African Americans visit a bookmobile in North Carolina, 1950

“Americanon”: Understanding Americans Through Books

Americanon is not the best book I’ve ever read…and “books about books” are a favorite of mine…but the premise is interesting. If you are an American, you might laugh in surprise or recognition as you find out “why we are the way we are.” If you aren’t American, well, ok, you’re still probably going to laugh, but you also might get some insights as to why Americans think as they do, or even what they think.

When we talk about reading and books, a lot of time the focus instantly goes to fiction books.  While there is some value in understanding the stories that people like, and why they like them, we sometimes overlook the fact that until the last decade or two, more people were likely to own nonfiction books than fiction books…certainly, households who had only a few books were going to invest in those rather than a novel that would be read only occaisionally. 

America’s Canon

In Americanon, author Jess McHugh identifies the 10 most widely owned and read American books…well, really 9 because she can’t narrow it down after the mid 20th century (which was a disappointment)…and analyzes why they are important to the United States as a nation.  Taken together, these books form a new kind of literary history.  They show how we developed a national identity and what that identity is.

Besides doing the research that narrowed the selection down to the top 9 books…and I have more about that below…Mchugh’s strength in this book are the stories she tells about the backgrounds of each of these publications…some of them, such as the Merriam-Webster dictionary and The Old Farmer’s Almanac…are in continuous publication…and later, the stories about the individuals who wrote them, who are often ironic in comparison with WHAT they wrote.  The weakness of this book is that chapters tend to run on too long, without a clear point.  Yes, I found myself skimming at the end of many of them in my excitement to get on to the next book. 

What I remember about this book, and will continue to think about, is how the 9 books work together, across generations, to tell us a lot about who we think we are as Americans: What an American knows, what an American does, and finally, who an American is.

What do Americans Know?

At one point in my life, long story, I was actually a member of a British Club associated with an overseas British embassy.  If you are going to hang out with British people, you need to develop a really smart mouth (not hard for me), and I used to tell them that the first thing we did after winning the Revolutionary War was to rewrite the dictionary and fix the English language. 

It comes as surprise to a lot of people that I’m not kidding.  History and statistics agree: Noah Webster, who supported the Revolution, produced his “Blue Backed Speller” and his dictionary represent the English language as spoken by Americans and, through his definitions, to promote American values.  Americans know how to read and write like Americans.  We can intuit quickly from someone’s English, both written and spoken, when someone is faking being an American. 

After Noah Webster established our language, McGuffey took it one step further by publishing a set of reading books that did more than teach us to read…it taught us what being an American meant.

Today, learning to read means that we read lots of different things; the idea is that we can pick up anything and read it. In the 19th century, people had a lot less reading material, so even in school people read the same things over and over…and memorized them, so the meaning of “reading” was a bit different. It also meant knowledge, and having this set of readers in general use gave us that shared knowledge.

What do Americans Do?

Running the Farm

The Old Farmer’s Almanac has been in production since 1818.  For generations, it functioned in homes as the Internet and smartphones do today: to give us the information we needed to efficiently organize our lives, albeit, with a focus on crops and gardens, because most people needed that information just to keep themselves fed.  Almanacs include much more information as well, and were frequently published regionally to reflect the needs of people in a particular place.

Running the Kitchen

In the 20th century, Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook told people, mostly women but really whoever needed to know, exactly how to run a kitchen in an American home including what to eat and how to fix it. You might wonder why people needed this information, but the truth is that there were a lot of people coming into the U.S. for one reason or another, and let me tell you (from my experience living in Japan): what you come into a country knowing about cooking is useless when the appliances, packaged food, possibly cuts of meat, and more are unfamiliar.

I remember having to get my neighbors to show me how to light my oven (I used youtube for reinforcement). Many years ago, I remember my mother having to go to the neighbors’ to find out what to do with these weird vegetables (collards) that people kept giving us. All she did was move from Massachusetts to Virginia!

Running the Home…and the Neighborhood

Emily Post’s Etiquette (Links to FREE copy at Project Gutenberg) book taught us how to behave like Americans, which McHugh points out is important when there is no aristocracy to organize people.  In the United States, we mostly all believe we are middle class, but I would say we use etiquette to show what kind of Americans we are.  For example, in the various permutations of my extended family, the tension is always between fewer people and more people at family holidays, and then whether we are the kind of people who pull out fancy china or line the food up and eat buffet style.  There are the ones who show up in jeans because that’s what they do, the ones who wear jeans to fit in, and the ones who consciously overdress for the group because “it’s a holiday and that’s what WE do.”

The ironically never-married Catharine Beecher, explained what was supposedly, or ideally, going on behind other people’s front doors in the American Woman’s Home (also linked to FREE Project Gutenberg edition)

You need to at least be aware of the rules whether you want to follow them or not.

Running the Business

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People tells us how to act in both social and business settings so that we can appear confident, but not like a jerk, to our associates. If you’ve ever worked with non-Americans, you would know that having the right balance is important. As McHugh points out, more people were entering the workforce in jobs that were different from their parents after World War 2 because of population mobility and the G.I. Bill.

Who is an American?

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin showed us all what it takes to make it in this new country, with a new way of looking at the world, most importantly, the idea that we “fake it ‘til you make it”, a motto I feel is very important in life.

American Womanhood taught us about our American family values. McGuffey’s Readers established our folkl by sharing it through our first schools. Finally, Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex*But Were Afraid to Ask * let you know whether your private life is generally considered normal or weird.

Seriously, don’t we wonder?

*You can still buy this on Amazon, but please, please read for historical interest only.

In Conclusion

Americanon, while admittedly long winded at times, is amusing and inciteful for the insight it gives us into the people who wrote and/or developed these seminal works. They go a long way towards showing us who we think we are as a nation, for better or worse.