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Closing the Book

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The Library of Congress, with collections that are universal and comprise all media, has a long history of acknowledging the importance of books. Its “Books That Shaped America” exhibition is currently on view through Sept. 29 in the Southwest Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building. The exhibition is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day except Sunday.

The titles on view have had a profound effect on American life and encompass all genres, from history to biography to fiction to religion. Their settings are like a travel through time, from the founding of our nation to the old west to the jazz age to the future.

The Civil War – a period in our nation’s history that impacted how we lived our lives and governed ourselves for years to come – is also represented well among several books on the list.

Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” (1845)

Published less than seven years after Douglass had escaped and before his freedom was purchased, this slave narrative relates Douglass’s experiences growing up a slave in Maryland and was a testament for the need to abolish slavery.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852)

This best-selling novel of the 19th century was extremely influential in fueling antislavery sentiment during the decade preceding the Civil War. With her vivid sketches of slave sufferings and family separations, Stowe hoped to awaken sympathy for oppressed slaves and encourage Northerners to disobey the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass” (1855)

The publication of the first slim edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in 1855 was the debut of a masterpiece that shifted the course of American literary history. By his death in 1892, Leaves was a thick compendium that represented Whitman’s vision of America over nearly the entire last half of the nineteenth century. Among the collection’s best-known poems is “O Captain! My Captain!,” a metaphorical tribute to the slain Abraham Lincoln.

Stephen Crane, “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895)

Crane’s book has been called the greatest novel about the American Civil War. The story follows a young recruit in the Civil War who learns the cruelty of war and is notable for its vivid depiction of the internal conflict of its main character.

Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind” (1936)

Mitchell’s book set in the South during the Civil War won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and it remains popular, despite charges that its author had a blind eye regarding the horrors of slavery.




Toni Morrison, “Beloved” (1987)

Morrison won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her post-Civil War novel based on the true story of an escaped slave and the tragic consequences when a posse comes to reclaim her. The author won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, and in 2006 The New York Times named “Beloved” “the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years.”

The Library continues its look at the Civil War with a new exhibition, “The Civil War in America,” opening on Nov. 12. You can read more about it here. This blog post also serves as a sort-of “kick-off” to a weekly blog series offering an in-depth look at some of the special items that will be on display, those of which you can read more about here. The posts will run every Wednesday until the exhibition opening.


  1. It seems to me that alot of books at this Library of Congress are supposed to be for the research of Congress. Yet, there are still issues out there [in our world today], – left untouched. What would you say if in this country of ours – we have [in many states] legalized by Congress, house, senate and executive branch – ‘Obstruction of Justice’. HARD TO BELIEVE I WOULD SAY, WOULD NOT EVERYBODY!!

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