Carl Jensen, editor, |
Stories that Changed America
(Seven Stories, 2000; 2003)
One of the great things about America has always been its ability to be changed. To the casual observer there is a perception that this huge nation is constant and unchanging, but this collection of excerpts from writing of the 20th century is a great barometer of its flexibility. But it is also true that change never comes easy and that there are bad things about the country that are not changed yet.
Here we find pieces by writers from Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck and Woodward & Bernstein, all names we have heard before. In my ignorance I confess that Rachel Carson, I.F. Stone and George Seldes were unknown to me, but having read this groundbreaking book I sought them out.
The excerpts printed here are important, thought-provoking and exciting, but the biographical and background details offered by Jensen are equally fascinating.
The works of Sinclair and Steinbeck show how novels can influence life. The former wrote in The Jungle about the Chicago stockyards, and his book caused such reaction that practices changed. Steinbeck did the same for migrant workers and their families with The Grapes of Wrath.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson brought the world to its senses concerning chemicals and their effects on wildlife and humans. The excerpt used here, of a fictional town where everything sickens and dies, is still powerful a half-century later. Jensen tells us of the efforts of big business to denounce the writing and how the fact the President Kennedy read it eventually led to action being taken.
Edward R. Murrow will be a name familiar to American readers but perhaps less so to others. Stone and Seldes were pioneers of truth in journalism at a time when the influence of independent and true investigative journalists was losing its power. Through a commitment to truth they left mainstream journalism and founded journals that eschewed advertising in order to report unhindered.
The American Way of Death is one of those books that more people know by name than by acquaintance or reading. It lifted the lid of the funeral casket and showed how commercialism changed lifestyle. It is amazing to read of undertakers becoming funeral directors, coffins becoming caskets and deceased becoming "dearly beloved." The point being that the new labels all came with a higher price tag.
The subtitle of this book is "Muckrakers of the 20th Century." My cry is that more muck needs to be raked and well into the 21st century. Unfortunately, the scope of investigative journalism is narrowing. More powerful corporations own more of our newspapers and magazines. The number of titles diminishes. The advertisers wield more power. We see less of the truth and more of the propaganda. Unfortunately, we are not being educated to tell truth from fiction. News is instantaneous but in the rush to "breaking news" we often get untruth.
This book should be required reading in every college and school. In a media world, citizens must know that all that is broadcast is not necessarily truth.