Books That Shaped America


I like lists, so here is the 2012 Library of Congress list of 88 Books that Shaped America. It’s not supposed to be the best books, but the most influential, with lots of non-literary works. Despite obvious biases like blacks being vastly better represented than in reality, it’s not a bad list.

A few comments:

– Benjamin Franklin wrote 3 of the 88 books. The only other author with more than one book on the list is Harriet Beecher Stowe with 1.5.

– You can see the role of identity politics taking over as the list gets closer to the present. The last book on the list, one I had never heard of existing before now, was no doubt thrown on in panic when the list-makers realized they hadn’t checked a certain demographically sizable (but culturally insignificant) box.

– One striking thing is the lack of influence of Catholic writers until fairly recently. I can’t identify any ethnically Catholic writers on the list before Margaret Sanger in 1914 for Family Limitation. F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, 1925) is the first literary writer of Catholic background. Dashiell Hammett (the insanely violent Red Harvest, 1929) was from an old Maryland Catholic family on his mother’s side. Eugene O’Neill is on the list for The Iceman Cometh, 1946. (I’m not sure what the ethnic background was of Betty Smith, whose 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a huge bestseller.)

This is in contrast to England, where Catholic writers, such as Alexander Pope, pop up even during eras of oppression. And America mostly lacks a literary tradition of converts to Catholicism, like Newman, Hopkins, Chesterton, Waugh, and Greene in England.

– Jewish writers were not major literary figures until roughly after WWII, although Jews did very well in more commercial writing before then. Could it be that the first Jewish writer on this list is folklorist Benjamin Botkin for his 1944 Treasury of American Folklore? Next would be the half-Jewish J.D. Salinger with Catcher in the Rye, 1951.

– Overall, the weight of Protestants on American culture is pretty overwhelming until the mid-20th Century. So, you can see why there is such a strong urge to retcon American history with heapings of Ellis Island Nation of Immigrants schmaltz to inflate the reputations of the ancestors of today’s top dogs.

  • Benjamin Franklin, “Experiments and Observations on Electricity” (1751)
  • Benjamin Franklin, “Poor Richard Improved” (1758) and “The Way to Wealth”
  • Thomas Paine, “Common Sense” (1776)
  • Noah Webster, “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language” (1783)
  • “The Federalist” (1787)
  • “A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible” (1788)
  • Christopher Colles, “A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America” (1789)
  • Benjamin Franklin, “The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D.” (1793)
  • Amelia Simmons, “American Cookery” (1796)
  • “New England Primer” (1803)
  • Meriwether Lewis, “History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark” (1814)
  • Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820)
  • William Holmes McGuffey, “McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic Primer” (1836)
  • Samuel Goodrich, “Peter Parley’s Universal History” (1837)
  • Frederick Douglass, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” (1845)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850)
  • Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick”; or, “The Whale” (1851)
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852)
  • Henry David Thoreau, “Walden;” or, “Life in the Woods” (1854)
  • Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass” (1855)
  • Horatio Alger Jr., “Mark, the Match Boy” (1869)
  • Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, “The American Woman’s Home” (1869)
  • Mark Twain, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884)
  • Emily Dickinson, “Poems” (1890)
  • Jacob Riis, “How the Other Half Lives” (1890)
  • Stephen Crane, “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895)
  • L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900)
  • Sarah H. Bradford, “Harriet [Tubman], the Moses of Her People” (1901)
  • Jack London, “The Call of the Wild” (1903)
  • W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903)
  • Ida Tarbell, “The History of Standard Oil” (1904)
  • Upton Sinclair, “The Jungle” (1906)
  • Henry Adams, “The Education of Henry Adams” (1907)
  • William James, “Pragmatism” (1907)
  • Zane Grey, “Riders of the Purple Sage” (1912)
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs, “Tarzan of the Apes” (1914)
  • Margaret Sanger, “Family Limitation” (1914)
  • William Carlos Williams, “Spring and All” (1923)
  • Robert Frost, “New Hampshire” (1923)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby” (1925)
  • Langston Hughes, “The Weary Blues” (1925)
  • William Faulkner, “The Sound and the Fury” (1929)
  • Dashiell Hammett, “Red Harvest” (1929)
  • Irma Rombauer, “Joy of Cooking” (1931)
  • Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind” (1936)
  • Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936)
  • Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)
  • Federal Writers’ Project, “Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures” (1937)
  • Thornton Wilder, “Our Town: A Play” (1938)
  • “Alcoholics Anonymous” (1939)
  • John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939)
  • Ernest Hemingway, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940)
  • Richard Wright, “Native Son” (1940)
  • Betty Smith, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1943)
  • Benjamin A. Botkin, “A Treasury of American Folklore” (1944)
  • Gwendolyn Brooks, “A Street in Bronzeville” (1945)
  • Eugene O’Neill, “The Iceman Cometh” (1946)
  • Margaret Wise Brown, “Goodnight Moon” (1947)
  • Tennessee Williams, “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947)
  • Alfred C. Kinsey, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (1948)
  • J.D. Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951)
  • Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man” (1952)
  • E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web” (1952)
  • Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451” (1953)
  • Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” (1956)
  • Ayn Rand, “Atlas Shrugged” (1957)
  • Dr. Seuss, “The Cat in the Hat” (1957)
  • Jack Kerouac, “On the Road” (1957)
  • Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960)
  • Joseph Heller, “Catch-22” (1961)
  • Robert A. Heinlein, “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961)
  • Ezra Jack Keats, “The Snowy Day” (1962)
  • Maurice Sendak, “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963)
  • James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” (1963)
  • Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique” (1963)
  • Malcolm X and Alex Haley, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965)
  • Ralph Nader, “Unsafe at Any Speed” (1965)
  • Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring” (1962)
  • Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood” (1966)
  • James D. Watson, “The Double Helix” (1968)
  • Dee Brown, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (1970)
  • Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (1971)
  • Carl Sagan, “Cosmos” (1980)
  • Toni Morrison, “Beloved” (1987)
  • Randy Shilts, “And the Band Played On” (1987)
  • César Chávez, “The Words of César Chávez” (2002)

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