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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Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet, the Moses of Her People (1901)
Harriet Tubman (1820–1913) is celebrated for her courage and skill in guiding many escaping slave parties northward along the Underground Railroad to freedom. She also served as a scout and a nurse during the Civil War. In order to raise funds for Tubman’s support in 1869 and again in1886, Sarah Hopkins Bradford published accounts of Tubman’s experiences as a young slave and her daring efforts to rescue family and friends from slavery. In her copy of a later edition of Tubman’s biography, Susan B. Anthony recounts a 1903 visit in Auburn, New York: “This most wonderful woman—Harriet Tubman—is still alive. I saw her but the other day at the beautiful home of Eliza Wright Osborne [in company with other pioneer abolitionists and suffragists] . . . a real love feast of the few that are left—and here came Harriet Tubman!”
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Jack London, The Call of the Wild (1903)
Jack London’s experiences during the Klondike gold rush in the Yukon were the inspiration for The Call of the Wild. He saw the way dogsled teams behaved and how their owners treated (and mistreated) them. In the book, the dog Buck’s comfortable life is upended when gold is discovered in the Klondike. From then on, survival of the fittest becomes Buck’s mantra as he learns to confront and survive the harsh realities of his new life as a sled dog.
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W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
“Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The ‘Souls of Black Folk’ occupies this rare position,” said Du Bois biographer Manning Marable. Du Bois’s work was so influential that it is impossible to consider the civil rights movement’s roots without first looking to this groundbreaking work.
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Ida Tarbell, The History of Standard Oil (1904)
Journalist Ida Tarbell wrote her exposé of the monopolistic practices of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company as a serialized work in McClure’s Magazine before the appearance of the first book edition of 1904. The breakup of Standard Oil in 1911 into thirty-four “baby Standards” can be attributed in large part to Tarbell’s masterly investigative reporting, often labeled as muckraking.
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Ida Tarbell (1857–1944). “The History of the Standard Oil Company.” McClure’s Magazine. vol. 20, November 1902. General Collections, Library of Congress (037.00.00)
Ida Tarbell (1857–1944). The History of the Standard Oil Company. (1904) New York: Harper & Row, 1966. General Collections, Library of Congress (039.00.00)
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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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Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907)
The dawn of the twentieth century and the changes it brought are the subjects of Henry Adams’s “education.” Adams lived through the Civil War and died just before World War I. During that time, he witnessed cataclysmic transformations in technology, society, and politics. Adams believed that his traditional education left him ill-prepared for these changes and that his life experiences provided a better education. One survey called it the greatest nonfiction English-language book of the last century.
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William James, Pragmatism (1907)
Pragmatism was America’s first major contribution to philosophy, and it is an ideal rooted in the American ethos of no-nonsense solutions to real problems. Although James did not originate the idea, he popularized the philosophy through his voluminous writings.
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Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912)
Riders of the Purple Sage, Zane Grey’s best-known novel, was originally published in 1912. The Western genre had just evolved from the popular dime novels of the late-nineteenth century and was finding an audience particularly interested in reading about Americans in their quest to conquer savagery with civilization. This classic tale is full of action, violence, sentimentalism, romance, and adventure. As in many Westerns, the description of the landscape plays a major role, being sometimes dangerous and menacing, and at others times providing safety for those who encounter it. This story of a gun-slinging avenger who saves a beautiful young woman from marrying against her will played a significant role in shaping the formula of the popular Western genre begun by Owen Wister in The Virginian (1904).
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Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes (1914)
Tarzan of the Apes is the first in a series of books about the popular man who was raised by and lived among the apes. With its universal themes of honesty, heroism, and bravery, the series has never lost popularity. Countless Tarzan adaptations have been filmed for television and the silver screen, including an animated version currently in production.
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Margaret Sanger, Family Limitation (1914)
While working as a nurse in the New York slums, Margaret Sanger witnessed the plight of poor women suffering from frequent pregnancies and self-induced abortions. Believing that these women had the right to control their reproductive health, Sanger published this pamphlet that simply explained how to prevent pregnancy. Distribution through the mails was blocked by enforcement of the Comstock Law, which banned mailing of materials judged to be obscene. However, several hundred thousand copies were distributed through the first family-planning and birth control clinic Sanger established in Brooklyn in 1916 and by networks of active women at rallies and political meetings.
