How did popular literature spark social change in history?

Amy Zhang
6 min readDec 8, 2020
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold millions of copies and influenced the growing sectionalism in the United States during the 1850s and 1860s.

Literature is an important part of our history. Although books may not have as big of an effect on today’s generation due to the invention of cell phones and the Internet, literature is still present in society. In school, we read famous books in history such as To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984. We analyze the language of Shakespeare and learn about books like The Jungle in history class. I just had the pleasure of finishing Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and I was able to link together the thematics of literature and connect it to the time period it was written in, an era where Romanticism was at its peak- something I learned in history class. What I’m meaning to say is, literature is directly linked to history because many books contain important ideas prevalent during society at that time. For example, the Catcher in the Rye, written after WWII, demonstrated the alienation of society post World War II. By reading literature, we can piece together the worlds of literature and history and delve into history from a deeper and different perspective, which is a beautiful thing. Famous literature in history usually also had profound effects on society and even changed many people’s mindsets about different issues in society. Although I am only going to cover a few of these influential books, remember there are many more out there.

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

I first learned about this book in my U.S. History class last year. While sectionalism was increasing and the Civil War loomed upon America, a woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe published a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. It was an anti-slavery novel that depicted the reality of slavery. The book sold over 300,000 copies in just the first year! By showing the reality of slaves and that they were actually people and deserved to be treated better, Stowe managed to increase the sectionalism between the North and South over the issue of slavery. This is due to the fact that many Northerners read the book and they realized how unjust slavery was for the first time. Thus, Northerners started to be increasingly anti-slavery, and, with increasing opposition to slavery, Southern slave owners worked even harder to defend the institution of slavery. Both sides grew more and more radical, and this eventually exploded in the Civil War, the bloodiest war fought on American soil. Although Stowe’s novel didn’t directly cause the war that would abolish slavery and change the course of history, it did play a part in it. Without it, many Northerners wouldn’t realize how inhumane slavery was, and they wouldn’t have been so against it. Perhaps the war wouldn't even have happened had those people’s opinions weren’t influenced. In fact, Abraham Lincoln himself, when he met Stowe in 1962 said to her “So you’re the little lady that started this great war”, demonstrating Stowe’s role in the Civil War.

2. How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis

During the early 1900s, America was undergoing its Progressive Era. Many people were bringing forth issues they found with society and attempting to change them. Many of these issues centered around urban cities, big business, and factory regulations. Journalists, called muckrakers, took on the mission to spread just how horrible these issues were by going undercover and publishing their finds. Over the next few years, when people read these publications, they were horrified at what they found, which sparked immediate reform. One of these books was How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. His publication of photojournalism documented the squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. An early example of photojournalism as a vehicle for social change, Riis’s book demonstrated to the middle and upper classes of New York City the slum-like conditions of the tenements of the Lower East Side. His photographs depicted homeless children sleeping in the streets, whole families living in a tiny room, and the unhygienic nature of NYC slums. Following the book’s publication and the resulting public uproar, proper sewers, plumbing, and trash collection eventually came to the Lower East Side. Keep in mind that much of America was oblivious to the conditions in slums, factories, and cities because many upper and middle-class families lived better lives. When they heard about these awful conditions, their outroar helped bring about change and reform legislation, which made muckraking extremely effective in social change. Other famous muckraking books include The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which depicted the disgusting conditions of how America made meat, which brought about the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and Ida Tarbell’s A History of Standard Oil, which discussed the corruptness of Rockefeller’s oil monopoly, which resulted in the breakup of Standard Oil into smaller companies.

3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinback

When the 1930s brought the Great Depression in the United States, it also brought with it the Dust Bowl in the mid-west. Poor agricultural practices, wind erosion, and high temperatures contributed to dust blowing all across the Western and Southern United States. People and livestock were killed and crops failed to thrive. Farmers, already hard-hit from the Great Depression, suffered even more due to the Dust Bowl. During these tumultuous times, thousands of Oklahoma farmers migrated to California in hopes of finding work. They were met with limited success and were hated by the local Californians who were also competing for jobs, and they dubbed the new migrants as “Okies”. Seeing these struggles, a man named John Steinback published the book The Grapes of Wrath, which evoked the harshness of the Great Depression and aroused sympathy for the struggles of migrant farmworkers. The book advocated for major social change by showing the unfair working conditions the migrants faced when they reached California. It was a major success and ignited a movement in Congress to pass laws benefiting farmworkers. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the committee specifically cited this novel as one of the main reasons for the award. The Grapes of Wrath also won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and is now considered an American classic.

4. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Today, the environment continues to be a huge issue on Earth. Although many new sources of renewable energy are being developed, the amount of fossil fuels and trash being produced is deeply hurting our planet, including the plants and animals that live on it. The first environmental movements occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. The spur of this movement can be credited to a woman named Rachel Carson, who in 1962 published her book Silent Spring. Her book drew attention to the adverse effects of pesticides on the environment, especially that of DDT (a pesticide) on bird populations. At a time when technological solutions were the norm, she pointed out that man-made poisons introduced into natural systems can harm not only nature but also humans. Although Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, it was a major success and due to heightened awareness, it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and inspired an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Rachel Carson is also considered a founder of the contemporary environmental protection movement.

5. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedman

There have been many “waves” of women’s movements in history, and one of the more recent waves has been the 1970s women’s movement. After WWII, the 1950s established a new role for women in society. They were expected to stay at home, raise the kids, provide for her husband, and upkeep the house. Everything they did was to show everyone how perfect her family was. However, this proved difficult because, after WWII, where women held many jobs previously held by men, many women refused to go back to the domestic sphere. Women argued for equal rights and opportunities in the workplace (to break the glass ceilings in workplaces) and greater personal freedoms for women. The feminist movement sought women’s equality on both a political and personal level. A piece of literature that greatly affected this “second wave of feminism” was The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedman. Her book broke new ground by exploring the idea of women finding personal fulfillment outside of their traditional roles, influencing many women in the United States, helping spur the movement. Friedman was also a prominent feminist who helped advance the women’s rights movement as one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Due to Friedman’s accomplishments, the women’s movement worked towards dismantling workplace inequality, such as a denial of access to better jobs and salary inequity, via anti-discrimination laws.



Amy Zhang

Injustice from the eyes of a high schooler. Activist. Lover of history. Here to educate and inspire.