harriet beecher stowe and uncle tom's cabin

9 Visionary Books That Helped Shift the Course of History


Some writers seek to change the world, while others seek to only change themselves. In any case, these nine authors and editors made such an impact with their work that the contents of their pages made direct change in the real world. Next time somebody tells you that art can’t make a difference, please show them this. 


  1. ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’ Influenced Austen, Dickens and the Brontës


Samuel Johnson's Dictionary cover

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Published in 1755, Samuel Johnson’s  ‘A Dictionary’ provides an impeccably curated tour of the best of the English language up to that point, including entries on topics like fashion and sex, with spellings examples from the likes of Milton and Shakespeare. It in turn influenced the next generation of top English language writers, with legendary like Dickens and the Brontë sisters paging through for inspiration.


  1. ‘The Jungle’ Moved Teddy Roosevelt to Reform Food/Drug Laws


the jungle cover

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Upton Sinclair was a muckraking Chicago journalist when he published ‘The Jungle’, a 1906 exposé of the horrific labor conditions experienced by many impoverished immigrants, particularly those working in the unhealthy meatpacking industry. Aiming to make a definite impact, Sinclair sent a copy of the book to President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was so appalled by the unsanitary practices documented by Sinclair that he ordered a federal investigation—an investigation that eventually led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. If you aren’t worried about formaldehyde in your hamburger, then you have Sinclair to thank.


  1. ‘The Guns of August’ Helped JFK Navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis


guns of august cover

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A comprehensive history of WWI, Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The Guns of August’ was an immediate bestseller upon its publication in 1962. However, the scope of its influence would soon extend beyond the laps of layreaders, reaching president John F. Kennedy in the bleak October days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK relied on the book as a kind of guide, citing its coverage of the tragic folly of old-school generals’ rigid military strategy as a lesson for dealing with the unprecedented situation at hand. He even reportedly told his brother Bobby ““I wish we could send a copy of that book to every Navy officer on every ship right now, but they probably wouldn’t read it.” With a little help from Tuchman though, Kennedy and his team were able to diffuse the looming tragedy.


  1. ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ Helped Start A War


uncle tom's cabin cover

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It’s one of the great anecdotes in American history: Upon meeting ‘Uncle Tom’ author Harriet Beecher Stowe for the first time in 1862, Abraham Lincoln quipped “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” Though subsequent research has found this quote to most likely be fictional, it speaks to the truth of just how explosive ‘Uncle Tom’ was upon its publication in 1852. It’s depiction of the unyielding abuses of southern slavery, though melodramatic and stereotypical by modern standards, the bestselling book of the nineteenth century galvanized the abolitionist movement and contributed to the regional tensions that led to the breakout of civil war.



  1. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ Exposed the Misery of the Great Depression’s Forgotten 


grapes of wrath cover

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The story of the Joads, a poor Midwest family who face discrimination and crushing poverty as migrant workers in Depression-era California, shocked the American public when it was published in 1939. Until that point, many Americans imagined fertile California as a kind of Garden of Eden—but California-native Steinbeck’s depiction of abusive landowners and miserable workers moved Eleanor Roosevelt to set up a congressional committee on migrant issues while also inciting book burnings and bannings from many agricultural communities dependent on cheap migrant labor.


  1. Al Gore Didn’t Invent the Internet—‘Neuromancer’ Did


neuromancer cover

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Along with popularizing the cyberpunk genre, William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ may have contributed more to the creation of the internet than almost any other work of fiction. In the book, a ‘cyberspace’ where masses of people engage in ‘consensual hallucination’ while dodging threats from those who wish to ‘jack’ the system. We’re shocked that this classic still has no movie adaptation.


  1. ‘The World Set Free’ Triggered the Invention of the H-Bomb


the world set free cover

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One of H.G. Wells’s lesser-known novels, ‘The World Set Free’, with its description of a bomb that can explode for days at a time, contains astonishingly accurate predictions of the coming nuclear revolution. In fact, it may have had a siginificant part in causing that revolution: Leo Szilard,a Hungarian-born physicist, read the book in 1932 and was inspired to develop neutron chain reaction the following year. Much like the chain reaction he was studying, Szilard’s research would soon lead to the Manhattan Project, the A- and H-bomb, and the current global “on the constant verge of annihalation’ status quo. Thanks a lot, Mr. Wells…


  1. ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’ Forced Some Whites to Confront Their Racism


poems of phillis wheatley cover

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Phillis Wheatley never meant to cause an international sensation with her poetry, but that is exactly what happened when Wheatley, an enslaved African American woman, was forced to prove her authorship in a well-publicized 1772 trial. Along with exposing a wider audience to her spiritual writing, the trial forced more than a few whites to re-evaluate their attitudes towards the intellectual and artistic capabilities of people of color.


  1. ‘Giovanni’s Room’ Raised Awareness, Promoted Acceptance of LGBTQ Experiences 


giovannis room cover

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James Baldwin was only 24 when he left New York City for Paris, determined to live a free and authentic life as a black and gay man. His newfound freedom would eventually inspire his second novel ‘Giovanni’s Room’, the unsparing account of a white American’s homosexual affair with an Italian bartender. ‘Giovanni’ made big waves after its 1956 publication; though some decried it as immoral, it cemented Baldwin’s growing reputation as a talented, multi-faceted writer while also being one of the first works to pave the way for realistic gay stories in mainstream culture.


Featured image courtesy of Jesse’s Blog.