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25 Writers Who Changed the World

by Staff Writers

By Lauren Bailey

The written word has the power to generate ideas, inspire revolutions, and change the way we view ourselves and our place in history. Nowhere is this power more clear than in the works of the authors on this list. These 25 writers changed the world and its writing with their style and beliefs, and the works they created — from fictional epics to philosophical creeds — have had a lasting impact on people and cultures around the world. (And more than a few have won the Nobel Prize to prove it.) Even if they aren’t required reading for an online college course, you should do yourself a favor and check them out.

  1. William Faulkner: One of the most influential authors to ever come out of the Southern United States, William Faulkner churned out a body of work in the early 20th century that took a few years to find acceptance among a wider audience. Between 1929 and 1936, he released four novels — The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! — that would define his stream-of-consciousness style and his explorations of morality using characters set in his native Mississippi. He also wrote screenplays for director Howard Hawks, contributing to The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not, but it was his literary body of that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1949, which brought him a new level of fame. He’s influenced countless writers from the South and across the country.
  2. Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Born in Colombia in 1927, Gabriel Garcia Marquez first made his literary mark as a journalist, during which time he and a few other writers formed the Barranquilla Group to share works and inspire each other. Later venturing into fiction, Garcia Marquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude, a dazzling work inspired by his home country and the war he had seen. The book was the author’s first major work to dabble in magical realism, a blending of genres that would color his body of work for decades. He also wrote Love in the Time of Cholera, a non-traditional love story that approaches romance from a unique point of view. His lifelong explorations of relationships and isolation have earned him the Nobel Prize.
  3. Henrik Ibsen: Henrik Ibsen, born in Norway in 1828, is widely regarded as one of the most pivotal figures in modern drama and a founder of the modernist movement in theater. His plays were groundbreaking for the way they frankly addressed social and moral issues of the day with much more directness than Victorian society tended to prefer, turning Ibsen into a sensationalist presence in the theater world. A Doll’s House is perhaps his most famous work from his extensive body of plays, and is memorable for its attack on 19th-century marriage and its anti-feminist trappings. (Like many of the authors on this list, Ibsen’s work became a touchstone for a disenfranchised class of people, in this case, women.) Later works like Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder went even further, eschewing Victorian commentary altogether to grapple with complex moral issues.
  4. Franz Kafka: How many writers make such an impact that their name becomes an adjective describing works reminiscent of their own style? These days, whenever a story takes a surreal or horrific turn that highlights the unconquerable complexity of a faceless system, it’s called "Kafkaesque." The Trial is a harrowing novel about a man persecuted by an omniscient authority for a crime whose nature is never revealed. The Metamorphosis is a similarly disturbing book in which the narrator awakens to learn he’s turned into a giant bug. Kafka’s stories probe the darker and less traveled areas of the human condition, and though he was only 40 when he died in 1924 (he starved to death when tuberculosis made eating too painful), his works earned him a reputation as one of the most original writers of the 20th century.
  5. William Butler Yeats: The first Irishman to ever win the Nobel Prize for literature, William Yeats was a groundbreaking poet whose work ushered in that portion of the Celtic Revival referred to as the Irish Literary Revival, a movement in the early 20th century which Yeats and other writers brought Irish writing to a wider audience. His use of symbolism within traditional poetic style inspired generations of other writers. His poem "The Second Coming" contains many powerful and now-famous uses of Christian imagery in its social criticism.
  6. Mary Wollstonecraft: The mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley was an accomplished writer and public figure long before her daughter’s novel shook the world. Mary Wollstonecraft, born in 1759, was a pioneering force in British feminism and philosophy. Her most famous work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argued that women deserved as much education and as many opportunities as men, and that for society to regard women as ornaments for their husbands instead of companions was to do them a tragic disservice. Published in 1792, just five years before she died, Wollstonecraft’s treatise became a cornerstone in the growing intellectual movement to grant women equal rights with men.
  7. Henry David Thoreau: Without the 19th-century writings and observations of Henry David Thoreau, the 20th century might have gone very differently. His earnest reflections on peace and nature in Walden inspired thousands of naturalists, and his book Civil Disobedience, in which he argues of the necessity of peacefully resisting an immoral government, was a touchstone in the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thoreau was also an ardent abolitionist and leader in the field of transcendentalism, which (basically) taught that a person’s perfect spiritual state was best attained through their own intuition and not through established religions.
  8. Frederick Douglass: Born into slavery before escaping to freedom, Frederick Douglass was a leading light in the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, and his writings allowed him to travel the world and speak on behalf of equality and justice. He wrote three autobiographies tracing his life and journeys, and each of them is a classic: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; My Bondage and My Freedom; and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
  9. Upton Sinclair: Upton Sinclair’s work as a journalist and novelist were integral in some of the biggest changes in the fields of industry and public health in the first half of the 20th century. His 1906 novel The Jungle was a peak in the muckraking movement (the journalistic practice of exposing corruption at high levels), and Sinclair spent weeks undercover at a meat-packing plant in Chicago to get the lurid facts for his book. When it hit shelves, people were so distraught by the unhealthy conditions he described that meat sales in the U.S. plummeted. The book’s influence urged the government to play a better role in food safety and led eventually to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
  10. Jose Marti: A hero in his native Cuba, Jose Marti is often called the "Apostle of Cuban Independence" for his writings and political work in which he argued for Cuba’s independence from Spain in the 19th century. His writings advocated Cuban sovereignty from all foreign rulers, including the United States. Marti died in action in 1895, three years before Cuba achieved its dream of independence.
