25 Books That Have Inspired Resistance Throughout American History
In the months since Donald Trump has become president, more and more people have become inspired to join the Resistance — whether that means volunteering, campaigning, donating, making calls, educating themselves and others on the issues, or otherwise. Bustle's 31 Days of Reading Resistance takes a look at the role of literature and writing in the Resistance, both as a source of inspiration and as a tool for action.
Earlier this year, still reeling from the 2016 election, I gathered alongside thousands of fellow writers in the epicenter of that bruising political turmoil — Washington D.C. — to hear Iranian writer Azar Nafisi give the keynote address at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. “The poet and the tyrant are rivals for the possession of reality,” she said. “Tyrants have always known the danger of poets and writers.”
At first glance, we writers really aren’t all that scary — a fact I’ve been grappling with in the days following the protests and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last week. What does it mean to be someone who responds to pressing injustices not by risking my life in the streets, but by sitting at my desk, furiously typing words that may or may not travel any further than the four walls of my office? Though writers across the globe risk their safety and lives to publish truths against power, I do not (yet) live in a country where I face any immediate danger by simply writing thoughts and maybe (or maybe not) putting them out into the world. My weapons of battle are a fully-charged laptop, a strong WiFi connection, and maybe, in a pinch, a handful of extra pens — and sometimes, in the face of staggering violence, they seem meager.
And yet… protest literature has been central to the American democratic experiment since the very beginning. Though the term “protest writing” didn’t actually enter the American lexicon until the early 20th century, American writers were writing books of resistance long before they were their own sub-genre — engaging with the political and social issues of the moment, mobilizing public opinion, advocating for the persecuted and the marginalized, celebrating the resisters, making space for both deep reflection and direct action, and offering solutions for a way forward. From the documents that called for independence from Great Britain to the abolitionist writers, the texts that defined the women’s suffrage movement to the writers protesting war, works of second-wave feminism to the books that help lead the environmental movement, and more, writers have always been at the forefront of resistances: quiet and out of the way, scribbling in relative isolation — until we’re not. And then, look out.
As the first published text to demand American autonomy from Great Britain, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense might be considered the original work of U.S. protest literature. Distributed as a pamphlet designed to be read by everyday people living in the Thirteen Colonies, Common Sense challenged the authority of the British government and the royal monarchy, and was a step in the war for independence.
Some of the world’s most effective activists — Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi — turned to Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience for perspective, inspiration, and guidance. Originally published as an act of public resistance against government authority, Civil Disobedience advocates for subverting injustices — even (or especially) those sanctioned and enforced by the government.
Uncle Tom's Cabin — a novel that depicts the atrocities of slavery — was written by abolitionist writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and is responsible for furthering the early anti-slavery cause in United States. In the years before the Civil War, Stowe’s novel brought public attention to the daily horrors endured by slaves in a way that hadn’t been done so widely before. Rumor also has it that President Lincoln even credited the novel with being the final tipping point that started the Civil War to begin with.
Chances are you’ve seen the movie, but did you know that Twelve Years a Slave actually began as a memoir narrated by Solomon Northup? A black man born free in New York, Northup was tricked into traveling to Washington D.C., where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. Living as a slave in Louisiana, it took Northup 12 years to secretly communicate his whereabouts to his family, who arranged for his release. Another work of abolitionist literature, the memoir was published eight years before the Civil War, and depicts the horrors of slavery from the perspective of someone who knew both freedom and enslavement.
An early feminist text, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a stand-alone short story written as a collection of journal entries by a woman who is effectively isolated from society by her husband, largely existing in a single room decorated with yellow wallpaper — which the narrator becomes obsessed with as her isolation and forced-rest threatens her mental health. The story was a first in depicting the frustrations of a domestic life forced upon many American women, and the oppressiveness of living beneath a patriarchal society.
Solitude of Self is the text of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s powerful resignation speech from the National American Woman Suffrage Association at the age of 77. After decades spent fighting for the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which wouldn’t come until almost 30 years later) Solitude of Self advocates for the enfranchisement and equal rights of women.
Subverting the way female sexuality and marital infidelity had been discussed (or, not discussed at all) in American literature before, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening addresses female desire and erotic life. The novel’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is a woman who feels suffocated by her marriage and engages in an affair, and a character who made women readers across the country realize they weren't alone in wondering: "is there more than this?"
W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk, is credited with being one of the first sociological investigations ever published — demonstrating how the history of slavery in the United States directly led to the social, political, and economic injustices the African American community would later face (and are still facing today).
Upton Sinclair's novel actually directly changed American policy — though not the policy Sinclair had intended. Responsible for the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act, which later helped to establish the Food and Drug Administration, The Jungle aimed at revealing the dehumanizing treatment of immigrant laborers working in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Instead, it exposed the substandard meat processing facilities Americans were getting their food from, leading many a reader to turn to vegetarianism, even today.
Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for depicting the lives of American migrant farmers during the Great Depression, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath came under fire from the Associated Farmers of California, and was both banned and burned after publication. The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, a family who loses their Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl and is forced to travel to California with thousands of other families looking for migrant work.
