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Books that Changed America: Scholars explore seven seminal works that shaped our nation's history

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Have you ever stayed up all night reading a book you just couldn’t put down? Felt unreasonably annoyed when a well-meaning friend interrupts your reading time? Found that a book that you’ve read changed your mind and challenged you to change the world you live in?

If this sounds familiar, Dr. Michael Winship, the Iris Howard Regents Professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, says you’re not alone. Books always have captured the imagination of readers, inspired reforms and revolutions, changed hearts and minds and altered people’s lives. Nearly 600 years after the invention of printing from moveable type, books continue to stir passions and incite controversy.

Michael Winship
Dr. Michael Winship, professor of English, introduces students to the practice of printing from type with an R. Hoe & Co. Washington handpress manufactured in the 1870s. The handpress is housed in a printing laboratory in Calhoun Hall. Photo: Eric Beggs.

A bibliographer and book historian, Winship can’t remember a time when he wasn’t surrounded by books. As an undergraduate at Harvard College, Winship repaired rare books in the special collections library. After graduation in the early 1970s, he continued to work as a bookbinder before discovering he was more interested in the contents of books than their construction.

Today, Winship researches publishing and the book trade in America and teaches courses on “The American Bestseller.” He recently edited the third volume of “A History of the Book in America” (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) series, titled “The Industrial Book, 1840-1880,” which focuses on a period that dramatically changed the publishing industry and how Americans read books.

“Before the 1830s, book-making was a craft, but during the mid 19th century book production moved into factories. The speed at which books could be produced greatly increased, making them more accessible to the public,” Winship says. “The concept of the bestseller also emerged during this time, and bestseller lists were first published following the establishment of an international copyright law in 1891.”

Literacy increased during the industrial era, and the reasons why people read also shifted.

“During the colonial period, people read as a matter of religious importance. It was a spiritual requirement to be able to read the Bible,” Winship says. “That didn’t go away in the industrial era, but people began to realize they needed to learn to read to become an active citizen and participate in the workforce. There was a sense that you had a civic duty to read, to keep up with the news, to vote and to perform your role in society.”

However, in today’s electronic era, critics worry that modern citizens are more likely to tune in to or check out their favorite blog before picking up a book.

Recent studies have reported the decline of reading in American culture. According to a summer Associated Press-Ipsos poll, one in four Americans read zero books last year. In 2004, a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report, “Reading at Risk,” found that only 57 percent of American adults had read a book in 2002, a drop of four percentage points in a decade. The NEA’s 2007 report, “To Read or Not to Read,” echoes the findings of the 2004 study and found that Americans of every age are reading less.

Winship isn’t concerned by the dire predictions.

“Critics have worried about how little people read and what people read for years,” he says. “When the bicycle was invented, naysayers warned they would keep people from reading. Then it was movies, radio and television, and now the Internet. But the reality is that more books are being published and sold every year. I have no doubt that this trend will continue.”

Books have a symbolic value that is growing, especially now that we do more and more communicating over electronic media. Dr. Michael WinshipBooks still play an important role in our culture, Winship argues, citing the power of recent bestsellers such as “The Da Vinci Code” and the Harry Potter series to create cultural phenomena. But more important, books have an intrinsic value that’s impossible to quantify.

“Our attachment to books is very emotional and personal,” Winship says. “For example, if I walked out on the South Mall of the campus with a stack of books and started a bonfire, people would get pretty upset. But, if I were to take my computer out there with a sledgehammer, I’d probably get cheers. Books have a symbolic value that is growing, especially now that we do more and more communicating over electronic media.”

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.

Winship invites you to take a journey through U.S. history with seven bestselling books that changed American hearts and minds and continue to address issues of relevance today. To limit the scope of the selection, Winship has chosen books by American authors published between 1776 and 1976.

“These books were consciously written to expose a problem, challenge the status quo, and issue a rallying cry for change,” Winship explains. “In each of these cases, the American people heard the call and took action that changed the course of our nation’s history.”

Common Sense
By Thomas Paine
'The Spirit of '76' painting
“The Spirit of ’76,” by A.M. Willard, 1875. One of the most famous images symbolizing the spirit of the American Revolutionary War.

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
By Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay
Newspaper advertisement for 'The Federalist'
Newspaper advertisement for “The Federalist.” Courtesy Project Gutenberg.

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
By Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, 1879. Photo: George K. Warren. National Archives.

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
By Harriet Beecher Stowe
'Uncle Tom's Cabin' paperback cover
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” paperback cover, “Edition for the Million.” Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1853. Barrett Collection, Univ. of Virginia.

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, Winship says.

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
By Upton Sinclair
'The Jungle,' first edition cover
“The Jungle,” first edition cover. New York: Doubleday, 1906.

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, interim director of Plan II 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
By Rachel Carson
'Silent Spring,' first edition cover
“Silent Spring,” first edition cover. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

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
By Betty Friedan
'The Feminine Mystique,' original paperback cover
“The Feminine Mystique,” original paperback cover. New York: Dell Publishing, 1964.

“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 and director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.

“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.”

Rejection Letters on Display

For every author, rejection letters are a rite of passage. Some choose to display them ironically on bathroom walls. Others view personalized rejection letters as a mark of relative achievement, reasoning that damned with faint praise is better than no response at all.

RejectedBut writers can take heart that many books now considered timeless literary classics, such as “The Jungle,” were first rejected by publishers. One reader for Macmillan described Sinclair’s tome, which includes graphic depiction of workers falling into vats of cooking meat, as “gloom and horror unrelieved.”

“Nothing embarrasses a publisher more than public knowledge that a literary classic or a mega bestseller has somehow slipped away,” David Oshinsky, Pulitzer Prize winner and holder of the Jack S. Blanton Chair in History, says.

In a Sept. 9 story in The New York Times, “No Thanks, Mr. Nabokov,” Oshinksy rhapsodized about the rejection files of the Alfred A. Knopf archive at the Harry Ransom Center, “a place where whopping editorial blunders are mercifully entombed.”

The letters, sent out during the 1940s to ’70s, reveal the aesthetic, financial and cultural reasons why the Knopf publishing house rejected submissions and occasionally dismissed works that went on to become bestsellers.

One reader’s report describes “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank as “very dull,” while Sylvia Plath’s manuscript is rejected with the pronouncement, “there certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”

Rejection letters from the Knopf archive are available for viewing in the Harry Ransom Center Reading Room.

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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