  11. Harriet Beecher Stowe: Another fierce abolitionist who railed against slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe is best known for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, released in 1852. The book detailed the lives of slaves in realistic ways and helped make the issues of inequality understandable and accessible to millions of Americans. How popular was the book? It was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and the second-best-selling book of the century, period, behind only the Bible. Interestingly, while Stowe intended the title character of Tom to be a noble, Christian slave, various "Tom shows" that took advantage of weak copyright laws sprung up nationwide, and those stage plays often differed drastically from Stowe’s novel and intent. The spread of these shows, as well as the pervasive cultural stereotypes inspired by the book, eventually turned the phrase "Uncle Tom" into a pejorative term aimed at African-Americans perceived as too eager to please white people. Still, there’s no denying Stowe’s tremendous impact.
  12. Charles Darwin: It’s impossible to underestimate the impact or importance of Charles Darwin’s work as a scientist in the 1800s. His theory of evolution and common animal ancestry have polarized readers ever since. He wrote multiple books on the subject, but his best-known is likely 1859’s On the Origin of Species, which laid the foundations for evolutionary biology and changed the world forever. The impact on scientific study and religious doctrine has been massive.
  13. Thomas Aquinas: Saint Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225-1274, was a pivotal theological figure whose writings are still read and cherished by worshippers worldwide. He’s revered as one of the greatest philosophers in the history of the Catholic Church, thanks to his Summa Theologica ("Summary of Theology") and Summa contra Gentiles. Despite the fact that the Summa Theologica went unfinished, it became a foundational text in theological circles and summed up the Church’s teachings at the time. His works even gave rise to a school of philosophy about them: Thomism.
  14. Thomas Paine: Long before this Founding Father had his works co-opted by cable hosts, he was known for his political writings distributed in the pamphlet Common Sense. He argued strongly for American independence from British rule, and even left England for the Colonies in order to be a part of the burgeoning American Revolution. The pamphlet became a smash success and helped galvanize public opinion behind the Revolution.
  15. Karl Marx: The man whose name is still a lightning rod for passionate argument about the ups and downs of the free market, Karl Marx penned The Communist Manifesto, one of the most powerful and influential political texts in history. He believed that capitalism would eventually crumble from internal tension, leading to a stateless or "pure" communism. Marx wrote the book with Friedrich Engels, with whom he also developed the belief system known as Marxism, the details of which are much better explained here.
  16. Simone de Beauvoir: One of the major female writers of the 20th century and a key player in the century’s feminist movement, French author Simone de Beauvoir broke ground with The Second Sex, an examination of the role women have played in society throughout history. The book attacked men for labeling women as a mysterious "Other," claiming that they used this as an excuse to ignore women and refuse to understand them. The book also did drastic things for the understanding and study of gender roles versus sexuality.
  17. Rene Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." That simple sentence shook the world. Rene Descartes made huge contributions to the fields of mathematics (the Cartesian coordinate system) and philosophy, with his Discourse on the Method containing that famous phrase that crystallized his approach to existence and rationality. Descartes reasoned that the only thing for sure he can know is that he’s a thinking thing, which is the most distilled form and explanation of existence.
  18. Dante Alighieri: This Middle Age poet is known for his Divine Comedy, a sprawling work that includes three volumes and is regarded to be one of the best works in history. The three volumes of the epic poem — Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio — chart Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory and into Paradise, acting as a parallel of a soul’s journey through the world to reach God. Its power and success helped earn Dante the nickname "The Supreme Poet."
  19. Adam Smith: First published in 1776, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is a masterwork in economic theory that argues the benefits of a free-market economy. Many of today’s economic theories and arguments can be traced back to Smith’s work. His earlier publication, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, discussed the "invisible hand," the self-regulating aspect of the free market.
  20. Fyodor Dostoyevsky: One of the masters of Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoyevsky used his novels and short stories to profoundly explore human relationships, psychology, and religious beliefs. Crime and Punishment dealt with morality in a frank and moving way, and his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was also renowned for its ethical musings on nature, God, and moral choices. His works influenced many other writers, including Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce.
  21. Niccolo Machiavelli: Machiavelli’s most famous work, and the one that would make his name a household phrase, wasn’t published until five years after his death. The Prince was a political treatise about how political power can be obtained and held, often through extreme measures. As a result, the word "Machiavellian" soon entered the lexicon to mean any move or series of actions in which power is acquired at the expense of innocents.
  22. Sigmund Freud: Sigmund Freud’s name is synonymous with mental health. He founded the field of psychoanalysis and gained notoriety for his theories about how sexual desire was the main driver behind human action. He published a multitude of books and papers on psychiatry, including The Interpretation of Dreams and Beyond the Pleasure Principle. His theories revolutionized psychiatry and had a lasting impact on the field.
  23. Carl Jung: Another major player in brain matters, Carl Jung is noted as the founder of analytical psychology. His psychological studies and theories gave rise to a number of concepts still used today, including the use of archetypes to explain behavior and the existence of the collective unconscious. Another popular psychiatric assessment tool, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, sprang up from Jung’s theories.
  24. Plato: Student of Socrates and mentor to Aristotle, Plato is one of the most influential and important figures in the history of Western philosophy. His writings have been circulated and published worldwide for centuries, and there are 36 dialogues and 13 letters to his name. His Socratic dialogues (in which Socrates plays a major role in the discussion) explore a host of philosophical issues, with The Republic ranking among one of Plato’s best. The dialogue examines the quality of justice in governmental and individual terms, and it remains a cornerstone of political theory to this day.
  25. William Shakespeare: What’s there to say? William Shakespeare is widely and accurately regarded as the best writer in the history of the English language. His stunning body of plays and poems have shaped modern drama in innumerable ways. His comedies were witty and quick, and his dramas — including Hamlet and Macbeth — rank among some of the best works ever produced. He’s a writer who didn’t just change the world; he helped create it.