Books that Changed America

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.

Last winter, College of Liberal Arts professors took readers on a literary journey through U.S. history in the feature “Books that Changed America.” The story profiled seven bestselling books that changed American hearts and minds.

Find out which books made the list after the jump. And, if you have some time during the holidays, leave a comment and tell us which books you would add to the list, and why.

The following list is excerpted from the feature story “Books that Changed America,” which appeared on the UT homepage Dec. 3, 2007.

Common Sense (1776)
By Thomas Paine

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 (1788)
By Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay

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 (1845)
By Frederick Douglass

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 (1852)
By Harriet Beecher Stowe

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, says Michael Winship, professor of English.

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 (1906)
By Upton Sinclair

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, director of Plan II Honors 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 (1962)
By Rachel Carson

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 (1963)
By Betty Friedan

“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.

“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.”

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ShelfLife@Texas will be on hiatus for winter break, but check back with us in January for more book news from The University of Texas at Austin.

Historian Unwraps Origins of Christmas Traditions

It’s Christmas in America. Time to deck the halls, trim the tree, hang the stockings and take the kids on an annual pilgrimage to see Santa Claus.

Most of us accept these traditions without a second thought, but each of these beloved, yet peculiar rituals are rooted in the past, and most have evolved over time.

From the early Pagan winter festivals to the birth of Santa Claus, Penne Restad, senior lecturer of history, chronicles the origins of America’s time-honored yuletide customs in “Christmas in America: A History” (Oxford University Press, 1995).

Christmas cards, candy canes, even Santa Claus seem to have been around forever, but according to Restad, many of these holiday traditions didn’t take shape until the 19th century. Drawing from hundreds of journal entries, newspaper articles and books, she reveals the rise and transformation of Christmas, from colonial times to present day.

Watch Restad discuss the evolution of Santa Claus in this History Channel video clip.

Watch Restad discuss the evolution of Santa Claus in this video clip from the History Channel.

In addition to a historical record of Christmas traditions, Restad offers insight into how modern-day Santa Claus characterizations, as well as Hollywood film depictions, influence a commercialized perception of the Christmas spirit.

Although it was published more than ten years ago, “Christmas in America” remains timely due to Restad’s incisive observations about our changing culture, through the lens of holiday pastimes.

What’s your favorite Christmas tradition?

Don Graham’s Irreverent Guide to Texas Movies

Since the advent of filmmaking, dozens of Hollywood heartthrobs have lined up to play cowboys in more than 600 films about or made in Texas.

Who can forget Paul Newman’s brash portrayal of a Texas cowboy in “Hud”? Or James Dean’s turn as ranch hand Jett Rink in “Giant”?

Texas looms larges in moviemakers’ imaginations writes English Professor Don Graham in the pocket-sized handbook “State Fare: An Irreverent Guide to Texas Movies” (TCU Press, 2008), but they don’t always get it right.

“For all of our urban skylines and high-tech yuppiedom, we can’t shake our movie-disseminated mythology as a state of cowboys, hicks, and small-town gaucheries,” Graham lamented in the Texas Monthly article “Unreality Bites.”

Graham is the author of numerous books and articles about Texas, including “Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas” (1983) and “Lone Star Literature: From the Red River to the Rio Grande” (2003).

In “State Fare,” the Texas literature specialist provides a brief overview of some of the best (and worst) Texas films, including “Red River,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Urban Cowboy,” and “The Alamo.”

From cattle drives to oil wells, lusty schoolmarms and desperados, Hollywood has captured Texas mythology in all of its many forms.

What are some of your favorite movies about Texas?

Sociologist Analyzes the Business of Toys

As millions of Americans brave shopping malls this holiday season, they will inevitably come across a migraine-inducing temper tantrum in the toy aisle, or perhaps a belligerent argument between a customer and a cashier.

Why are these scenarios ubiquitous in retail stores throughout America?

This is one of many questions about mall culture Christine Williams, professor of sociology, explores in “Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping and Social Inequality” (University of California Press, 2005), which reveals the unsavory realities of race, gender and class in a minimum-wage work environment.

During research leave from the university, Williams spent two six-month stints working as a cashier, stocker and sales associate at two big box toy stores: “The Diamond,” a unionized high-end shop full of brand-name children’s apparel and $100 stuffed animals; and “Toy Warehouse,” a discount outlet store located on the outskirts of town.

Despite the differences in clientele and atmosphere, the sociologist found disquieting similarities between the two stores: gender and racial profiling among supervisors, clerks and customers.

In one example, she describes how she was assigned to work as a cashier with all the other white and light-skinned females, while her African-American co-worker was confined to stockroom duties.

Through her fly-on-the-wall observations of the retail work environment, Williams examines how the political economy of shopping impacts American culture, and the ways consumption patterns contribute to the disintegration of workers rights.

Will our nation’s shopping culture ever change?

Alum’s Book Parodies Pregnancy Guide

In a spoof on the pregnancy self-help book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” Mary K. Moore (BJ ’96) spotlights the absurd moments of pregnancy and shakes the sugar-coating off symptoms.

Sure to brighten the day of any woman, “preggars” or not, Moore’s book delivers tongue-in-cheek advice on everything from how to know when baby prepping reaches a level of paranoia to picking a name to the do the dos and don’ts of “postpartum partying.”

A former New York editor for publications like Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, Moore admits she’s not a guru, doctor, or parenting expert but has fallen in love with being a mother to her 3-year-old daughter, Scarlett.

The sassy mother-daughter duo lives with husband/dad T.J. in Austin.

The Unexpected When You’re Expecting: A Parody” was published by Sourcebooks last September.

Reprinted with permission from the Nov./Dec. 2008 issue of The Alcalde. For further reading, check out the Austin American-Statesman’s Nov. 4 story about Moore’s work, “She’s expecting a book.”

