- Historic Sites
The thirteen books you must read to understand America
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
“Man has mounted science and is now run away with,” he had written in 1862, when the Monitor and the Merrimack were foreshadowing new technologies in the instrumentation of war. “I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science shall have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race shall commit suicide by blowing up the world.”
H. L. Mencken (1936; supplements 1945, 1948). Mencken, of course (but why do I write “of course”? He is very likely a forgotten man today), was one of the literary heroes of the 1920s. He was a master of exuberant irreverence, and he presented a satirical take on America with swashbuckling vigor of style and a liberating polemical tone. But in the 1930s Mencken fell out of sync with the national mood. The great cultural heretic of the twenties, he was a libertarian, not a democrat, and suddenly confronted by the harsh political antagonisms of the thirties, he seemed sour and mean-spirited.
But to his fans he redeemed himself by The American Language , his shrewd, copious, quite scholarly, highly entertaining account of the way a new language evolved out of the English spoken across the sea. This rich and readable book is a wonderful compendium of Americana. It shows, among other things, that assimilation, far from an unconditional surrender to Anglocentrism, has been a two-way street in which non-Anglo newcomers play an active part in transforming the English into the American language.
Gunnar Myrdal (1944). Racism has been an organic element in American life from the start. Jefferson had mixed views on the subject of race; Tocqueville had prescient comments along with mistaken prophecies; Mark Twain was haunted by the enigma of race; for Lincoln it was a central issue. But most of the time the race question has been ignored or denied. It took a Swedish economist commissioned by an American foundation to undertake the first full-dress, comprehensive study of blackwhite relations. Heading a team that included such black scholars as Ralph Bunche and Kenneth B. Clark, Gunnar Myrdal produced An American Dilemma in 1944, eightyone years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
This powerful work was not only an analysis: It was a challenge. Written during the war against Hitler and his theory of a master race, it called on Americans to discard their own theories of racial superiority and live up to the promises of equality implicit in what Myrdal termed the American Creed. Myrdal was unduly optimistic in thinking that the American Creed by itself could overcome the pathologies of racism. But his work encouraged the activism of blacks, and it pricked the consciences of whites. And the account it offers of the conditions under which black Americans lived, worked, and died half a century ago provides a heartening measure of the changes that have taken place since its publication.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1952). The most influential American theologian of the century, Niebuhr approached American history from a neo-orthodox religious perspective—that is, from a tempered, nonfundamentalist belief in original sin (defined as the self-pride that mistakes the relative for the absolute), in the ambiguities of human nature, in divine judgment on human pretensions, and in the incompleteness of life within history. It is necessary, he wrote in this book, to understand “the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historicconfigurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue.”
Like William James, Niebuhr was a relativist and a pluralist who scorned monists and absolutists. Like Lincoln, he was especially critical of those whose vainglory leads them to suppose they grasp the purposes of the Almighty. By irony Niebuhr meant the situation that arises when the consequences of an action are contrary to the intentions of the actors because of weaknesses inherent in the actors themselves. This concept informed his reading of American history. Americans, Niebuhr felt, are too much inclined to believe in their own innocence and righteousness and too reluctant to recognize the self-regard in their own souls. He deplored the national inability “to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history.”
Niebuhr’s interpretation of the American past is wise and chastening, and it is deep in the American tradition. His conception of democracy is akin to that of the men who made the Constitution. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” he wrote in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness , “but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”