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The thirteen books you must read to understand America
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
Ralph Waldo Emerson (Library of America, 1983). No one has expressed the American faith in the sovereignty of the individual more brilliantly, lyrically, and sardonically than Emerson. Born in 1803, trained for the Unitarian ministry, he left the pulpit for the lecture platform, from which he expounded his transcendentalist philosophy in crackling aphorisms.
Some critics have decried what they see as Emerson’s shallow optimism, but underneath his alleged disregard of the problem of evil and his allegedly guileless faith in intuition lie shrewd, skeptical, hard-edged, almost ruthless Yankee insights into human nature. “For every benefit you receive,” Emerson said, “a tax is levied.” It is this tough side of Emerson that appealed in the nineteenth century to Hawthorne, Carlyle, and Nietzsche and that appeals to postmodernists today. The Library of America volume contains his masterly study of national character English Traits , the penetrating biographical portraits in Representative Men , and his essays. For the tough-minded Emerson, read “History,” “Self-Reliance,” “Experience,” and, in The Conduct of Life , “Power” and “Fate.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852). She was forty years old, the wife of a professor of biblical literature, the mother of seven children, when her indignation over the forced return of slaves to bondage under the Fugitive Slave Act led her to write the most influential novel in American history. The book sold three hundred thousand copies in its first year—equivalent to a sale of three million copies in the 1990s. “So this is the little lady who made this big war,” Lincoln is supposed to have said to her.
Huckleberry Finn ’s climactic scene so wonderfully dramatizes the essential American struggle that it’s no wonder Howells called Mark Twain “the Lincoln of our literature.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is remembered for its vivid depiction of the horrors of slavery—and often misremembered, because so many images derive from the stage versions rather than from the novel itself. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is far more than the sentimental melodrama of “the Tom shows.” It is a wonderfully shrewd and nuanced panorama of American life in the decade before the Civil War, rich in its variety of characters, settings, and perceptions. Mrs. Stowe may not in every respect meet contemporary standards of political correctness, but she was radical for her time in her insights and sympathies—one of the first, for example, to use the term human rights . Frederick Douglass called Uncle Tom’s Cabin a book “plainly marked by the finger of God.”
Abraham Lincoln (two volumes, Library of America, 1989). The most miraculous of Presidents, he was the best writer and the most intense moralist, with the most disciplined intelligence and the greatest strength of purpose, and yet he sprang out of the bleakest and most unpromising of circumstances. Confronting the supreme test and tragedy of American nationhood, he saw the crisis in perspective—“with malice toward none, with charity for all”—but never let perspective sever the nerve of action.
His Gettysburg Address amended the work of the Founding Fathers by leaving no doubt that the United States was a single nation based on the proposition that all men are created equal. And his Second Inaugural affirmed human limitations by declaring that “the Almighty has His own purposes”—purposes that erring mortals could never ascertain. “Men are not flattered,” he later wrote, “by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however … is to deny that there is a God governing the world.”
Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) (1884). What piece of imaginative writing best expresses the spirit of America? A strong case can be made for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick , for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass , for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter . But in the end one is compelled to go for Huck Finn .
This is because of the mordant way Mark Twain depicts antebellum America and the corruptions encouraged by a system in which people owned other people as private property—the hypocrisy, the sanctimoniousness, the humbuggery, the murderous feuds, the lynch mobs, the overhanging climate of brutality and violence.
It is also because of the language. Huck Finn is the first purely American novel. In it Mark Twain shows how the colloquial idiom spoken by an uneducated boy can express the most subtle perceptions and exquisite appreciations. The book liberated American writers. “All modern American literature,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Green Hills of Africa , “comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn . … All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing so good since.”