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The thirteen books you must read to understand America
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
A dozen books? A hundred—or a thousand—books would not do the job. All countries are hard to understand, and despite its brief history, the United States of America is harder to understand than most, because of its size in dreams, because of its obstreperousness, and because of its heterogeneity. Still, for all this, the United States has an unmistakable national identity. Here, in chronological order, are books that have described, defined, and enriched America’s sense of itself. I am dismayed at all the significant works so brief a list must leave out, but I do think that these particular choices illuminate in a major way what Ralph Ellison called “the mystery of American identity”: how we Americans are at once many and one.
(1787–88) originated as an explanation and defense of the American Constitution. It survives as a brilliant exposition of the first principles of democratic government. Written mostly by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison , the eighty-five Federalist papers were published between October 1787 and May 1788 in New York City newspapers, were reprinted throughout the thirteen states, and were read avidly during the debates over the ratification of the Constitution—and have been read avidly ever since. Can one imagine any newspaper today, even the august New York Times , running a series of such length and weight (except when blackmailed into doing so by the Unabomber)?
Thomas Jefferson (Library of America, 1984). Jefferson embodied much of American versatility within himself. He was an architect, an educator, an inventor, a paleontologist, an oenophile, a fiddler, an astute diplomat, a crafty politician, and a luminous prophet of liberty in words that light the human way through the centuries. President John F. Kennedy once called a dinner of Nobel Prize winners the most extraordinary collection of human knowledge ever to be gathered together at the White House “with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
But Jefferson was a man of contradictions: a champion of human freedom who did not, as George Washington had done, set his slaves free at his death; a champion of the free press who favored prosecuting editors for seditious libel; a champion of the strict construction of the Constitution who bent the sacred document for the sake of the Louisiana Purchase. Other early Presidents, observed Henry Adams, our most brilliant historian, could be painted with broad brushstrokes, but Jefferson “could be painted only touch by touch, with a fine pencil, and the perfection of the likeness depended upon the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transparent shadows.” That invaluable publishing project the Library of America brings together in a single volume Jefferson’s most notable writings, including his Autobiography , his major addresses, and a selection of his letters.
Alexis de Tocqueville (two volumes, 1835, 1840). The concept of “national character” has been under a cloud in scholarly circles, but can anyone really deny that Englishmen tend to be different from Frenchmen, and Germans from Italians? And can anyone read this extraordinary book about a country of thirteen million people along the Atlantic seaboard without seeing how much of the description and analysis still applies to the nation of 265 million stretching from sea to sea?
When Tocqueville, a twenty-five-year-old French nobleman, arrived in the United States in 1831, he was more interested in democracy than he was in America—or rather he was interested in America as a test case of the “great democratic revolution” that, he felt, was “universal and irresistible” and destined to transform the world. The grand question was whether this revolution would lead to “democratic tyranny.” Though concerned about the “tyranny of the majority,” Tocqueville believed that the power of voluntary associations and intermediate institutions had put America on the road to democratic liberty. He traveled around the country from May 1831 to February 1832 (and never came back). But in those nine months he saw more deeply into American institutions and the American character than anyone before or since. More than a century and a half later, his great work still illuminates American society.
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.”
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.
Henry Adams (1918). Where William James saw the future as a great adventure, his friend and contemporary Henry Adams looked on it with foreboding. Oppressed by the exponential rate of scientific and technological change, Adams doubted that the human mind could keep abreast of the relentless transformations wrought by the increasing velocity of history.
The challenge, as Adams saw it, was to control the new energies created and unleashed by science and technology. This required education, and looking back at his own education, Adams believed that “in essentials like religion, ethics, philosophy; in history, literature, art; in the concepts of all science, except perhaps mathematics, the American boy of 1854 [when he went to Harvard, at the age of sixteen] stood nearer the year 1 than to the year 1900. The education he had received bore little relation to the education he needed.”
The Education describes Adams’s attempts to grapple with the emerging era. Along the way he distributes fascinating portraits of politicians and writers, fascinating accounts of historical episodes, fascinating reflections on the changing world. “The new Americans,” he said, “must, whether they were fit or unfit, create a world of their own, a science, a society, a philosophy, a universe, where they had not yet created a road or even learned to dig their own iron.” Could the new Americans rise to the challenge?
“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.”