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?
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.
“The Federalist Papers” gave clear public voice to ideals of the US Constitution; “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” chartered a uniquely American character out of ideas about thrift and self-reliance – notions given contrapuntal piquancy and charge in Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” galvanized America’s conscience with respect to slavery; Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” illustrated the deformations of character and experience caused by that peculiar institution, while W.E.B. Dubois’s “The Souls of Black Folk” offered a glimpse of intellectual emancipation, and the spiritual exercises we would need to achieve it.
Lewis and Clark’s “Journals” mapped not only American territory, but the peculiar mix of ambition and poker-faced empiricism with which we relate to the wider world, while Mary Antin’s “The Promised Land,” nearly forgotten today, shaped the narrative of immigrants drawn to the power, wealth, and freedom America seems to offer.
Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” expressed America’s brutal utilitarianism, a vision of people as means rather than ends; Spock’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” offered consolation to parents who lacked the pan-generational wisdom of their grandparents.
Parini concludes with Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which charted the long-burning fallout of all this alienation and materialism, and Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique,” a fierce and brittle lens that focused the righteous resentment of the excluded and lit the way for change.
Finding a collective destiny in books
Admitting that American history offers a catalog of delusion and error, Parini nonetheless concludes that we have a “collective destiny, which our forebears have consciously shaped” – a destiny charted and documented in these books. While gently learned and gracefully composed, Parini’s essays come dangerously close to the too-satisfying sensation that everything has worked out as it should, that history has a meaning that reveals itself, however capriciously or haphazardly, in the fullness of time.
But this is no more true of books than it is of history. Books are often understood in very different lights in different times; the ecocritical force that “Walden” has for us today, for instance, would have mystified its first readers.
Perhaps chief among the capacities of great books is a quality shared by America itself: a tricky talent for self-reinvention.
Matthew Battles is a freelance writer in Jamaica Plain, Mass.