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The thirteen books you must read to understand America
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
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.”
And it is because the novel’s climactic scene so wonderfully dramatizes the essential American struggle of the individual against absolutes. Huck, responding for a moment to conventional morality, decides that the “plain hand of Providence” requires him to tell Miss Watson where she can locate Jim, her runaway slave and Huck’s companion on the Mississippi raft. Huck feels suddenly virtuous, “all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life.” He reflects on his narrow escape: “How near I come to being lost and going to hell.”
Then Huck begins to remember Jim and the rush of the great river and the singing and the laughing and the comradeship. He takes up the letter to Miss Watson, the letter of betrayal, and holds it in his hand. “I was a-trembling because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself; ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’—and tore it up.”
That, it may be said, is what America is all about. No wonder William Dean Howells called Mark Twain “the Lincoln of our literature.”
James Bryce (two volumes, 1888). Bryce, a Scotsman born in Belfast in 1838, was one of those Victorian figures of fantastic energy, curiosity, versatility, and fluency, an expert in law, politics, diplomacy, history, literature, and mountaineering. He made his first visit to America in 1870 and, unlike Tocqueville, often came back, serving from 1907 to 1913 as British ambassador in Washington.
Bryce’s mind was less probing and philosophical than Tocqueville’s. His passion for facts has had the ironic effect of making The American Commonwealth more dated than Democracy in America , since facts in America change all the time. But Bryce was a canny observer of institutions, and his observations have great value for historians. He spent much more time than Tocqueville on the party system and on state and local government. His chapters on “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen President” and “Why the Best Men Do Not Go Into Politics” strike chords today. His analysis of the role of public opinion, “the great central point of the whole American polity,” opened a new field of investigation. His aphorisms still reverberate: The Constitution “is the work of men who believed in original sin, and were resolved to leave open for transgressors no door which they could possibly shut.” “The student of institutions, as well as the lawyer, is apt to overrate the effect of mechanical contrivances in politics.” And, above all, “Perhaps no form of government needs great leaders so much as democracy.”
William James (two volumes, Library of America, 1987, 1992). The most American of philosophers, a wonderfully relaxed, humane, and engaging writer (his brother, Henry, people used to say, wrote novels like a psychologist, while William wrote psychology like a novelist), he moved on from psychology to philosophy. James’s pragmatism, with its argument that the meaning of ideas lies in their practical consequences, could not have been more in the American vein.
So, too, was his argument for pluralism and an open universe against those who contend for a monist system and a closed universe. People, James wrote, can discover partial and limited truths, truths that work for them, but no one can discover absolute truths. He rejected the notion that the world can be understood from a single point of view, as he rejected the assumption that all virtuous principles are in the end reconcilable and “the great single-word answers to the world’s riddle” and “the pretense of finality in truth.” He had an exhilarating faith in the adventure of an unfinished universe. The Library of America has done its usual masterful job in bringing his books and essays together in two compact volumes.