The written word can change the world and books can make history. However, the pen is almost never mightier than the sword.
Instead, the right book can have an enormous impact on history if they publish it at the right time. For example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had an enormous influence because they published it just before the American Civil War.
Similarly, modern readers view The War of the Worlds as routine science fiction. In 1897, however, The War of the Worlds was a completely original work that introduced new ideas while playing to popular anxieties.
Some books that Made History include:
No author in human history had better timing than Thomas Paine. The English immigrant published Common Sense, the first work to popularize the concept of the modern nation state on 9 January 1776.
Common Sense is one of the first philosophical attacks on imperialism and colonialism. Additionally, Paine introduces the concept that loyalty to a nation is more important than fealty to a monarch or institution. Common Sense was the first book to publicize an ideology of nationalism and modern notions of patriotism.
Paine’s timing was great because he published Common Sense at the beginning of the American Revolution. Common Sense appeared in the confused period between the outbreak of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.
Americans were fighting, but they did not know what they were fighting for. Paine gave them something to fight for: a nation that existed outside the British Empire and had no connection with the Crown or the King.
In the 18th Century, most people viewed patriotism as loyalty to a government or monarch. Paine offered a radical alternative patriotism as loyalty to country. In Common Sense, Paine redefined the nation as the people and geographic locations.
Paine’s ideas were a radical break with the past. Importantly, Paine wrote for a mass audience. Thus, Paine also wrote the strategy of writing political polemics for the masses rather than intellectuals.
Common Sense was a short book (47 pages) written in everyday English. They published Common Sense in the cheapest form possible, a pamphlet anybody could afford. Historians estimate they sold 500,000 copies of Common Sense in the 18th Century.
The ideology Paine promoted in Common Sense became the basis of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the Latin American revolts against Spain. It later inspired the anti-colonial revolts of the 20th Century and formed some of the basis of Fascism and Nazism, ideologies Paine, a libertarian, would have hated.
Common Sense made Thomas Paine a celebrity. However, when he died in 1809, Paine was a hated and obscure figure because of his hostility to religion and the United Kingdom. Paine’s ideas succeeded as the man himself died a failure.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
To modern readers, Uncle Tom’s Cabin appears corny, racist, and down-right silly.
Conversely, Uncle Tom’s Cabin could be the consequential novel in history. Legend claims that when President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) met author Harriet Beecher Stowe during the Civil War, he quipped she was “the author of the book that started this great war.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the first work of popular fiction to criticize slavery and condemn its injustices. In particular, Stowe emphasized the contradictions between slavery and America’s ideals and Christian faith. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center calls the book “A Moral Battle Cry for Freedom.”
Besides political influence, Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed the publishing world by becoming one of the first true best sellers. Publishers sold 1.5 million copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the United Kingdom in one year, and 300,000 in the first year of publication in the United States.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was so popular, promoters cashed in with an enormous amount of Tom merchandise and plays they called “Tom Shows.” Ironically, most of the Tom Shows had all-white casts.
Stowe became one of the first celebrity authors. For example, fans mobbed her during an 1853 visit to Great Britain. Historians think Stowe inspired 563,000 British women to sign an anti-slavery petition.
The book turned popular opinion against slavery by humanizing the peculiar institution’s victims. In particular, Stowe emphasized the fact some slaves were women and children and mothers and fathers.
In the United States, Uncle Tom’s Cabin turned popular opinion against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Acts. That fueled the rise of the staunchly antislavery Republican Party. It was the Republican victory in the 1860 elections that prompted Southern States to leave the Union leading to Civil War.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped the Union win the Civil War by preventing British intervention. Many British workers and factory owners wanted Her Majesty’s Government to help the Confederacy to ensure a supply of cheap cotton. However, British public opinion was so antislavery that intervention was a political impossibility.
The British Royal Navy had the firepower to smash the Union blockade of Southern Ports. That would have allowed the Confederacy to import the weapons and munitions it needed to win the war. Instead, the South lost partially because Confederate Armies could not match Union firepower.