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William Carlos Williams, Spring and All (1923)
A practicing physician for more than forty years, William Carlos Williams became an experimenter, innovator, and revolutionary figure in American poetry. In reaction against the rigid, rhyming format of nineteenth-century poets, Williams, his friend Ezra Pound, and other early-twentieth-century poets formed the core of what became known as the “Imagist” movement. Their poetry focused on verbal pictures and moments of revealed truth, rather than a structure of consecutive events or thoughts and was expressed in free verse rather than rhyme. Spring and All, Williams’s first book of poems in this modern style, greatly influenced poetry in the rest of the twentieth century and beyond.
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Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923)
Frost received his first of four Pulitzer Prizes for this anthology, which contains some of his most famous poems, including “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “Fire and Ice.” One of the best-known American poets of his time, Frost became principally associated with the life and landscape of New England that frequently appear in his work. Although he employed traditional verse forms and metrics and remained aloof from the poetic movements and fashions of his time, like other modern, twentieth-century poets, his poems featured language as it is actually spoken as well as psychological complexity and layers of ambiguity and irony. President John F. Kennedy, who asked Frost to read a poem at his inauguration, noted, “He has bequeathed his nation a body of imperishable verse from which Americans will forever gain joy and understanding.”
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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 his pursuit of 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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Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues (1926)
Langston Hughes was one of the greatest poets of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and intellectual flowering that fostered a new black cultural identity in the 1920s and 1930s. His poem “The Weary Blues,” also the title of this poetry collection, won first prize in a contest held by Opportunity magazine. After the awards ceremony, the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten approached Hughes about putting together a book of verse and got him a contract with his own publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. Van Vechten contributed an essay, “Introducing Langston Hughes,” to the volume. The book laid the foundation for Hughes’s literary career, and several poems remain popular with his admirers.
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William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner’s fourth novel, was his own favorite, and many critics believe it is his masterpiece. Set in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, as are most of Faulkner’s novels, The Sound and the Fury uses the American South as a metaphor for a civilization in decline. Depicting the post-Civil War decline of the once-aristocratic Compson family, the novel is divided into four parts, each told by a different narrator. Much of the novel is told in a stream-of-consciousness style, in which a character’s thoughts are conveyed in a manner roughly equivalent to the way human minds actually work. Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950 and France’s Legion of Honor in 1951.
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Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest (1929)
Dashiell Hammett’s first novel introduced a wide audience to the so-called “hard-boiled” detective thriller with its depiction of crime and violence without any hint of sentimentality. The creator of classics such as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, shocked readers with such dialogue as “We bumped over dead Hank O’Meara’s legs and headed for home.”
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Irma Rombauer, Joy of Cooking (1931)
Until Irma Rombauer published Joy of Cooking, most American cookbooks were little more than a series of paragraphs that incorporated ingredient amounts (if they were provided at all) with some vague advice about how to put them all together to achieve the desired results. Rombauer changed all that by beginning her recipes with ingredient lists and offering precise directions along with her own personal and friendly anecdotes. Her first instructions to the cook were “stand facing the stove.” A modest success initially, the book went on to sell nearly 18 million copies in its various editions. It has been revised and updated a number of times, including as a seventy-fifth anniversary edition published in 2006. A facsimile of the original 1931 edition was also issued at that time.
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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 (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 (053.00.00)
William F. Warnecke. Margaret Mitchell holding her book, Gone With the Wind, ca. 1938. Photograph. New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (053.01.00)
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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 helped 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 (055.00.00)
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Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Although it was published in 1937 it was not until the 1970s that Their Eyes Were Watching God became regarded as a masterwork. It had initially been rejected by African American critics as facile and simplistic, in part because its characters spoke in dialect. Alice Walker’s 1975 Ms. magazine essay, “Looking for Zora,” led to a critical reevaluation of the book, which is now considered to have paved the way for younger black writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.
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Federal Writers’ Project, Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures (1937)
Idaho was the first in the popular American Guide Series of the Federal Writers’ Project, which ended in 1943. The project employed more than 6,000 writers, and was one of the many programs of the Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era federal government program designed to assist millions of unemployed Americans. These travel guides cover the lower forty-eight states plus the Alaska Territory, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Each volume details a state’s history, geography, and culture and includes photographs, maps, and drawings.
