Doctor Science Knows

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Books to understand America

ari at Edge of the American West put up his list of history books that would allow an interested but non-expert reader to "understand America". My comments:

Albion’s Seed is a book I’ve given as a present several times, always to great effect. I absolutely think it belongs on the list, because its social history gives the context — the bones, as it were — for the political history on the rest of the list. For me, American Slavery, American Freedom can be subsumed into Albion’s Seed — that is, ASAP fleshes out a subset of the ideas in AS.

And for giving real context to your context, I think you also need to include 1491.

And if you’re looking for a book to open the door to discuss issues about women, the frontier, land use, industrialization, and education (to name a few), there is no source better IMHO than Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you have to pick just one volume, it should probably be either Little House on the Prairie or The Long Winter.

I am not kidding.

teofilo, the mandate is “10 books to help an interested but non-expert reader to *understand America*.” I think for that purpose I would drop the Gordon Wood, which is, as ari said, over-focused. I don’t know if there’s a Revolution-through-Constitution equivalent of McPherson.

If we’re including fiction — which I certainly would — I don’t see how Moby Dick gives an enormous amount of “understanding America”; Huck Finn is the lynchpin. I’m racking my brains, but I can’t think of a fiction about 20th-century America that is as pivotal and illuminating. The defining works of 20th-century culture are on film, IMHO.


The reason I favor Huck Finn as opposed to Moby Dick for this purpose is that both landscape and characters are so varied yet characteristically American, and the ending of the book, though IMHO a literary failure, is a failure of an extremely American type. I think MD is a better *novel*, but HF is more helpful in understanding what we are and where we come from, what kind of people America has tended to grow up and what kind of stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

Also, SEK, in what way does Moby Dick contain a “larger sociological cast” than Huck Finn? The thing that jumps out at me is that Moby Dick contains neither women nor children: it is 100% guy with no non-guy elements, so calling it sociologically large strikes me as, well, wrong.

Not that there probably isn’t a paper to be written on “Huck/Jim and/or Ishmael/Queequeg: the Interracial Bromance of American Literature”, if Eve Sedgwick didn’t write it already.

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