May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Democracy in America , by Alexis de Tocqueville. It easily wins the most quoted/ least read award. Though brilliant, of course, in parts, it has a key premise that is a shallow reading of American character: that there is a tension between the nation’s rugged individualism and its community spirit. No, both are necessary aspects of true democracy, and America’s genius was to prove that they are not at odds. He also disses literature in America as being shallow and “retarded” because of democracy, just as Melville and Hawthorne and Emerson were proving him wrong. Runner-up: Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. Illustrates what actually would happen if rugged individualism were, as Tocqueville suggested, at odds with community spirit. The best way for him to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” Thoreau concludes, is to reject all social and political bonds and commitments. Deep, really deep. (For a look at someone who really did live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, see Ben Franklin, below, who realized that doing so involved embracing social bonds and commitments.)
Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography . It began as a letter to his Torysympathizing, snooty son designed to remind him that he came from a family of hardworking shopkeepers and should be proud of it. Franklin also used the book to spin his own RR. image as a simple, thrifty, and wise man (he was, in fact, only the last of these three). But its triumph is that it defines the greatness of the American middle-class character, of which Franklin was the first and finest exemplar. Runners-up: Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son , by William Alexander Percy, because it’s important to understand lost causes, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas , by Gertrude Stein, because it’s important to understand lost generations.