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Ten Books That Shaped The American Character
Walden is here, of course; but so too is Fanny Farmer’s first cookbook
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
America is not a nation of readers, yet books have had a deep and lasting effect on its national life. By comparison with the Russians, whose thirst for books—especially contraband books—is legendary, we pay them scant attention; Walker Percy once dolefully estimated that the hard-core audience for serious literature in this country of two hundred and thirty million is perhaps one or two million, and he probably was not far off. True though that may be, it remains that had it not been for a number of hugely influential books, this nation might well be an almost unrecognizably different place.
Without Thomas Paine’s Common Sense , how broad and enthusiastic would support have been for the chancy business of revolt against the British crown? Without Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin , how strong would sentiment have been in the industrial North for the abolitionist cause? Without Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle , would Congress have roused itself to pass the Meat Inspection Act of 1906? Without Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring , what would the environmental movement look like now- or would one even exist? Without Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed , would there be such a thing as consumer protection?
These are the obvious ones, the books that had direct and easily traceable effect on public policy. Among the others of comparable influence must certainly be numbered The Federalist , by Alexander Hamilton et al; Progress and Poverty , by Henry George; Looking Backward , by Edward Bellamy; The Shame of the Cities , by Lincoln Steffens; The Best and the Brightest , by David Halberstam. Add these five titles to the five in the paragraph above, and there you have it—ten books that shaped America.
That, in fact, was precisely my initial instinct when I was invited to draw up such a list under such a heading: to find ten books that changed the political life of the nation. But that, as it turned out, was a simple and rather boring task; the books chose themselves with little help from me, and even allowing for some notable omissions—Paine’s The Rights of Man , George Bancroft’s History of the United States , Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution —the list is an amply representative one. But there is nothing especially surprising, or interesting, or provocative about it. I wanted something better.
What might be more profitably considered, I thought, would be those books that have had a less celebrated yet equally large effect on the daily life of the nation—not its political life but its cultural, social, and domestic life. What are ten titles, I wondered, that have extended their influence from the relatively small circle of regular readers into the general culture of the nation? What are the books that can be said to have helped shape that vague but endlessly fascinating creature called the American character?
They had to be books written by Americans, I determined, and thus I said a rueful farewell to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans . No children’s books, though it almost broke my heart to eliminate my own boyhood favorite, Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy . No textbooks, though a solid case can be made that the most influential books in the nation’s history were William Holmes McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers . No religious books, because that is a separate inquiry unto itself and a can of worms into the bargain. And Webster be damned: no dictionaries or encyclopedias.
No, these had to be books issued for the general trade that for one reason or another worked their way into the fabric of American life. As it turned out, several of those I finally chose had small sales upon original publication: it took the country a while to figure out what they were about and why they were important. As it further turned out, only four of the ten I chose can be said to have genuine literary merit; the presence in our public life of Hawthorne and Melville, Faulkner and Frost, is depressingly small, however great it may be in the groves of academe and the libraries of serious readers.
Only four of the ten books I chose have any genuine literary merit.
Choosing the list was not easy; I came close to pleading with the editors to let me have twelve titles instead of ten, such was my consternation at having to leave off Babbitt and The Feminine Mystique . Needless to say there were other near-misses, and I shall list them at the end. But here are the final ten, for which nobody is to blame except me, listed in chronological order of publication: