12 books that forever transformed America as we know it

Simon and SchusterThe cover of ‘How the Other Half Lives’ by Jacob Riis.

There are some books that are just good reads, and then there are others that fundamentally change the course of American history.

Business Insider compiled a list of books – including novels, memoirs, nonfiction works, and photography collections – that led to policy changes or a larger awareness of political issues.

Here are a few literary works (organised by publication year) that moved the needle in powerful ways:

“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass (1845)


One of the most famous autobiographies by a former slave, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” documents Douglass’ fight for his freedom and horrific abuse by slave-owners.

The book was not only important to the abolitionist movement in the US, but also in the Uk and Ireland, where Douglass delivered lectures and met with key anti-slavery figures.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)


An anti-slavery novel by author Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” tells the story of a slave in the 19th century who saves the life of a white woman named Eva. Her father purchases Tom, and from there, the novel depicts the brutal realities of slavery.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is widely credited with laying the groundwork for the American Civil War. At the same time, it contributed to the proliferation of harmful African-American stereotypes.

“How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis (1890)

Simon and Schuster

In the late 19th century, photographer Jacob Riis documented New Yorkers who lived in slums and squalid tenement buildings in “How the Other Half Lives.” With his photos, he compiled graphic descriptions, sketches, statistics, that illustrated how low-income residents get by.

The photo collection inspired several reforms that improved conditions for the working poor, including the New York Tenement House Act and other legislation that set safety standards. It also served as a basis for future “muckraking” journalism.

“The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair (1906)


“The Jungle” details the harrowing conditions of Chicago factory life near the turn of the 20th century. These included the horrors of the slaughterhouse, and the poverty and despair that the workers faced on a daily basis.

Upton Sinclair, an American journalist, primarily wrote this novel to promote socialist ideals, but he also exposed government and business corruption, and galvanised public opinion in the process.

Most notably, “The Jungle” led to the Pure Food and Drug Act as well as the Meat Inspection Act – which still regulate food production today – the year it was published.

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck (1939)


Winning both a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this novel follows the Joads, a poor family of farmers forced to leave their Oklahoma home during the 1930s Dust Bowl. They face challenges including drought, financial issues, hunger, exploitation, and agricultural industry shifts.

Steinbeck has said “The Grapes of Wrath” aims to criticise those who have abused power over workers for profit, like banks and businesses. (The author was unapologetic about his socialist views.)

While the work is regarded as a “Great American Novel” today, it was controversial at the time of publication. After reading the book, then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt called for congressional hearings that resulted in reform to labour laws at migrant camps.

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs (1961)


Written by journalist and activist Jane Jacobs, this nonfiction book critiques 1950s-era urban planning policy, which contributed to poverty, inequality, and health concerns in many urban neighbourhoods in the US. Jacobs emphasised the importance of footpaths, diversity, parks, public squares, and prioritising pedestrians over cars in street design.

The book, along with Jacobs’ other works of activism, generated many modern ideas about what a thriving American city should look like.

“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson (1962)


This environmental-science book details the harmful effects of pesticides on the health of humans and the planet. In it, marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson writes that the chemical industry has spread false claims and that public officials have accepted them without question.

“Silent Spring” helped launch the modern environmental movement, and spurred changes in laws affecting our air, land, and water.

“Unsafe at Any Speed” by Ralph Nader (1965)


In this nonfiction bestseller, activist and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader accused car manufacturers of not putting enough safety features in their vehicles and risking the lives of the American public.

Less than a year after “Unsafe at Any Speed” was published, Congress created the federal safety agency that became the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has the mission of preventing injuries and reducing crashing

The book also prompted the passage of seat-belt laws in 49 states (all but New Hampshire) and the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the nation’s first big car-safety legislation.

“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown (1970)


This nonfiction work chronicles the history of Native Americans in the American West in the late 19th century. Writer Dee Brown details the forced relocations and killings of Native Americans, as well as the years of warfare sparked by the US federal government.

As The New York Times notes, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” revised non-Native ideals of the West, and helped lay the foundation for the Native rights movement.

“Our Bodies, Ourselves” by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (1971)


In the late 1960s, dozen of feminists in Boston collaborated on this groundbreaking publication, which presented accurate information on women’s health and sexuality based on their own experiences. The women, ranging in age from 23 to 39, sought to change and improve the medical care that women receive.

“Our Body, Ourselves,” which cost 40 cents at the time, put women’s health in a new political spotlight and served as an important work for the feminist movement.

“All the President’s Men” by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (1974)


In 1974, Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward blew open the Watergate Scandal, revealing that Republican President Richard Nixon worked with former FBI and CIA agents who broke into Democratic Party offices.

Soon after, Bernstein and Woodward published “All the President’s Men,” which offers detailed accounts of secret meetings with their informant Deep Throat, whose identity was later revealed as former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt.

“All the President’s Men” and The Washington Post’s journalism served as the catalyst for Nixon’s resignation in the months following their following the book’s and paper’s publication.

“Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg (1993)


Activist Leslie Feinberg’s novel follows the story of Jess Goldberg, a working-class butch lesbian who comes of age in the 1950s Buffalo, New York lesbian-bar scene. Goldberg, who eventually moves to New York City, decides to transition from female to male. After living life as a man for years, she then returns to life as a masculine-presenting lesbian and begins to grapple with her butch and trans identity.

Highlighting the complexities of gender, “Stone Butch Blues” is beloved by the LGBT community – and brought queer issues to a more mainstream audience.

Know a book that should be included in this list? Email the author at [email protected]

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