Renée Loth

A whiff of American literature

By Renée Loth
July 2, 2011

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THE ICONIC status of the “Twenty-five Books That Shaped America,’’ a new collection of essays by Thomas C. Foster, is evident in his subtitle: “How White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits Forged Our National Identity.’’

Like Dylan or Madonna, “Moby Dick’’ and “The Great Gatsby’’ need only a hint to be instantly recognizable to most Americans. With the patriotic bunting on the porch this weekend - and with the summer reading list beckoning - it’s intriguing to consider the American character through the prism of our national literature.

Unavoidably, perhaps, the titles suggested by Foster, a best-selling author and professor at the University of Michigan, will provoke argument. Not all are as clearly deserving as the two in the title. Why “Little Women’’ but not “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’? Walt Whitman but not Carl Sandburg? (Or Woody Guthrie, for that matter?) Where’s Philip Roth, John Updike, Flannery O’Conner?

And how, how, could Foster have missed “All the King’s Men’’ by Robert Penn Warren - the best book on American politics ever written? Heartbreaking, vivid, and true, it’s a morality tale about power and a reminder that actions have consequences. Does it count for nothing that it won the Pulitzer Prize and the author was the nation’s first poet laureate? Clearly, it’s hard to contain a literary tradition that is so rich and varied, and that arouses such passion. Foster himself laments the impossibility of the task, and adds an appendix of 15 other books, just to be safe.

More frustrating is Foster’s slapdash approach to the promise of his book: that he will prove how these tomes forged America’s identity. It’s a bit of a chicken-egg dilemma. The themes many of the books share - rags-to-riches, self-invention, lonely seekers, a tradition of dissent - could be termed peculiarly American. But did these books create our national character or just reflect it?

The earliest authors certainly tried, giving advice on the right way for the inchoate nation to behave. “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’’ features his famous “thirteen virtues,’’ including industry, justice, frugality, and self-reliance. “What old Ben is really interested in is shaping a version of the American master-story,’’ Foster writes, “. . .to use the myth of himself as a template for the myth of all of us.’’ Henry David Thoreau in “Walden’’ and Walt Whitman in “Leaves of Grass’’ enumerate American virtues almost 100 years later, and there is plenty of overlap.

But many of these illustrative volumes are also about breaking the rules: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’’ “On the Road,’’ “The Scarlet Letter.’’ These books feature the familiar innocent abroad, often a child or social naïf, who sees hypocrisy and corruption all around and rebels. That’s part of our national heritage, too.

Not all American qualities are exemplary. “The Last of the Mohicans’’ contains its share of casual racism. Its treatment of Native Americans as “the other,’’ somehow lacking in the higher Anglo values, will be familiar to students of the Vietnam War, the Japanese internment, and Jim Crow. And viewed through a contemporary lens, “Moby Dick’’ prefigures the nation’s suicidal quest for oil. Foster also presents some delicious ironies. Whitman is answered, several chapters later, by Langston Hughes, who wrote the rebuking line “I, too, sing America’’ when he was 24. The last book in Foster’s canon was written by a descendant of the first Americans, Louise Erdrich, whose “Love Medicine’’ wouldn’t make my list, but which did usher in a new genre of Native American fiction.

A little more digging into history would have helped Foster’s argument. What societal ripples followed publication of these 25 seminal books? At least Upton Sinclair’s stomach-churning novel “The Jungle’’ eventually led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, a regulatory response that many conservatives would complain has been bred into the American character. As it is, Foster’s treatise is more about how these 25 books shaped American literature: how Hemingway begat Carver, or how Twain begat Vonnegut.

Foster’s book has its flaws. Its style is breezy to the point of windy. It’s repetitive and tries too hard for yuks. Like a non-premium ice cream, it is puffed with air. But it sure makes you want to exercise your all-American right to get out there and read.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.