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July 19, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
For the library’s 12th annual National Book Festival, curators, scholars and experts selected American poems, novels, plays, works of nonfiction and children’s classics they consider particularly influential. These works profoundly transformed the generations for which they were written as well as the generations that followed.
The History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Jungle can be read for free at Project Guttenberg online. They can also be downloaded to Kindle e-readers at no charge.
Vox reviewed this list, which was released in June, and selected five books that have been particularly meaningful to Missouri.
History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (1814)
Lewis and Clark kept detailed journals between 1804 and 1806 while leading an exploration of territory that had been acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. The epic journey shaped nearly 20 states’ boundaries starting with Missouri.
Without leaving the comfort of an air-conditioned home, readers can relive the breathtaking beauty and awe that Lewis and Clark experienced while traveling along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
If readers do want to venture out, the Lewis and Clark Trail is a great way to see the state and get a workout.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)
Fluid prose describes the savage brutality and extreme risks Douglass went through to become educated and free. For years, he traveled to speak about his past and promote equal rights, but he never spoke near Missouri’s borders.
When Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1821, it was designated a slave state; however, states established farther north in the Louisiana Territories would not allow slavery.
As the nation expanded and Douglass published his autobiography, Missouri became the core of the country and a battleground for progressives intent on ending slavery and farmers dependent on slave labor.
Douglass’ bold tale perpetuated a cultural debate that still exists today regarding Missouri’s status as a Southern or Northern state.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
Tom Sawyer’s rebellious friend, Huck Finn, can’t stand “sivilized” life in Pike County. Tired of living with a widow and going to school, he runs away. On his journey he meets up with an escaped slave, floats down the river, lives off the land, outsmarts robbers and encounters rapscallions of all sorts.
Although Twain was duplicitous about his name, he was sincere in capturing the wonder and elegance of the Missouri countryside with humorous, ironic and honest writing. Not only did Twain write amusing stories that would last hundreds of years but he also put Missouri on the literary map.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906)
Sinclair, a young muckraker, spent seven months in the meatpacking district of Chicago and witnessed nightmarish food-handling practices during research for his book.
Although The Jungle managed to expose disturbing urban squalor, spotlight capitalist greed and preach a socialist agenda, the heart of the story reveals the deep injustices immigrants encountered in pursuit of the American Dream.
Details about the dangerous working conditions and unsanitary processing procedures led the federal government to take action. Sinclair also built a foundation for early 20th century investigative journalists. As his book increased in popularity, writing programs and journalism schools, including the one at MU, popped up west of the Mississippi and established a culture in which vigilance, scrutiny and honesty were standard expectations for reporters. This passion for journalism has drawn people to MU from around the world.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947)
Williams gave the world an appetite for raw subject matter by writing with dark, serious tones. This particular Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which addressed a number of illicit topics, including alcoholism, homosexuality and domestic abuse, brings viewers inside a family drama in New Orleans.
Streetcar is the perfect story to stage just about anywhere in Missouri. Whether it’s performed by a community theater group or a professional company, it breaks hearts, stirs souls and leaves audiences thinking long after the curtain falls.
Williams, born Thomas Lanier, lived in St. Louis and attended classes at MU and St. Louis University. After eventually graduating from the University of Iowa and moving to New Orleans, he changed his name to Tennessee because it was the state in which his father was born. Missouri became his final resting place; he is buried alongside his mother at the Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.