stack of bestsellers image
Rave Reviews: Bestselling Fiction in America
University of Virginia Library
stack of bestsellers image
Introduction to the Exhibit
The Taylor Collection of Popular American Fiction
Making the Bestseller List
Types of Bestsellers
Beyond the Book
Current Bestsellers
Readers Tell Their Stories
More on the Bestseller Phenomenon

Types of Bestsellers

Social Criticism and Attitudes

Contemporary social and political concerns have sparked some of the most instantly popular, although less often enduring, literature in America. From Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776) to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851) to William Harvey's Coin's Financial School (1894) to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), American authors have used both fiction and non-fiction to argue the issues of the day and to promote political programs. The early decades of the twentieth century saw the heyday of the novel of social change, but since the 1960s, such novels have become scarce at the top of the bestseller lists.


On April 1, 1852, in the last installment of her great Abolitionist novel, serialized in The National Era, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in her farewell address: "Dear children . . . Remember the sweet example of little Eva, and try to feel the same regard for all that she did; and then, when you grow up, we hope that the foolish and unchristian prejudice against people, merely on account of their complexion, will be done away with."


Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. London: J. Cassell, 1852.
From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers. Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.


"'The greatest temperance book of the decade … Uncle Tom's Cabin of the prohibition movement.' The stage version by William Pratt opened in 1858, and became a popular road show, and then a movie in 1911. Another movie version was made in 1921." Frank Mott, Golden Multitudes.


Arthur, T[imothy] S[hay]. Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, and What I Saw There. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo; J. W. Bradley, 1854
From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers. Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.


Written and published under the pseudonym "Edward William Sydney" in 1836 but with an imprint date on the title page of 1856, The Partisan Leader was subtitled A Tale of the Future. The work predicted that federal interference with states' rights might cause a civil war and was suppressed until 1861 when it was republished as A Key to the Disunion Conspiracy. The author, (Nathaniel) Beverley Tucker, was a Virginian, a judge, and a professor of law at William and Mary.


Tucker, [Nathaniel] Beverley. A Key to the Disunion Conspiracy: The Partisan Leader. New York: Reprinted by Rudd and Carleton, 1861.
From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers. Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.


The editor of the socialist journal, Appeal to Reason, commissioned and serialized Upton Sinclair's sixth novel. Doubleday published the book, and when Teddy Roosevelt read it, he ordered an investigation of the meatpacking industry that resulted in the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Meat Inspection Act (1906). Sinclair, who had hoped that The Jungle would change labor laws, said, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach."


Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1906.
From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers. Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.


Charles Gilman Norris was the brother of the naturalist author Frank Norris and, like his brother, wrote novels on a variety of social issues. Seed was published a year after Margaret Sanger formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control. Her effort failed, but in 1936, the U.S. Court of Appeals exempted doctors from the ban on the importation of birth-control devices. The ban extended to private individuals until 1971.


Norris, Charles Gilman. Seed: A Novel of Birth Control. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1930.
From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers. Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.


John Steinbeck's best-selling novel won him a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Despite these accolades, some accused The Grapes of Wrath of being communist because of its savage critique of American agricultural economics.

In 1940, the director John Ford made it into a popular movie, starring Henry Fonda.


Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Laura Hobson worked on this exposé of anti-Semitism, her second novel, for four years. Cosmopolitan serialized the book, and when Simon and Schuster published it, the first printing of 30,000 sold out in three days. It held the number one spot on the bestseller list for nine consecutive weeks. The movie version, starring Gregory Peck and directed by Elia Kazan, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1948.


Hobson, Laura Z. A Gentleman's Agreement. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1947.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Harper Lee's first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is narrated by the six-year-old daughter of Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends a black man charged with raping a white woman. Published in 1960, the book was featured by three different book clubs and condensed by Reader's Digest. It reached number three on the 1961 annual bestseller list and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1962, the movie version won Gregory Peck an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Finch.


Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1960.
From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers. Purchased with the Robert Taylor Fund and the Library Associates Endowment for Rare Books and Manuscripts.


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