One of the most haunting and unforgettable anti-war novels ever written, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun tells the story of a World War I soldier who awakes in a hospital to discover he's lost his arms, legs, face, and ability to speak. One of the most grim, daring, and honest combat stories in literary history, this is a novel that will make you rethink the ways the United States chooses to "make the world safe" for democracy.
Saul Alinsky is known to some as “the father of community organizing”, and his book Reveille for Radicals, is considered the original handbook for any activist working towards social change and justice. Both instructive and hopeful, Alinsky’s core argument is that the American Dream can be made accessible for all, if we work together for justice, participate actively in our own democracy, and hold one another accountable.
Increasingly relevant today, John Hersey's Hiroshima is an account of the first atomic bomb ever dropped on a city, as remembered by those who survived the disaster. One of the greatest works of World War II writing (and anti-war writing) Hiroshima reminds readers why we don't want to let the haunting devastation of that bombing repeat itself.
An early work of environmentalist and conservationist literature — one that paved the way for later books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring — A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There is American ecologist, forester, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s collection of essays illustrating the idea of “land ethic” and the responsible stewardship of people to the land we live on and survive off of.
Lilian Smith's Killers of the Dream was an early literary inspiration for the American Civil Rights Movement — exploring systemic racism and segregation in the United States in the mid-20th century. Inspired by Smith’s own experience growing up white in the American south, Killers of the Dream looks at the psychological fallout of living in the space between traditional southern ideals and what Smith knew to be right and just.
The American journalist, social activist, and converted Catholic Dorothy Day began her life of resistance as a suffragette in the early 20th century, and soon after became a co-founder of The Catholic Worker Movement — activism that combines direct aid to those in need with direct action and protest. In The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist, Day describes her life of service, protest, and civil disobedience.
One of the most iconic books of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is about artists and musicians, political radicals and psychiatric patients. This explosive collection of socially conscious and sexually liberal poetry caused the book’s publisher to be arrested for producing and distributing “obscene literature” — so, you know Ginsberg’s writing scared somebody invested in maintaining the status quo.
An early inspiration for today’s environmental movement, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is another title that changed U.S. policy for the better. A marine biologist and conservationist, Carson exposed the devastating effects of synthetic chemical pesticides on the environment, and particularly on birds. As a result of her research, the aerial spraying of DDT was banned throughout the United States and other parts of the world, and significant legislative changes were made regarding the pollution of land, water, and air.
Another text that’s not quite technically a book, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail is one of the most iconic documents of protest and resistance ever written. Composed while King was in prison for his participation in the Civil Rights demonstrations, the letter was written in response to an earlier letter published by King’s fellow clergymen, encouraging him to remove himself from the national campaign for equality and justice. Obviously, he refused.
After her article about housewives desperate for more meaning, adventure, and independence in their lives was refused publication by McCall's, writer and activist Betty Friedan turned her research into a book instead. Now a feminist classic, The Feminine Mystique is credited with inspiring the second-wave feminist movement by chronicling the lives of several 1950s housewives, shedding light on their dissatisfaction with the domesticity and dependency expected of them.
This bestselling nonfiction collection of two essays explores the American Civil Rights Movement and the fraught terrain left behind in the wake of centuries of slavery in the United States. Beginning with author James Baldwin's young life in Harlem, New York, The Fire Next Time tells a story of the anger, frustration, hopelessness, and hope felt within the black community Baldwin grew up in. This book is a call to action for both white and black Americans to let go of assumptions and ignorance, and to work together towards a more free, more just society.
Outlining Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X's philosophy of black pride, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is now-classic American protest literature, written from a series of in-depth interviews that journalist Alex Haley conducted in the years before Malcom X was assassinated. Though you certainly might not agree with all of his radical ideas, this activist’s personal and political journey is a must-read.
Pulling on council records, autobiographies, and firsthand descriptions, the once-controversial and bestselling book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, chronicles the violence of America's westward expansion through the systemic destruction and manipulation of Native American chiefs and their tribes — and in true protest literature fashion, was one of the first widely-read books to tell the truth about what colonizers inflicted upon the population who inhabited America first.
Angela Y. Davis has dedicated much of her life of political activism to the cause of prisoner rights and fighting against the prison industrial complex. In the 1970s Davis was prosecuted for conspiracy involving the armed take-over of a California courtroom, though she was later acquitted in a federal trial — and her essay collection, If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance, uses this event as a jumping off point for discussing the experience of the political prisoner, and how incarceration has historically been used as a tool of the state to marginalize and silence political dissenters.
One of the great powers of resistance literature is its ability to tell a different story than the one propagated by the powers invested in history being remembered (or dis-remembered) a certain way. Historian, writer, and social activist Howard Zinn dedicated much of his life to exploring the untold histories of the United States and the world, telling difficult truths and exposing systemic injustices. His most widely-read title, A People's History of the United States, is an intensely researched retelling of American history from the point of view of Native Americans, African Americans, migrant workers, factory laborers, those living in poverty, and women.
Follow along all month long for more Reading Resistance book recommendations.