Since America’s birth, its writers have attempted to capture the essence of the American dream. Jay Parini, a prolific poet and novelist and one of the nation’s foremost literary scholars, taps into that common project in Promised Land. Putting a welcome twist on the concept of the best-oflist, he searches the landscape of American literature for works that “played a role in shaping the nation’s idea of itself.” Parini is quick to note that his choices aren’t necessarily the “greatest” books, but rather a handful of “nodal points, places where vast areas of thought and feeling gathered and dispersed, creating a nation as various and vibrant as the United States.”
Inspired by British journalist Melvyn Bragg’s 2006 lecture “Twelve Books That Changed the World”—all of them, ahem, English—Parini settled on a baker’s dozen of works (a nod to the original 13 colonies) that he believes “helped to create the intellectual and emotional contours of this country.” The choices cover a wide swath of literary traditions, ranging from a 17th-century journal to 20th-century self-help volumes. (Perhaps anticipating the arguments sure to result from his choices, Parini includes a helpful appendix, “One Hundred More Books That Changed America.”)
He proceeds chronologically, and each book receives the same treatment: a short introduction and author biography, a close reading, and analysis of the work’s legacy. The approach is by nature formulaic, but it is also effective, and Parini’s erudition allows him to deftly maneuver among these classic works to highlight major themes of American life: immigration and assimilation; the struggle for religious and civic freedom; the capacity for self-transformation and personal betterment; the desire to“‘light out for the Territory,’ as Huck Finn put it so well.”
Certain works also cluster together in their similarities.Of Plymouth Plantation(published in 1856), William Bradford’s chronicle of colonial life and possibly “America’s first immigration narrative,” is echoed in the Old Country/New Country dichotomies of Jewish émigré Mary Antin’s memoir Promised Land (1912). The tradition of nature and travel writing initiated by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their Journals (1814) comes to bear on the meticulous detailing of wilderness living in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), as well as the acute observations of Mark Twain’s legendary narrator in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). The latter two works certainly had some effect on the unabashed celebration of freedom that is Jack Kerouac’s propulsive novel On the Road (1957).
A concern with freedom, in nearly every sense of the word, is the hallmark of all the authors Parini examines: Benjamin Franklin, whose emphasis on self-reliance in his Autobiography (1793) reflected a desire for autonomy and personal independence; Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, who in The Federalist (1787–88) sought to defend and explain the Constitution, the very embodiment of free democracy; and Harriet Beecher Stowe, creator of Uncle Tom’s Cabin(1852), and W. E. B. Du Bois, the revolutionary author ofThe Souls of Black Folk(1903), who both wrote of the struggle to win freedom from slavery and racism; Twain and Jack Kerouac, endlessly curious explorers on the road toward adventure; or Betty Friedan, author ofThe Feminine Mystique(1963) and ambassador for second-wave feminism’s struggle to get women out of the house.
Though two of Parini’s picks—Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946)—may not excite students of literature, their practical, quotidian nature is not out of keeping with the other texts, all of which illuminate “a climate of opinion, consolidating a tradition or marking a fresh turn in a long and winding road.”
Parini’s professorial tendencies show only in the occasional passage of academic-speak. He describes The Federalist, for example, as “clear and crisp, yet highly nuanced, with extraordinary flexibility and a mature sense of subordination—a far cry from the monosyllabic, flat style (with a fear of subordinate clauses) so popular today, post-Hemingway.” Such circumlocutions may deter some readers, but Promised Land reminds us of the diversity and potency of American literature and its profound connection to the country’s history.
* * *
Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews. His reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times, Mother Jones, and elsewhere.
Reviewed: Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America by Jay Parini, Doubleday, 385 pp, 2008.
Photo courtesy of Flickr