Books That Have Shaped America

Stanford Kay, “Books”

Today I post on a couple of interesting items that Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish recently alerted me to. One is a new book that looks at the role that the novel played in shaping the Democratic Party in post World War II America. The other is a list by the Library of Congress of 91 books that shaped America in general, from the beginning through the 20th century.

I’ll need to read Michael Szalay’s Hip Figures to understand better how he sees the novel operating in contemporary politics, but here’s a description of the book in an Evan Kindley Bookforum review:

Michael Szalay’s fascinating new book, Hip Figures, reminds us of a time, not long ago, when literary intellectuals set great store by mainstream political parties, and vice versa. Szalay’s book focuses on the postwar era—a high-water mark, he contends, for the mutual influence of mainstream politics and American fiction. “In the decades following the Second World War,” he writes, “during the heyday of the American novel’s prestige, when it was unclear to the Democrats how they should understand the base of their power or the nature of their interests, it seemed plausible to . . . novelists that they might change the party in significant ways.”

Evidently, it seemed plausible to the Democrats, too. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations, in particular, flattered and cultivated writers; Gore Vidal stated that 1960 was the year when “politics and literature officially joined forces.” William Styron went sailing with JFK and regaled the president with tidbits from his research for The Confessions of Nat Turner. Even writers who weren’t hobnobbing with the political elite felt strongly about their party’s candidates: Ralph Ellison called Johnson “the greatest American President for the poor and for Negroes” and loved his “unreconstructed Texas accent”; and a young Joan Didion “voted, ardently, for Barry Goldwater” and commented decades later, “Had Goldwater remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election thereafter.”

And now, here are the fiction, poetry and drama that appear in the Library of Congress’s 91 books. I’ve omitted creative non-fiction so Thoreau’s Walden and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time are not included. (I myself would have chosen Baldwin’s collection of short stories Going to Meet the Man.)

The list gets very lean towards the end and every reader is going to have arguments about what gets included and what gets left out. That’s the fun of such lists. I, for instance, would have added James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, short stories by Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, John Updike’s Rabbit Run, Imamu Baraka’s Dutchman, something by Philip Roth (maybe The Human Stain), Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Women Warrior, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and probably some others. For Alcott I’d choose Little Women instead of Mysterious Key, for Hammett The Maltese Falcon instead of Red Harvest. Anyway, here we go:

Washington Irving, Legend of Sleep Hollow
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Louisa May Alcott, The Mysterious Key
Horatio Alger, Jr., Mark, the Match Boy
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Emily Dickinson, Poems
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
L, Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz\
Jack London, the Call of the Wild
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes
William Carlos Williams, Spring and All
Robert Frost, New Hampshire
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Thornton Wilder, Our Town
John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
Richard Wright, Native Son
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Gwendolyn Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville
Eugene O’Neill, The Iceman Cometh
Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon
Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Allen Ginsburg, Howl
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Joseph Heller, Catch 22
Robert Heinlein, A Stranger in a Strange Land
Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day
Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
Toni Morrison, Beloved

As I say, send in your own. 

A note on the artist: Stanford Kay’s painting can be found at


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!