Seven Books that Shaped America

Seven Books that Shaped America


In Jack Kelly’s latest book, Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal, he explores how the building of the Erie Canal helped to shape American history. New religions formed, the financial landscape of the country evolved, and the American people found themselves creatively inspired in ways they had never been before. Events aren’t the only things that have shaped this country though; books have played a vital role. Here, Kelly shares seven books, fiction and nonfiction, that proved the immense power of the written word to sway the course of history.

Can words on paper change America in an age of streaming video and Twitter? Books have always been the great incubators of ideas and visions. Events are the stuff of history, but the arguments, appeals, and stories found in great books have influenced actions and altered the direction of history. A short list of books that shaped America can only be suggestive, but it serves as a reminder of the power of ideas to influence lives and events. Here are seven books that mattered.

The King James Bible

“But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

The first widely read English translation of scripture helped motivate the religious dissidents who settled America. For generations, it was the only book most Americans possessed. They turned to it for prophecy, narrative, poetry, advice, and inspiration. It shaped their ethics and fueled their fears. Its archaic wording penetrated and shaped the American language. Our political rhetoric, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, has relied on the cadences and phrases of the King James Bible.

Common Sense

“For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others.”

Only 48 pages long, Thomas Paine’s argument for independence was published when the American Revolution hung in the balance. In January 1776, American patriots had gone to war with Britain, but they had not yet cut the tie that bound them to the mother country. Many citizens still hoped for reconciliation. Paine, an Englishman who had lived in America for barely a year, argued persuasively that kings had no divine right to rule and that the colonists should make a clean break. The idea spread like wildfire. Half a year later, Americans declared themselves free.

The Book of Mormon

“Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”

This remarkable volume, the 1830 product of an upstate New York farm laborer, is today read as scripture by 15 million believers around the world. The text, which Joseph Smith Jr. said he translated from golden plates found buried near his home, was uniquely American. It explained the peopling of the New World by a wandering tribe of Israelites and laid out the divine plan that would make America the home of the New Jerusalem. If nothing else, The Book of Mormon established its author as one of the most fertile minds of the 19th century.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

“[T]he heart has no tears to give,—it drops only blood, bleeding itself away in silence.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s dramatic 1852 depiction of slavery became the best-selling novel of the century. The book helped to solidify abolitionist ideas among northern readers and drove southerners to cling ever more tightly to their “peculiar institution” of bondage. This tale proved that a novel could could fortify a readers’ ideals and beliefs.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

Published in 1884 during the era of stilted Victorian language, Mark Twain’s story of boyhood was a masterpiece of the American vernacular. Twain showed readers the power and poetry of ordinary speech. His mixture of irony and humor, sharp dialogue and luminous description, became a template for generations of American authors. In a time when the country was descending into one of its darkest eras of race relations, Twain vividly depicted the humanity of a slave and exposed the absurdity of racial bigotry.

The Great Gatsby

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.”

Relentlessly taught in high schools and colleges because of its compact length and easy symbolism, Gatsby won a place as an archetype of the American novel. In his 1922 masterpiece, F. Scott Fitzgerald explored two themes that continue to course through American thinking almost a century later. The first is money, which the author depicts as an almost mystical concept that can penetrate even the most intimate of human relations. The other is nostalgia. Fitzgerald showed how Americans, those acolytes of the new, are perpetually in thrall to the past.

Silent Spring

“[I]n nature nothing exists alone.”

Rachel Carson’s cogently argued 1962 case against the indiscriminate use of pesticides changed the way Americans thought about their environment. They had previously seen nature as a resource to be endlessly exploited. Carson showed that it was a fragile web that could be ripped apart by human action. Bald eagles are becoming commonplace again because of Silent Spring. Carson’s book reached an enormous audience and proved that the power of informed public opinion could stand up to the sputtering opposition of corporations. It opened Americans’ eyes to nature in a way that prepared them for what may yet prove our most daunting challenge.

Jack Kelly is both a both a novelist and a writer of narrative history. His book Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence won the DAR History Medal. His new volume, Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal is a penetrating look at America’s greatest public works project and at the outburst of visionary energy that raged along its banks.


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