L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, is the first fantasy written by an American to enjoy an immediate success upon publication. So powerful was its effect on the American imagination, so evocative its use of the forces of nature in its plots, so charming its invitation to children of all ages to look for the element of wonder in the world around them that author L. Frank Baum was forced by demand to create book after book about Dorothy and her friends—including the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and Glinda the Good Witch.
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Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)
An early example of investigative journalism, this graphic exposé of the Chicago meat-packing industry presented as a novel was one of the first works of fiction to lead directly to national legislation. The Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 established the agency that eventually became the Food and Drug Administration in 1930.
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Upton Sinclair (1878–1968). The Jungle. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1945. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (014.00.00)
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Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)
My Ántonia is the last novel of Willa Cather’s “prairie trilogy” (preceded by O Pioneers and The Song of the Lark). The book received high praise when it was first published, and it catapulted Cather into the pantheon of notable American writers. Finally, a writer had written about the American West as a desirable and interesting place to live. An aura of nostalgia is ever-present in the narrator Jim’s reflection on his childhood in Nebraska, which he has left behind for a career as a high-powered New York lawyer. Similarly, his friend Ántonia misses her native Bohemia. Ultimately, although the characters come to realize one can never return to the past, they likewise realize that it cannot be forgotten, and that it has an inexorable influence on the future.
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F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the major American writers of the twentieth century, is a figure whose life and works embody powerful myths about the American Dream of success. The Great Gatsby, considered by many to be Fitzgerald’s finest work and the book for which he is best known, is a portrait of the Jazz Age (1920s) in all its decadence and excess. Exploring the themes of class, wealth, and social status through the story of the self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby and the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, Fitzgerald takes a cynical look at the pursuit of wealth among a group of people for whom pleasure is the chief goal. Depicting some of Fitzgerald’s (and his country’s) most abiding obsessions—money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings—The Great Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned a permanent place in American mythology.
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F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940). The Great Gatsby. Armed Services Edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (016.00.00)
The Great Gatsby. Illustrated by Fred Meyer. New York: The Limited Editions Club, 1980. Limited Club Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (016.01.00)
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Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)
Many readers and critics consider Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, to be his best. Using the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona as a backdrop for his story, Hemingway focuses on American and British expatriates, who have recently arrived in Spain from Paris. While on the surface a love story, The Sun Also Rises is also a morality tale of World War I’s “Lost Generation.” Hemingway’s characters represent the lives of many people who came of age during the war and were left with a lack of purpose and meaning. As with many of Hemingway’s works, the novel was simultaneously praised and reviled. The Atlantic called the characters “amazingly real and alive.” His mother thought otherwise, saying in a letter: “Every page fills me with a sick loathing"
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Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods (1932)
The autobiographical first novel of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods, was an enormous success, and spawned a series of Little House novels. The series is based on Wilder’s experiences growing up in the early 1870s in western Wisconsin as part of a settler family. The books also inspired the long-running television series Little House on the Prairie (1974−1982). In Big Woods, Wilder relates tales from her early years, spending much time addressing the hard work required for survival in the wilderness. As Wilder matured, so did the themes of her later books. Nearly one hundred years after its publication, Big Woods is still taught in elementary schools.
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Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (1936)
The most popular romance novel of all time was the basis for the most popular movie of all time (if calculated in today’s dollars). Margaret Mitchell’s book set in the South during the Civil War won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and it remains popular, despite charges that its author had a blind eye regarding the horrors of slavery.
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Margaret Mitchell (1900–1949). Gone With the Wind. New York: Macmillan, 1936. Herman Finkelstein Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00)
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Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936)
The mother of all self-help books, Dale Carnegie’s volume has sold 15 million copies and been translated into more than thirty languages. How to Win Friends and Influence People has also spawned hundreds of other books, many of them imitators, written to advise on everything from improving one’s relationships to improving one’s bank account. Carnegie acknowledged that he was inspired by Benjamin Franklin, a young man who proclaimed that “God helps them that help themselves” as a way to get ahead in life.