Alum's Book Parodies Pregnancy Guide

In a spoof on the pregnancy self-help book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” Mary K. Moore (BJ ’96) spotlights the absurd moments of pregnancy and shakes the sugar-coating off symptoms.

Sure to brighten the day of any woman, “preggars” or not, Moore’s book delivers tongue-in-cheek advice on everything from how to know when baby prepping reaches a level of paranoia to picking a name to the do the dos and don’ts of “postpartum partying.”

A former New York editor for publications like Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, Moore admits she’s not a guru, doctor, or parenting expert but has fallen in love with being a mother to her 3-year-old daughter, Scarlett.

The sassy mother-daughter duo lives with husband/dad T.J. in Austin.

The Unexpected When You’re Expecting: A Parody” was published by Sourcebooks last September.

Reprinted with permission from the Nov./Dec. 2008 issue of The Alcalde. For further reading, check out the Austin American-Statesman’s Nov. 4 story about Moore’s work, “She’s expecting a book.”

Jazz Performance of "A Child's Christmas in Wales"

Enjoy an original jazz version of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas performed by Alex Coke, Suzy Stern, Buddy Mohmed and Rich Harney at 7 p.m., Dec. 10 at the Harry Ransom Center.

The project began two years ago at the Ransom Center as a live reading of Thomas’ beloved short story with music, and blossomed into a studio recording project.

This holiday season the Austin-based jazz quartet will again perform the piece, mixing original jazz compositions, improvisation and sound effects with the classic prose.

A CD recording of the piece will be available for purchase at the performance. Seating is free, but limited. Refreshments will be served.

Learn more about Dylan Thomas papers at the Ransom Center.

Happy 400th Birthday John Milton

John Milton (b. Dec. 9, 1608) ranks next to Shakespeare as one of the most influential poets of the English language. His literary achievement is remarkable considering Milton lost his eyesight in 1652 and was forced to dictate his work to scribes.

Milton’s best known works include the epic poem “Paradise Lost,” which tells the story of the fall of man, its sequel “Paradise Regained,” and “Areopagitica,” a treatise condemning censorship.

On the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth, English Professor John Rumrich, makes the obscure aspects of the poet’s writing accessible to modern readers in a new edited collection, “The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton” (Random House, 2007).

The volume includes expert commentary on Milton’s texts, notes identifying the old meanings and roots of English words, and illuminations of historical contexts and biblical allusions.

“The whole enterprise is meant to be reader-friendly, and it succeeds,” wrote John Gross in The Wall Street Journal’s review of the collection last spring, “Cosmic and Sublime.

Tales for Little Rebels

In this anthology of radical children’s literature, Julia Mickenberg, associate professor of American studies, and co-editor Philip Nel, collected 43 mostly out-of-print stories, poems, comic strips and primers, that embody the traditions of 20th-century leftists who encouraged kids to question authority.

The result, “Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature” (NYU Press, 2008) offers a portrait of many progressive concerns of the 20th century, including labor and civil rights, gender equality, and the environment, through the lens of children’s literature.

”A rarely discussed aspect of children’s literature—the politics behind, or part, of a book’s creation—has been thoroughly explored in this intelligent, enlightening, and fascinating account,” writes Anita Silvey, author of “100 Best Books for Children.”

Check out The Washington Post’s Nov. 4 review of “Tales for Little Rebels,” “Better Read than Red.

Mickenberg goes on the road in December to promote her book. She’ll be signing copies at Follett’s Intellectual Property in Austin at 6:30 p.m., Dec. 10.

For all you New York Texas Exes, NYU Press will celebrate “Tales for Little Rebels” with a book party at 6:30 p.m., Dec. 18 at NYU’s Tamiment Library. RSVP to Betsy Steve at betsy.steve@nyu.edu. Mickenberg also will appear at Bluestockings for a reading at noon, Dec. 20.

What’s on Your Nightstand, Tom Staley?

Thomas F. Staley leads the renowned Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also is a professor of English and holds the Harry Huntt Ransom Chair in Liberal Arts.

A scholar of modern literature, Staley has authored or edited 13 books on James Joyce, Italo Svevo, and several other modern British novelists.

ShelfLife recently caught up with the avid bibliophile to pick his brain for winter reading recommendations. Staley reads fiction widely as director of the Ransom Center, and his other favored genres include history and biography.

So, what’s on his nightstand this December? Keep reading to find out.

“Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry” (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) by Donald Hall, U.S. poet laureate.

“Hall is a great poet and I wanted to learn more about him, what shaped and formed him, his reading and his thinking—and I haven’t been disappointed,” Staley says. “The other good thing is it’s fairly short. So many books coming out these days are tomes.”

“A Most Wanted Man” (Scribner, 2008), the latest thriller by John le Carré.

The novelist is perhaps most famous for “The Constant Gardner” (Scribner, 2001), which was made into a feature film starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. “I’ve read nearly all of his books, and there are some good ones,” Staley says. “I just love his writing.”

“The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine” (Bloomsbury USA, 2005) by Paul Collins, which Publishers Weekly proclaimed “quixotic, mischievous and often hilarious.”

“I’ve always wanted to learn more about Paine and the Federalist papers,” Staley says. Paine is best known for the pamphlet “Common Sense,” which helped ignite the American Revolution.

Current issues of The Week and The New Yorker.

“The Week is a magazine I read religiously and it’s the best in the country,” Staley asserts. “It’s a digest of the whole week—politics, culture, national and international news. They also pick an author and ask him or her ‘what are your five favorite books?’ and I love reading that. And of course The New Yorker is essential.”

Stay tuned for future “What’s On Your Nightstand?” entries, a new monthly feature at ShelfLife@Texas.