Running from Monday to Sept. 29 in the Thomas Jefferson Building, the exhibition — its titles chosen by the library’s staff members after considerable wrangling — puts on display what one might call the classics of upset and troublemaking. When first published, these books shocked people, made them angry, shook up their deepest beliefs. They shamed readers with accounts of racism, greed, corruption, Puritanism and provincial narrow-mindedness. Here are the impassioned works that made us look behind the curtain, into the bedroom and closet and boardroom, at what we were afraid of and at what we covered up. Just skimming through the titles of “The Books That Shaped America” underscores that in this country anything can be questioned,nothing is set in stone, everything can be changed. We are, after all, a nation founded and grounded in revolution.
If, however, there is any single, great American theme, it is self-transformation. So here are Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, that stirring guidebook to personal improvement, and Frederick Douglass’s account of his years of slavery and his escape from it, and Thoreau’s “Walden,” arguing the case for self-fulfillment no matter what the opinions of society. Here, too, is one of Horatio Alger Jr.’s rags-to-riches novels, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s great jungle bildungsroman “Tarzan of the Apes,” and Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” in which the poor boy Jay Gatz dreams of all the glittering prizes, and even Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Jefferson spoke of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but he might just as well have said: Become who you truly are.
If identity is malleable, so, too, are the conditions of life and society. Americans are do-gooders, ready to stand and fight for what they believe is right or attack relentlessly that which is wrong, corrupt or unjust. The library’s list nearly starts with Thomas Paine’s call to arms, “Common Sense,” then includes W.E.B. Du Bois’s searing “The Souls of Black Folk”; Jacob Riis’s sickening account of urban poverty, “How The Other Half Lives”; Ida M. Tarbell’s classic “muckraking” “History of the Standard Oil Company”; Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which exposed the insanitary conditions in Chicago’s meat-packing industry; and, finally, in our own time, closes with both “And The Band Played On,” Randy Shilts’s groundbreaking account of the AIDS epidemic and “The Words of Cesar Chavez,” the inspiring leader of the United Farm Workers.