Ten Books That Shaped The American Character


Walden , by Henry David Thoreau (1854). There are four books on this list that could not possibly be eliminated from it; this is the first of them. Although Thoreau’s famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” had the greatest immediate public effect of any of his works, it is this major work of transcendental thought that has had the most lasting influence. Writing about his many months by Walden Pond, Thoreau speaks to themes that run right to the heart of American life: the longing for independence, the identity with the natural landscape, the skepticism toward government and formal social institutions. From the libertarians to the civil rights marches, the right wing to the vegetarians, almost every organized (and disorganized) American ism has found something to its taste in Walden , so wide is the net it casts.

Leaves of Grass , by Walt Whitman (1855). This is the second of the unavoidable four. The 1855 edition was the first of many published during and after Whitman’s lifetime, and the briefest. It contained only a dozen poems, most notable among them “Song of Myself”; it was in later editions that the author added “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” “O Captain! My Captain!” and many others. These may or may not be the greatest of American poems, but it says here that they are the most American . No one knew this better than Whitman himself. He thought of the book as “the New Bible,” and in the introduction to one edition he wrote: “I claim that in literature, I have judged and felt every thing from an American point of view which is no local standard, for America to me, includes humanity and is the universal. America (I have said to myself) demands one Song, at any rate, that is bold, modern, and all-surrounding as she is herself.” The book is indeed that; its ebullience and energy still echo in our lives and animate our literature.

Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York , by Horatio Alger (1867). Alger was a whilom bohemian who turned after the Civil War to the Unitarian ministry, but in whom an artistic flame continued to flicker. It came fully to light in this, the first of more than a hundred books that sold more than twenty million copies altogether. They were read primarily by boys and young men, though strictly speaking they were not children’s books, and they had an incalculable effect on the American psyche. They taught not merely the moral commonly associated with Alger—that, with pluck and luck, any fellow can make it from rags to riches—but also a subtler lesson, that it is in a laissezfaire market where the talents of an independent soul flourish most healthily. The tradition of rugged individualism had been created generations before John Wayne came along to exploit it; and Horatio Alger was one of the principal architects.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , by Mark Twain (1884). Can you imagine this list without Huckleberry Finn , the third of the essential four? Of course not. This is the quintessentially American book, the one book without which we could not be said to have an American literature. Its immortal closing words—“I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before”—speak even more forcibly than Walden to the strain of independence that still, even when it seems invisible, identifies us as Americans. It is the one book that virtually every literate American is alrnost certain to have read, and thus is one of those shared experiences that help define us. A century after it first appeared, the book has still not lost its power to arouse and disturb us; only a couple of years ago a school committee in Virginia tried to eliminate it from the curriculum on the wildly mistaken grounds that this most egalitarian of novels is somehow “racist” because it uses the language of its time. Better judgment prevailed, and the Virginia schoolchildren still read it; but they will be adults before they can understand how much it tells them about themselves.

The Boston CookingSchool Cookbook , by Fannie Farmer (1896). This beguiling and tremendously important book started a revolution in American life. It was the first cookbook to reach a significant nationwide audience and to maintain that audience long after the immediate interest surrounding its publication. It was the first cookbook to establish a uniform system of weights and measurements, an incalculable improvement over the old system of guess and feel. It was also the first cookbook to address itself directly to the American housewife; servants were rapidly disappearing from middleclass kitchens, and by the turn of the century it was Mom who had to bake the apple pie. Fannie Farmer is no longer fashionable in this age of boutique cookery and whole-grain self-righteousness, but she is where it all started. Her good-humored, patient instructions taught the nation how to cook, and set it however uncertainly along the path toward something approximating sophistication in the dining room. For my money it remains the best American cookbook of all, not in the tarted-up revised edition issued a few years ago, but in the masterly original.