reading of this book amazed me and terrified me. Wright's ability to capture the inner rage of the black man in a society so racially bigoted and stacked against him is an incredible wake up call, and still relevant today.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft

The earliest manifesto for women's rights, and the bedrock for all parts of the feminist movement

#4 "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" by Mary Wollstonecraft

This 1792 work was a passionate manifesto, and this work's effect caused Wollstonecraft to be considered the mother of modern feminism.

This was the first major literary assertion of women's rights, and started the ball rolling on every major breakthrough to follow. Her strong, passionate, and intelligent arguments would insure that the women's rights movement would survive for decades to come.

As a bit of trivia, this is also the author whom horror writer Mary Shelly (author of Frankenstein) was named after.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Thought by many to be the single most influential American work of the 20th century.

#3 "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair

This famous/infamous novel was meant to be about not only the meat packing plant, but also about the terrible conditions of poverty that immigrants and low wage workers dealt with in the cities.

This novel shocked the nation, and the understanding that humans who fell in the vat simply ended up in hot dogs . . . well apparently that's more important than poverty. Nonetheless, this caused several acts to be passed by Congress in dealing with both employment laws and with meat packing and food and safety standards.

Many of these laws are still in effect even today, and you can be assured of the safety of your meat because of this book.

Ironically, Upton Sinclair was actually rather disappointed in how the book was perceived. He noted that it seemed a strange moral attitude where a poor immigrant falling to his death and being ground into meat did not galvanize the public at all...until they found out the meat wasn't thrown out and so their hot dogs could contain human meat.

This book remains Upton Sinclair's most widely known and influential classic novel.

Upton Sinclair on eBay

Sometimes you can even find some pretty decent first editions on here.

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Despite the derogatory term that "Uncle Tom" now means, this book was ground breaking and in many ways is credited with helping to force the Civil War

#2 "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe

This was almost number one, but even at #2, no one can argue that this was one of the most influential books in American history. Not only was this the first book to sell a million copies, it inflamed the issue of slavery to the point where there was no way to ignore it any longer.

When author Harriet Beecher Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln was quoted as saying: "So you're the little woman who started this great war." Whether the quote is true or not, it shows the effect she had on society, and this book changed history.

Common Sense by Thomas Paine

Without Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," there is possibly no United States of America

#1 "Common Sense" by Thomas Paine

It's almost impossible to argue with this one at the top. The fiery yet intelligent public indictment of monarchy and demanding freedom may have been the single biggest fuse that lead to wide spread support of the Revolutionary War.

Many historians think of Paine's book as the ember that sparked the blaze. Over 100,000 copies were solid in the first few months, and before "Common Sense" became widely read, most colonists didn't give a crap about breaking away from Great Britain, so the book that helped create America is the one that gets the number one spot.

Various Book Lenses and Other Links

Want to find more book lenses on Squidoo, here you go!

Which of These Influential Books Do You Want on Top?

These are not only some of the top ten books here still in print, but also many of the runner ups.

Silent Spring
Silent Spring

Silent Spring, released in 1962, offered the first shattering look at widespread ecological degradation and touched off an environmental awareness that still exists. Rachel Carson's book focused on the poisons from insecticides, weed killers, and other common products as well as the use of sprays in agriculture, a practice that led to dangerous chemicals to the food source. Carson argued that those chemicals were more dangerous than radiation and that for the first time in history, humans were exposed to chemicals that stayed in their systems from birth to death. Presented with thorough documentation, the book opened more than a few eyes about the dangers of the modern world and stands today as a landmark work.

 
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Penguin Classics)
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Penguin Classics)

Writing in an age when the call for the rights of man had brought revolution to America and France, Mary Wollstonecraft produced her own declaration of female independence in 1792. Passionate and forthright, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman attacked the prevailing view of docile, decorative femininity and instead laid out the principles of emancipation: an equal education for girls and boys, an end to prejudice, and the call for women to become defined by their profession, not their partner. Mary WollstonecraftÂs work was received with a mixture of admiration and outrageÂWalpole called her Âa hyena in petticoatsÂÂyet it established her as the mother of modern feminism.

 
Uncle Tom's Cabin (Wordsworth Classics)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (Wordsworth Classics)

Edited and with an Introduction and Notes by Dr Keith Carabine. University of Kent at Canterbury. Uncle Tom's Cabin is the most popular, influential and controversial book written by an American. Stowe s rich, panoramic novel passionately dramatises why the whole of America is implicated in and responsible for the sin of slavery, and resoundingly concludes that only 'repentance, justice and mercy' will prevent the onset of 'the wrath of Almighty God!'.

