Most Influential American Writers
This 1855 book of poetry ushered in the American equivalent of the Romantic Era of literature. Whitman’s brilliant work changed art, and changed what could be discussed in art with his bold and bawdy epic poem. This work was both subversive and celebratory, that opened the door for discussion of many issues, and also was the work that opened the beat movement that followed nearly a century later. [Read the full text online]9
Thomas Dixon Jr, 1905
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 (the Birth of a Nation) 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. Sad and sick, but influential all the same. [Read the full text online]8
The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck, 1939
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 Midwestern farmers who went into California looking for work, and ended up in slave conditions 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 this book, which remains a classic to this day.
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The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, 1845
The full title of this book is “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”. This autobiography of Frederick Douglass was printed in 1845 and 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. [Read the full text online]6
Rachel Carson, 1962
This simple yet powerful book caught the attention of millions and was the cry against the loss of our environmental treasures that finally forced Congress to listen and spawned the modern environmental movement. This book caused DDT to be made illegal, and helped save the Bald Eagle, among hundreds and hundreds of other animals.
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Richard Wright, 1940
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.4