Ten Books That Shaped The American Character

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Fannie Farmer is no longer fashionable in this age of boutique cookery.

The Theory of the Leisure Class , by Thorstein Veblen (1899). By the narrowest of margins Veblen edges out Sinclair Lewis, largely because this study of the privileged in America antedates Babbitt by a quarter-century. It’s almost impossible to read Veblen now, so tortured is his Scandinavian-influenced English, and it’s a miracle that anyone could read him in 1899. But read him they did, and his message thundered through the thickets of his prose: That in order to maintain its position at the top of the heap, the leisure class must exploit all those below it, and that the conspicuous display of wealth is a condition of membership in this class. Thus were formed, almost overnight, attitudes that still have a powerful place in American life; they were emerging, even as Veblen wrote, in the campaign to break up the trusts, they can be found in the continuing strain of Populism in our politics, and they are perpetuated in the reflexive hostility toward business and businessmen that characterizes our literature and popular culture. The book is also important as a pioneering venture in what eventually emerged, for better or worse, as the discipline of sociology.

The Souls of Black Folk , by W. E. B. Du Bois (1903). In the literature of black America there are more celebrated titles— Notes of a Native Son, An American Dilemma, The Fire Next Time, Soul on Ice, Roots —but this is the seminal one. Its publication followed by two years that of Up from Slavery , Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, and it offered a vigorous dissent from Washington’s strategy of dignified black acceptance of segregation and menial or blue-collar labor. Du Bois was respectful in opposition to Washington but he insisted that blacks had to demand higher education in the sciences and humanities, and that they had to be able to compete with whites for white-collar jobs. He was considered a radical at the time, and late in life he became one; he joined the Communist party in 1961, at the age of ninety-three. But the views of black life that he advanced in The Souls of Black Folk had become civil rights orthodoxy by the 1920s, and in modernized form they remain so today.

In Our Time , by Ernest Hemingway (1925). This slender collection of fifteen short stories was Hemingway’s first book to be published in the United States (a very different version had been published in Paris the previous year) and, surprising though it may seem, is the last of the four obligatory books on this list. I have chosen it both because it is Hemingway’s first book and because the stories in it are highly representative of his work, but the important point is that Hemingway wrote it; it could be replaced by The Sun Also Rises , or A Farewell to Arms , or The Collected Stories , but a book by Hemingway is absolutely mandatory. As one who has little admiration for his work and even less for the man, I say this without enthusiasm. There is no gainsaying, though, that in these stories we heard for the first time the voice that would forever change the way the American language is written—the spare, laconic, controlled, insistent voice that we now hear at every turn, in novels and stories, in newspapers and magazines, in advertisements and speeches, in movies and television. We also met for the first time the man who would similarly alter the American definition of ideal manhood: rough yet gentle, violent yet tender, athletic yet literary, and—this above all—graceful under pressure. It really matters little that the image of “Papa” Hemingway that began to define itself with the publication of In Our Time was largely a fabrication and, in the end, a fraud; what matters is that we believed in it a half-century ago and we still do, and it’s the rare American who is unaffected by it.