One reason the British public was so antislavery was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues today. In 2018, a survey of writers labeled Uncle Tom’s Cabin the second most influential story in history, after Homer’s The Odyssey.
Strangely, a book written to help African Americans is now considered a symbol of racism. In America, “Tom, ” “Uncle,” or “Uncle Tom” are derogatory terms for a passive, subservient, or traitorous black person. Uncle Tom is also a generic phrase for a traitor or sell-out.
The War of the Worlds
H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is an important book because it changed the way humans view the universe.
To explain, The War of the Worlds was the first work to popularize the concept of extraterrestrial life. It also introduced the now tired concept of alien invasion to fiction.
Before The War of the Worlds, only a few intellectuals thought about extraterrestrial life. After the book, alien civilizations and alien visitors became stock ideas in science fiction. Since its publication in 1897, The War of the Worlds has inspired thousands of imitators in film, television, comic books, radio shows, books, magazines, and video games.
The greatest impact of War of the Worlds was that it inspired many people to ask: “are we alone.” Since then, no aliens have visited us, but extraterrestrials have become part of our culture.
Moreover, in The War of the Worlds H. G. Wells began a long tradition of science fiction raising and discussing unspoken fears and critiques. IE, we can view The War of the Worlds as an allegory for 1890s British fears and intellectual debates.
In the book, Martians invade the Earth to colonize it and exterminate or enslave humanity. Consequently, many observers view The War of the Worlds as an attack on 19th Century racism, colonialism, and imperialism.
Additionally, Wells was giving voice to unspoken British fears of the 1890s. In 1897, the British Empire was the most powerful entity on Earth, but it had serious rivals. By 1897, many Britons were aware of aggressive rivals including Imperial Germany, Russia, The United States, and Japan.
Notably, American imperialism began with the Spanish American War of 1898, and Japanese imperialism began in the First Sino-Japanese War or War of Jiawu in 1894-1895. Moreover, Britain and France almost went to war in the Fashoda Incident in the Sudan in 1898. German imperialism began in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, in which Prussian Armies quickly and unexpectedly destroyed Napoleon III’s Second French Empire.
Thus, we can view H. G. Wells’ Martians as metaphors for American, French, German, or Japanese soldiers marching through London. The British fear in 1897 was that their exceptionalism and almost a century of peace were about to end.
That fear proved prophetic. The Boer War in which Afrikaner guerrillas humiliated British armies broke out in 1899, and the First World War began in 1914. Just 20 years after the publication of The War of The Worlds, German aircraft were dropping bombs on London.
Since 1897, Wells’ Martians have expressed popular fears in other eras. In 1938, Orson Welles frightened Depression-Era America with a War of the Worlds Halloween Special on his Mercury Theatre of the Air radio show. Welles presented the story as a series of mock newscasts that many listeners mistook for genuine news.
Orson Welles’ Martians frightened America because the world was on the eve of World War II in 1938. Japanese Armies were on the rampage in China, Hitler was annexing his neighbors, and the Soviet Union was sending airplanes over US airspace in the 1930s. By 1938, many people correctly assumed war was inevitable.
Tellingly, a little over three years after the War of the Worlds radio hysteria, America’s isolationism ended with a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that destroyed most of the Pacific Fleet.
In 1953, Producer George Pal’s Technicolor version of The War of the Worlds frightened an America that the Korean War and McCarthyism had rattled. In the movie, America’s military might cannot protect Los Angeles from Martian invaders. A frightening metaphor just 12 years after Pearl Harbor.
In 2005, Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds scared an America that was still reeling from September 11. Moreover, Spielberg’s film raised moral questions about the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The War of the Worlds was not the first science fiction novel, but it was the most influential. In particular, H. G. Wells politicized the genre by introducing contemporary ideological debates into a sci-fi story.
The War of the Worlds created a new genre of literature and provoked discussions about extraterrestrial life that continue to this day. Most of all, The War of the Worlds was the first book to admit the obvious truth that Earth is not the center of the universe. A reality that humanity finds hard to accept 125 years after its publication.