 
The Jungle (Enriched Classics)
The Jungle (Enriched Classics)

ENDURING LITERATURE ILLUMINATEDBY PRACTICAL SCHOLARSHIPUpton Sinclair's unflinching chronicle of crushing poverty and oppression set in Chicago in the early 1900s.EACH ENRICHED CLASSIC EDITION INCLUDES: A concise introduction that gives readers important background information A chronology of the author's life and work A timeline of significant events that provides the book's historical context An outline of key themes and plot points to help readers form their own interpretations Detailed explanatory notes Critical analysis, including contemporary and modern perspectives on the work Discussion questions to promote lively classroom and book group interaction A list of recommended related books and films to broaden the reader's experienceEnriched Classics offer readers affordable editions of great works of literature enhanced by helpful notes and insightful commentary. The scholarship provided in Enriched Classics enables readers to appreciate, understand, and enjoy the world's finest books to their full potential.SERIES EDITED BY CYNTHIA BRANTLEY JOHNSON

 
Native Son (Perennial Classics)
Native Son (Perennial Classics)

Bigger Thomas is doomed, trapped in a downward spiral that will lead to arrest, prison, or death, driven by despair, frustration, poverty, and incomprehension. As a young black man in the Chicago of the '30s, he has no way out of the walls of poverty and racism that surround him, and after he murders a young white woman in a moment of panic, these walls begin to close in. There is no help for him--not from his hapless family; not from liberal do-gooders or from his well-meaning yet naive friend Jan; certainly not from the police, prosecutors, or judges. Bigger is debased, aggressive, dangerous, and a violent criminal. As such, he has no claim upon our compassion or sympathy. And yet... A more compelling story than Native Son has not been written in the 20th century by an American writer. That is not to say that Richard Wright created a novel free of flaws, but that he wrote the first novel that successfully told the most painful and unvarnished truth about American social and class relations. As Irving Howe asserted in 1963, "The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. It made impossible a repetition of the old lies [and] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture." Other books had focused on the experience of growing up black in America--including Wright's own highly successful Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of five stories that focused on the victimization of blacks who transgressed the code of racial segregation. But they suffered from what he saw as a kind of lyrical idealism, setting up sympathetic black characters in oppressive situations and evoking the reader's pity. In Native Son, Wright was aiming at something more. In Bigger, he created a character so damaged by racism and poverty, with dreams so perverted, and with human sensibilities so eroded, that he has no claim on the reader's compassion: "I didn't want to kill," Bigger shouted. "But what I killed for, I am! It must've been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder.... What I killed for must've been good!" Bigger's voice was full of frenzied anguish. "It must have been good! When a man kills, it's for something... I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em. It's the truth..." Wright's genius was that, in preventing us from feeling pity for Bigger, he forced us to confront the hopelessness, misery, and injustice of the society that gave birth to him. --Andrew Himes

 
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Born into a family of slaves, Frederick Douglass educated himself through sheer determination. His unconquered will to triumph over his circumstances makes his one of America's best and most unlikely success stories. Douglass' own account of his journey from slave to one of America's great statesmen, writers, and orators is as fascinating as it is inspiring. This Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Edition includes a glossary and reader's notes to help the modern reader contend with Douglass' nineteenth-century style and vocabulary.

 
The Grapes of Wrath (Centennial Edition)
The Grapes of Wrath (Centennial Edition)

When The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, America, still recovering from the Great Depression, came face to face with itself in a startling, lyrical way. John Steinbeck gathered the country's recent shames and devastations--the Hoovervilles, the desperate, dirty children, the dissolution of kin, the oppressive labor conditions--in the Joad family. Then he set them down on a westward-running road, local dialect and all, for the world to acknowledge. For this marvel of observation and perception, he won the Pulitzer in 1940. The prize must have come, at least in part, because alongside the poverty and dispossession, Steinbeck chronicled the Joads' refusal, even inability, to let go of their faltering but unmistakable hold on human dignity. Witnessing their degeneration from Oklahoma farmers to a diminished band of migrant workers is nothing short of crushing. The Joads lose family members to death and cowardice as they go, and are challenged by everything from weather to the authorities to the California locals themselves. As Tom Joad puts it: "They're a-workin' away at our spirits. They're a tryin' to make us cringe an' crawl like a whipped bitch. They tryin' to break us. Why, Jesus Christ, Ma, they comes a time when the on'y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin' a sock at a cop. They're workin' on our decency." The point, though, is that decency remains intact, if somewhat battle-scarred, and this, as much as the depression and the plight of the "Okies," is a part of American history. When the California of their dreams proves to be less than edenic, Ma tells Tom: "You got to have patience. Why, Tom--us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people--we go on." It's almost as if she's talking about the very novel she inhabits, for Steinbeck's characters, more than most literary creations, do go on. They continue, now as much as ever, to illuminate and humanize an era for generations of readers who, thankfully, have no experiential point of reference for understanding the depression. The book's final, haunting image of Rose of Sharon--Rosasharn, as they call her--the eldest Joad daughter, forcing the milk intended for her stillborn baby onto a starving stranger, is a lesson on the grandest scale. "'You got to,'" she says, simply. And so do we all. --Melanie Rehak

 
Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition (Penguin Classics)
Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition (Penguin Classics)

1897. Volume One of Three. Whitman is considered by many to be the greatest of all American poets. In his work, he celebrates the freedom and dignity of the individual and sings the praises of democracy and the brotherhood of man. Leaves of Grass is unconventional in both content and technique and is probably the most influential volume of poems in the history of American literature. Other volumes in this set are ISBN(s): 141917665X, 1419176668.

