We Didn't Start the Fire

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We Didn't Start the Fire

Literature Mentioned in Billy Joel's Song

In 1989, musician Billy Joel released, "We Didn't Start the Fire," a song listing some of the most important headlines from his forty years of life up to that point, creating a snapshot of a large portion of the twentieth century. In addition to historical events, people, movies, TV and more, there are also a few items linked to literature -- some just author’s names and a few specific titles as well. While not all that are in the song, here are a few that he mentions.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
This novel is often included on lists of the best English-language novels and also frequently challenged for its use of profanity and sexual themes. A coming-of-age story filled with teenage angst and rebellion, it tells the story of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield as he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
While the song is probably referring to both the animated film and the stage musical from the mid-1950s, they were based on the beloved children’s classic that is the quintessential story of the desire of children (and many adults too!) to never grow up. After coming through their bedroom window one night in search of his shadow, Peter Pan takes Wendy Darling and her two brothers, John and Michael, to the magical world of Neverland. There they have many adventures but also must face the fearsome Captain Hook.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Mentioned in the song just by his last name, Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 for this novel; however, he was compelled to deny it and faced rejection by Soviet authorities. This story explores the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a family in Russia. Even though it was an international bestseller before that, it was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Also mentioned just by the author’s last name, On the Road is a semi-autobiographical, fictionalized account of Kerouac’s own journey with a friend from New York to San Francisco and then south to Mexico. Traveling by bus and hitching rides, cut off from conventional society, the two see an America that few experience.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
While none of his titles are mentioned specifically (the position in the song indicates he is referring to Hemingway’s suicide in 1961), The Old Man and the Sea is one of Ernest Hemingway’s most famous works. Cuban fisherman Santiago sets out for a day of fishing after a long time of no luck and manages to hook a large marlin. However, his journey is just beginning as he must now struggle against the marlin as he finds a way to bring this fish back to shore with his small boat. You can also find other works by Hemingway in our catalog as well.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
In one of the classics of the science fiction genre, the protagonist is a human man who was raised on Mars. He has now returned to Earth to live among his fellow humans but finds that their culture and social interaction is completely alien and confusing to him, and he is the same to them.