Dale Carnegie (1888–1955). How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., and Pocket Books, Inc., 1940. Private Collection (025.00.00)
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John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (1937)
One of John Steinbeck’s most popular works, Of Mice and Men is a novella that reads like a play. That structure has resulted in many stage and screen adaptations of the book. Throughout Steinbeck’s body of work, empathy for the powerless in society—the poor, the uneducated, the victimized—is of uppermost importance. Of Mice and Men is no exception. Set during the Great Depression, it tells the story of two migrant workers and their plan to purchase land and how their dream fared against harsh realities. Although Steinbeck received a writer’s highest honor, the Nobel Prize, in 1962, his works have not fared well over the years, with many critics citing the flatness of his characters and the predictability of his plots.
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Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich (1937)
One of the early works in the genre of “self-improvement” books, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich was published during the Great Depression. The author himself most likely grew rich from the book, as it had sold more than 20 million copies when Hill died in 1970; since then it has sold at least another 50 million. According to Hill, “Whatever your mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” Hill certainly lived what he preached, as he grew up in poverty in a one-room cabin in Virginia. Hill was a onetime adviser to industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whom he credited with playing a major role in his success.
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Ayn Rand, Anthem (1938)
Some might view Ayn Rand’s Anthem as a precursor of such contemporary dystopian works as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Rand’s novella, set sometime in the future, is thematically linked to many of her more famous works, such as The Fountainhead, where individuality is subjugated by collectivism. The main character, Equality 7-2521, grew up separated from his parents in a communal home. He wanted to be a scholar when he grew up but instead was ordered to be a street sweeper by the Council of Vocations. Rand was twelve when she witnessed the revolution in her native Russia, with the events having a profound effect on her writing. Anthem, her second work of fiction, is Rand’s manifesto and her unequivocal rejection of the tyranny she associated with communism.
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John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
Few novels can claim that their message led to actual legislation, but The Grapes of Wrath did just that. Its story of the travails of Oklahoma migrants during the Great Depression ignited a movement to press Congress to pass laws benefiting farm workers. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the committee specifically cited this novel as one of the main reasons for the award.
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Alcoholics Anonymous (1939)
The famous 12-step program for stopping the cycle of alcohol addiction has sold more than 30 million copies. Millions of men and women worldwide have turned to the program co-founded by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith to recover from alcoholism. The “Big Book,” as it is known, spawned similar programs for other forms of addiction.
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Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, (1943)
Ayn Rand’s first major literary success did not find an easy path to publication. A dozen publishers rejected the novel for being “too intellectual,” and it was not until Rand’s lucky thirteenth try that Bobbs-Merrill published the book in May 1943. Sales were slow at first but grew through word of mouth. By August 1945, the book reached number six on the New York Times Best Sellers list—more than two years after its initial publication. According to Rand, the major theme of the book is “individualism versus collectivism, not in politics but within a man’s soul.” Since its publication, The Fountainhead and many of Rand’s novels have become touchstones for those who believe individualism always takes precedence over collectivism. The novel has sold nearly seven million copies.
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Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946)
Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King’s Men while teaching at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The highly controversial Louisiana governor, Huey P. Long, was said to have been the inspiration for Warren’s central character, Willie Stark. Like Long, Stark wields enormous power and he uses that power, to strong-arm any and all who get in his way. Long was assassinated in the state Capitol building, as is Stark in the novel. The novel became a successful movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1950. Warren based his title on the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty”: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men / Couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Also known as a poet, Warren served as U.S. Poet Laureate, 1944−1945, and won Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry in 1958 and 1979.
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Benjamin Spock, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946)
Dr. Benjamin Spock’s guidebook turned the common wisdom about child-rearing on its head. Spock argued that babies did not have to be on a rigid schedule, that children should be treated with a great deal of affection, and that parents should use their own common sense when making child-rearing decisions. Millions of parents worldwide have followed his advice.
Benjamin Spock (1903–1998). Baby and Child Care. New Revised, Updated and Enlarged Edition. Illustrations by Dorothea Fox. New York: Wallaby Books, 1977. On loan from Stanley Bandong (028.01.00)
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Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (1949)
Regarded as one of America’s greatest plays, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in 1949, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is about the search for the American Dream and what happens to those who never realize it. Willy Loman is the not-so-successful salesman whose dreams are his mechanism for survival. His wife, Linda, is Loman’s enabler and his two sons, Biff and Happy, inhabit a similar world of dreams. What Miller ultimately concludes is that the original American Dream was not defined by material success but by success based on moral values and personal relationships. For Miller, the dream has been corrupted, with the result being that many Americans die disappointed, believing they were failures in life.
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