The Books That Shaped America

Recently, the Library of Congress (LOC) featured an exhibit titled “The Books That Shaped America” featuring 88 books written by American authors, from 1751 and 2002, that influenced the lives of Americans and their nation. According to the curators at the LOC: “The Books That Shaped America exhibition marks a starting point—a way to spark a national conversation on books and their importance in Americans’ lives, and, indeed, in shaping our nation. The titles featured here (by American authors) have had a profound effect on American life, but they are by no means the only influential ones. And they are certainly not a list of the “best” American books, because that, again, is a matter of strong and diverse opinion… Some of the titles on display have been the source of great controversy, even derision, yet they nevertheless shaped Americans’ views of their world and often the world’s view of the United States.” In short, these books are quintessentially “American” reflecting a unique perspective from the individuals living in a new nation, so full of hope and promise.

The collection is comprehensive and eclectic, including books on history, science, geography, politics, medicine, and sociology. The collection even includes 11 notable children’s books. The fact that most of these books are found on the reading lists of American schools and colleges suggests that these books not only influenced the readers of their time, but continue to speak to and influence new generations. As Italo Calvino once wrote: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” Just like these books did when they were originally published, they continue to encourage discussion and critical analytical thinking.

Some of the more notable literary books from the exhibition (according to the time periods developed by the curators) include:

1750 to 1800
Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)

1800 to 1850
Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820)

1850 to 1900
Nathanial Hawthorne, The Scarlett Letter (1850)
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868)
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

1900 to 1950
Jack London, Call of the Wild (1903)
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)
Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

1950 to 2000
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1966)
Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

Read related posts:
Why Read Moby Dick?
The Great Gatsby Coda
Great Literature Speaks

For further reading: