Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)
Published anonymously in Philadelphia in January 1776, Common Sense appeared at a time when both separation from Great Britain and reconciliation were being considered. Through simple rational arguments, Thomas Paine focused blame for colonial America’s troubles on the British king and pointed out the advantages of independence. With more than half a million copies in twenty-five editions appearing throughout the colonies within the first year, this popular pamphlet helped to turn the tide of sentiment toward revolution.
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The Federalist (1787)
Now considered to be the most significant American contribution to political thought, The Federalist essays supporting the ratification of the new Constitution first appeared in New York newspapers under the pseudonym “Publius.” Although it was widely known that the eighty-five essays were the work of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the initial curious speculation about authorship of specific essays gradually developed into heated controversy. Hamilton left an authorship list with his lawyer before his fatal duel. In his copy, Madison identified the author of each essay with their initials. Thomas Jefferson penned a similar authorship list in his copy. None of these attributions exactly match, and the authorship of several essays is still being debated by scholars.
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James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (1826)
Set during the French and Indian War, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is the second and most popular of the five novels in his Leatherstocking series. The main characters are Natty Bumppo, a courageous and heroic American raised in part by Native Americans, and his “brother” Chingachgook, a noble and wise Mohican whose son is killed in battle and is “the last of the Mohicans.” The novel is notable for its focus on race and the converging of interests in a multi-racial society.
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Joseph Smith, The Book of Mormon (1830)
Joseph Smith (1805–1844), founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, said that the angel Moroni (who was the last prophet to contribute to the Book of Mormon), returned to Earth in 1827 and revealed to him the location of ancient golden plates (in upstate New York) upon which the Book of Mormon was engraved in a variant of Egyptian. Smith said the angel told him to translate the plates into English. Mormons believe the plates contain the writings of prophets who lived from approximately 2200 BC to AD 421. In 1830, Smith published his text and founded his church. Since then, more than 150 million copies have been printed in more than 100 languages. Smith’s claims are not without critics.
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Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)
Along with Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the leading voices of the transcendentalist movement in America. Emerson’s essay Nature advocates for the self-fulfilling promise of nature and individualism over the demands of society and conformity. Like his friend Thoreau, Emerson believed that solitude was necessary to experience the full beauty of nature, saying “to go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society.” Emerson’s essay greatly influenced what is known today as the back-to-nature movement, and his ideas are very apparent in Thoreau’s most famous work, Walden. Throughout his career, Emerson wrote many poems as well as essays.
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Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851)
Herman Melville’s tale of the Great White Whale and the crazed Captain Ahab who declares he will chase him “round perdition’s flames before I give him up” has become an American myth. Even people who have never read Moby-Dick know the basic plot, and references to it are common in other works of American literature and in popular culture, such as in the film the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).
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Herman Melville (1819–1891). Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)
Herman Melville (1819–1891). Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Vol. 1. Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1930. General Collections, Library of Congress (006.01.00)
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Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
With the intention of awakening sympathy for oppressed slaves and encouraging Northerners to disobey the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing her vivid sketches of slave sufferings and family separations. The first version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared serially between June 1851 and April 1852 in the National Era, an antislavery paper published in Washington, D.C. The first book edition appeared in March 1852 and sold more than 300,000 copies in the first year. This best-selling novel of the nineteenth century was extremely influential in fueling antislavery sentiment during the decade preceding the Civil War.
In her copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Susan B. Anthony in 1903 acknowledges progress made in the last half-century, but regrets that blacks are still not treated fairly. Shown are the book plate and title page.
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Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)
While living in solitude in a cabin on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau wrote his most famous work, Walden, a paean to the idea that it is foolish to spend a lifetime seeking material wealth. In his words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau’s love of nature and his advocacy of a simple life have had a large influence on modern conservation and environmentalist movements.
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Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)
The publication of the first slim edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855 was the debut of a masterpiece that shifted the course of American literary history. Refreshing and bold in both theme and style, the book underwent many revisions during Whitman’s lifetime. For more than forty years Whitman produced multiple editions of Leaves of Grass, shaping the book into an ever-transforming kaleidoscope of poems. By his death in 1892, Leaves was a thick compendium that represented Whitman’s vision of America over nearly the entire last half of the nineteenth century. Among the collection’s best-known poems are “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Song of Myself,” and “O Captain! My Captain!,” a metaphorical tribute to the slain Abraham Lincoln.
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Louisa May Alcott, Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (1868)
This first edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was published in 1868 when Louisa was thirty-five-years old. The novel was based on her own experiences growing up as a young woman with three sisters, and illustrated by her youngest sister, May. The book was an instant success, selling more than 2,000 copies immediately. Several sequels were published, including Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Although Little Women is set in a very particular place and time in American history, the characters and their relationships have touched generations of readers and still are beloved.
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Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
Novelist Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. . . . All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” During their trip down the Mississippi on a raft, Twain depicts in a satirical and humorous way Huck and Jim’s encounters with hypocrisy, racism, violence, and other evils of American society. His use in serious literature of a lively, simple American language full of dialect and colloquial expressions paved the way for many later writers, including Hemingway and William Faulkner.
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Kate Chopin, The Awakening (1899)
When Kate Chopin penned her best-known work, The Awakening, “feminism” was not a commonly used word in the American lexicon. Edna is a Southern woman of the 1890s struggling between what society expects of her and what she herself wants for her life. Chopin tells her story in a naturalistic style that emphasizes inner feelings. This style is a precursor to the stream-of-consciousness technique employed in the great novels of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. It is not surprising that The Awakening met with harsh criticism when it was published in 1899. Its themes of infidelity and female sexuality pushed the boundaries of acceptability. From then on, Chopin never wrote another novel and faced much resistance to publishing any of her work.
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Kate Chopin (1850–1904). The Awakening. Chicago and New York: H. S. Stone & Company, 1899. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (012.00.00)
Kate Chopin (1850–1904). The Awakening. With an Introduction by Deborah L. Williams. New York: Washington Square Press/Pocket Books, 1998. Copyright Paperback Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (012.01.00)
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