American Authors as Activists

The controversial and historic election of reality star and billionaire businessman Donald Trump to the American presidency has inspired an ongoing wave of activism and resistance throughout the country, on everything from immigration and the environment to women’s rights and higher education. In response, readers are gobbling up relevant former bestsellers such as George Orwell’s 1984, and Congressman John Lewis’ graphic novel trilogy, March. But Americans have long been turning to books for truth, reason, and comfort in times of chaos and confusion. And since the birth of American literature, as far back as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, U.S. authors have been mixing the personal and the political in publication.

Perhaps one of the most well-known writer-activists is Harriet Beecher Stowe, an ardent abolitionist who gave us one of America’s most popular and controversial novels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1852. Written after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the book spurred the abolitionist movement that then helped to fuel the Civil War. It was the best-selling book of the 19th century, and is still taught in schools today.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, the muckraking novel that exposed the harsh conditions of immigrant workers in factories in Chicago and other industrial cities. Further, the book shed light on health and sanitation conditions in meatpacking houses and public outrage helped lead to the Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair’s work as a journalist and author also helped to create the first code of ethics for journalists and gave attention to the Socialist party in the early 1900s.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, showed Americans of the horrors of pesticides, leading to a federal ban on DDT. Rose Wilder Lane frequently inserted her Libertarian ideals into her fictional and journalistic work in the 1920s and 1930s. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique became a bestselling chronicle of the dissatisfaction of 1950s housewives, inspiring the second-wave feminist movement. The list goes on.

Whether in fiction, poetry, autobiography, nonfiction, or comic form, American writers have been providing inspiration and influence since our country’s founding. We go back to these classics time and again as we search for new answers for old problems, and new hope in times of darkness. Some of the best pieces of U.S. literature have come into being out of struggle, and the words and stories have provided us with strength. Who knows what the next few years will bring?

-Jenna Sauber

Interested in writing your own resistance literature? Check out the AWM’s upcoming workshop (six-week class starting Sept. 12, 2017) on Resistance Writing through the Graham School Writers Studio here, or call 773-702-1722 for more information and to sign up.

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