Federal Writers’ Project. Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1937. Private Collection (057.00.00)
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Thornton Wilder, Our Town: A Play (1938)
Winner of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize, Our Town is among the most-performed plays of the twentieth century. Those who see it relate immediately to its universal themes of the importance of everyday occurrences, relationships among friends and family, and an appreciation of the brevity of life.
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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 in 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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John Steinbeck (1902–1968). The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking Press, 1939. Herman Finkelstein Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (059.00.00)
Carol M. Highsmith (b.1946). Grapes of Wrath Billboard along a California Highway, between 1980 and 2006. Facsimile. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (059.01.00)
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Alcoholics Anonymous (1939)
The famous 12-step program for stopping an 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. Shown here is the third edition. The book is now in its fourth edition.
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Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
Ernest Hemingway’s novel about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) depicts war not as glorious but disillusioning. Hemingway used his experiences as a reporter during the war as the background for his best-selling novel, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and became a literary triumph. Based on his achievement in this and other noted works, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.
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Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)
Among the first widely successful novels by an African American, Native Son boldly described a racist society that was unfamiliar to most Americans. As literary critic Irving Howe said in his 1963 essay “Black Boys and Native Sons,” “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies.”
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Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the account of a girl growing up in the tenements of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Brooklyn. An early socially conscious novel, the book examines poverty, alcoholism, gender roles, loss of innocence, and the struggle to live the American Dream in an inner city neighborhood of Irish American immigrants. The book was enormously popular and became a popular film directed by Elia Kazan.
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Benjamin A. Botkin, A Treasury of American Folklore (1944)
Benjamin Botkin headed the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folksong (now the American Folklife Center) between 1943 and 1945 and previously served as national folklore editor of the Federal Writers’ Project (1938–39), a program of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Depression. Botkin was one of the New Deal folklorists who persuasively argued that folklore was relevant in the present and that it was not something that should be studied merely for its historical value.
Benjamin A. Botkin (1901–1975) ed. A Treasury of American Folklore: The Stories, Legends, Tall Tales, Traditions, Ballads and Songs of the American People. New York: Crown Publishers, 1944. Private Collection (066.00.00)
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Gwendolyn Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville (1945)
A Street in Bronzeville was Gwendolyn Brooks’s first book of poetry. It details, in stark terms, the oppression of blacks in a Chicago neighborhood. Critics hailed the book, and in 1950 Brooks became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was also appointed as U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress in 1985.
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Benjamin Spock, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946)
Dr. 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 and Enlarged Edition. New York: Pocket Books, 1968. Private Collection (068.00.00)
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Eugene O’Neill, The Iceman Cometh (1940)
Nobel Prize winner Eugene O’Neill’s play about anarchism, socialism, and pipe dreams is one of his most admired but least performed works probably because of its more than four-and-a-half-hour running time. The play also places hours of enormous demands on actors, especially on anyone who plays Hickey, the central character. Set in 1912 in the seedy Last Chance Saloon in New York City, the play depicts the bar’s drunk and delusional patrons bickering while awaiting the arrival of Hickey, a traveling salesman whose visits are the highlight of their hopeless lives. However, Hickey’s arrival throws them into turmoil when he arrives sober, wanting them to face their delusions.
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Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon (1947)
This bedtime story has been a favorite of young people for generations, beloved as much for its rhyming story as for its carefully detailed illustrations by Clement Hurd. Millions have read it (and had it read to them). Goodnight Moon has been referred to as the perfect bedtime book.
Margaret Wise Brown (1910–1952). Goodnight Moon. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Private Collection (071.00.00)
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Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
A landmark work, which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, A Streetcar Named Desire thrilled and shocked audiences with its melodramatic look at a clash of cultures. These cultures are embodied in the two main characters—Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle whose genteel pretensions thinly mask alcoholism and delusions of grandeur, and Stanley Kowalski, a representative of the industrial, urban working class. Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the brutish and sensual Stanley in both the original stage production and the film adaptation has become an icon of American culture.
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Alfred C. Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948)
Alfred Kinsey created a fire storm when he published this volume on men in 1948 and a companion on women five years later. No one had ever reported on such taboo subjects before and no one had used scientific data in such detail to challenge the prevailing notions of sexual behavior. Kinsey’s openness regarding human sexuality was a harbinger of the 1960s sexual revolution in America.
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