 
King Coal
King Coal

Upton Sinclair is best known for writing The Jungle -- a novel that exposes the practices of the meat packing industry that lead to governmental investigations and changed food laws in America. King Coal is based on the 1914 and 1915 coal strikes and follows Hal Warner, a rich man who wanted a look into commoners' lives. What he found there was abhorrent -- thus begins the tale of unionization and the advocacy workers' rights. Unionization, however, is easier spoken of than it is accomplished. It was a dangerous task -- for the leaders of the coal mines were hardened men, men who would not stop at petty threats and minor violence.

 
Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit
Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit

Re-released on the heels of Al Gores #1 New York Times bestseller, An Inconvenient Truth, comes the paperback edition of his classic bestseller, Earth in the Balance. First published in 1992, it helped place the environment on the national agenda; now, as environmental issues move front-and-center in the public consciousness, the time is right to reflect deeply on the fate of our planet and commit ourselves to its future. While An Inconvenient Truth closely examines one menace to our environmentglobal warmingEarth in the Balance takes a broader approach, focusing on the threats that everyday choices pose to our climate, water, soil, and diversity of plant and animal life. A passionate, lifelong defender of the environment, Gore describesin brave and unforgettable termshow human actions and decisions can endanger or safeguard the vulnerable ecosystem that sustains us.

 
In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood

"Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans--in fact, few Kansans--had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there." If all Truman Capote did was invent a new genre--journalism written with the language and structure of literature--this "nonfiction novel" about the brutal slaying of the Clutter family by two would-be robbers would be remembered as a trail-blazing experiment that has influenced countless writers. But Capote achieved more than that. He wrote a true masterpiece of creative nonfiction. The images of this tale continue to resonate in our minds: 16-year-old Nancy Clutter teaching a friend how to bake a cherry pie, Dick Hickock's black '49 Chevrolet sedan, Perry Smith's Gibson guitar and his dreams of gold in a tropical paradise--the blood on the walls and the final "thud-snap" of the rope-broken necks.

 
To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird

"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.... When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out." Set in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus--three years punctuated by the arrest and eventual trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Though her story explores big themes, Harper Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a child. The result is a tough and tender novel of race, class, justice, and the pain of growing up. Like the slow-moving occupants of her fictional town, Lee takes her time getting to the heart of her tale; we first meet the Finches the summer before Scout's first year at school. She, her brother, and Dill Harris, a boy who spends the summers with his aunt in Maycomb, while away the hours reenacting scenes from Dracula and plotting ways to get a peek at the town bogeyman, Boo Radley. At first the circumstances surrounding the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a drunk and violent white farmer, barely penetrate the children's consciousness. Then Atticus is called on to defend the accused, Tom Robinson, and soon Scout and Jem find themselves caught up in events beyond their understanding. During the trial, the town exhibits its ugly side, but Lee offers plenty of counterbalance as well--in the struggle of an elderly woman to overcome her morphine habit before she dies; in the heroism of Atticus Finch, standing up for what he knows is right; and finally in Scout's hard-won understanding that most people are essentially kind "when you really see them." By turns funny, wise, and heartbreaking, To Kill a Mockingbird is one classic that continues to speak to new generations, and deserves to be reread often. --Alix Wilber

 

Other Book Links

If you love collecting antique books, take a look at this page about how to become a book hound, or if you want to make history yourself, take a look at this fantastic blog about how to become a successful writer.

These are the non religious books that I believe changed or affected American society the most. Which books would you have on here? What do you think of the lens? Thanks for stopping by!

So What's the Verdict?

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    • TeacherSerenia profile image

      TeacherSerenia 6 years ago

      I am the angel of Non Fiction Books, and while this lens is NOT categorized in the Books topic (which it should be) nevertheless I am still blessing it. This is an excellent lens and I very pleased to see that my hero, Thomas Paine, is still at the top!!! Well done!!

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      NC Shepherd 7 years ago

      Yea! More books to add to my reading lists. Thanks!

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      kimmanleyort 8 years ago

      Very interesting collection!

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      poutine 8 years ago

      Common Sense is definitively #1

    • profile image

      artfuldodger 8 years ago

      yay monteath! another stellar lens. love your stuff, brah!

    • Barkely profile image

      Barkely 9 years ago

      I'm a total bookworm, and I love your list. I've read many of the books on your list. I may have to check out some of the others. Thanks for adding this lens to the Top 10 List Group.