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Promised Land

Works that reflect America's aims and desires.

By Matthew Battles / December 25, 2008

Despite its relatively short history, the variety and abundance of American literature can be troublesome to would-be canon-makers. What best represents the essence of American letters?

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The national mythologizing of James Fenimore Cooper? Or perhaps the song-struck polyamory of Walt Whitman or the haunted lyrics of Emily Dickinson?

What about Ernest Hemingway’s astringency? Or the eloquence of Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Is the righteous muckraking of Upton Sinclair most quintessentially American – or is that surpassed by the profound critiques of America’s race culture offered by Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison?

How about none of the above?

For none of the authors hinted at here appear on the list of transformative works that Jay Parini elucidates in Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America.

To point this out is not to criticize Parini’s project, but only to indicate the extent to which concocting a list of exalted books is a Sisyphean task, even for a poet, novelist, and critic of Parini’s accomplishments.

It’s a task Parini has nonetheless shouldered, and the results are bracing, if sometimes curious. For each of his 13 selections, Parini offers an essay explaining that work’s significance to US culture.

Wisely, Parini sets aside literary excellence as the chief criterion for the works he chooses; instead, he fixes on social significance – “representative, not definitive works,” as he puts it, “nodal points, places where vast areas of thought are gathered and dispersed.”

The books he chooses fit the bill: Together, they chart the course of four centuries’ worth of American ambitions, desires, and fears.

The American Gilgamesh
“Promised Land” begins with “Of Plymouth Plantation,” William Bradford’s account of the Pilgrims’ experience in the colony he helped to lead. In a sense, Bradford’s tale is America’s Gilgamesh: The manuscript disappeared until the mid-19th century when it was rediscovered and published to electric effect. (It’s to the rejuvenation of the myth, and not the designs of the original Pilgrims, that we owe the good fortune of the Thanksgiving holiday.)

But Parini shows that our debt to the Pilgrims is also more comprehensive and more salutary. Plymouth’s leaders and residents strove together to advance the commonweal. As Bradford’s modest, humane account makes clear, the Pilgrims in their idealism were truly the first Americans.

The balance of Parini’s list focuses on a socio-historical sense of significance.


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