Thirteen Books That Shaped America

From The Federalist Papers to The Feminine Mystique, Jay Parini's Promised Land examines 13 books that shaped and changed America. Maureen Corrigan has a review.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

President-elect Barack Obama has plenty enough to do to ready himself for inauguration day. But if Jay Parini had his way, he'd probably give Obama a copy of his new book, "Promised Land." In "Promised Land," Parini, who's a novelist, poet, and scholar of American literature, has chosen the 13 books that he thinks are crucial to an understanding of American identity. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: This election night, we added a few lines of update to one of our most cherished national myths, the belief that America is a land of limitless opportunity where anybody can become anything. Granted, Ben Franklin could never have imagined a President Barack Obama. But in broad strokes, Obama's story of a hard-won rise from obscurity is as old and as American as our founding father Franklin's own autobiographical tale, that begins with him landing in Philadelphia as a nobody with just a few cents and three puffy rolls in his threadbare pockets.

The stories that we tell about ourselves as Americans shape our national identity. That's the self-evident truth of Jay Parini's latest book "Promised Land," subtitled "13 Books that Changed America." Parini's book comes out shrewdly, just in time for what promises to be a season of national self-reflection. In it, he explores not the great American canon, no "Moby Dick" or "Leaves of Grass" lurking here, but those works, mostly non-fiction and popular, that helped to define or consolidate our idea of what it means to be an American.

Of course, as Parini acknowledges, the number 13 is a gimmick, echoing the number of original colonies. In his appendix, he lists 100 additional influential books, and he says even that list could have gone on and on. But given his self-imposed limit, Parini has made mostly thoughtful choices - Franklin's autobiography, "The Federalist Papers," Thoreau's "Walden," Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique." A few of his picks are surprising, but he makes convincing cases for them - Mary Antin's immigrant memoir, "The Promised Land," and Dr. Spock's "Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care."

In every instance, Parini side steps the pitfall of a project like this one, that is feeling obliged to supply plot summaries for those books that lots of Americans once read, but that these days, lots of Americans only feel like they've read. Parini's background as a poet comes in handy here. He's able to do justice to the voice, tone, and thesis of, say, a book like W.E.B. Du Bois' "The Souls of Black Folks" in just a few charged paragraphs.

List books like Parini's are invitations to readers both to discover new treasures and to quibble. First, the treasures. Parini's haunting discussion of "The Journals of Lewis and Clark" made me not only want to go out and buy a copy, but to grab a canoe and start paddling upstream into the forest primeval. Here's one of the insights Parini offers about the journals. In the tradition of nature writing, Lewis and Clark rank high as practitioners. Their close observation of the western landscapes still inspires awe. They offered the first descriptions of grizzly bears, prairie dogs, antelope and mountain goats, and, alas, mosquitoes.' These moments in the journals dazzled readers and established a mode of reporting about the natural world that persists in writers like Barry Lopez and Gretel Ehrlich.

Less reverential but just as revelatory is Parini's lively discussion of Dale Carnegie's 1936 blockbuster, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," a book, Parini says that's squarely in the enterprising small businessman spirit of Franklin's autobiography. Parini also points out that, between 1989, when Communism failed in Russia, and 1997, Carnegie's self-help tome went through 68 editions in Russia.

So the quibble, Jack Kerouac's 1957 run-on monument to his own narcissism, "On The Road." I've read it numerous times and remain unmoved. I know there are good reasons for the pick, and Parini makes all the logical arguments. But since he devotes so few chapters to American novels, I would have voted for Gatsby or even for Dashiell Hammett's great mystery, "The Maltese Falcon," given that hard-boiled detective fiction is a homegrown American genre.

But Parini's list is his own autocratic creation, not a democracy. Especially at this time in our history, readers will benefit from dipping into Parini's book and reacquainting themselves with the nation's bedrock myths and stories, even as new American stories are about to be written.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Promised Land: 13 Books that Changed America" by Jay Parini. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org.

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Excerpt: 'Promised Land'

'Promised Land' Cover
Doubleday
Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America
By Jay Parini
Hardcover, 400 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $24.95

Of Plymouth Plantation

I.

Every nation has a founding myth, or myths: stories that talk of bright but challenging beginnings, portraying the drama of self-definition and establishment. The United States, with its complex origins and mixed identities, has many such myths, but among them is a primary text in the story of American colonial life: William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, a journal written between 1620 and 1647. It tells the story of the original Pilgrims, who came to Plymouth in Massachusetts from northern England, via the Netherlands, on the Mayflower in 1620. The historical importance of this journal cannot be exaggerated. Apart from being a vivid account of what happened, it has immense credibility, having been written by a man who was an active agent (as governor) in the story itself.

The adventures and misadventures of the Pilgrims form the core of Bradford's journal, which recounts a thoroughly absorbing story about a people who managed against the odds to pull together for the sake of their community, to get control over their own rebels and malcontents, and to make peace among themselves and with the native population, the Wampanoag, with whom (after a difficult year of illness and privation, which reduced their numbers almost by half) they shared what has become known as the first Thanksgiving: a celebration of mutual interests. Although the exact nature of this event, a harvest festival that occurred in the fall of 1621, has relatively little in common with the mythic tale most Americans hear about in elementary school, it has become a legend, one of those primal stories that have shaped our sense of who we are.

II.

America was sorely in need of some mythic tale about itself when, in 1855, the manuscript of Bradford's journal was discovered in the library of Fulham Palace, on the Thames, a summer retreat for London bishops. A traveler called John Wingate Thornton from Boston found it by chance. He was a man described by one acquaintance as "an accomplished antiquary and a delightful gentleman." He recognized passages by Bradford quoted in another book, which contained a note about the full manuscript and its whereabouts. His discovery must be considered one of the great literary finds.

Although missing for such a long time, the journal was not unknown. Passages from Bradford had been widely circulated for two centuries, with extracts in the records at Plymouth. Early historians, such as Thomas Prince and William Hubbard, apparently had the manuscript in hand when they wrote their classic accounts of the Plymouth Colony. But the complete work—a handwritten journal—had disappeared, having been carried to England at some point, where it lay in dusty obscurity until Thornton unearthed it. He laboriously copied the work in full, then published it in the United States in 1856, attracting huge attention in the disunited states of that era, when the Civil War loomed offstage, but only just. Anyone could see that serious conflict lay ahead, though a savage and relentless war could hardly be imagined. It would take the outright slaughter of Antietam and Gettysburg for that reality to dawn in full.

In the 1850s, there was also a good deal of anxiety in the air about westward expansion. Lewis and Clark made their journey to the Pacific coast and back to St. Louis at the beginning of the century, and excitement over the West grew as Americans learned more about the abundant regions that lay on the other side of the Mississippi. The region beckoned to young men and women, who dreamed of wealth and adventure. Parents, as ever, worried about losing touch with their children—this was well before electronic communications shrank the distances that now commonly separate families. The snugness of colonial New England or Virginia was gone forever, and it seemed difficult to imagine a nation that could embrace large tracts of land as well as a restive population of Native American tribes, including the Apache, Blackfoot, Cherokee, and Cheyenne nations. Certainly it was hard to believe that numerous Mexicans could be absorbed in Texas and California, which had only just acquired statehood.

Bradford's account of the early Pilgrim adventures offered an alternative reality, a world in which fiercely united and determined men and women put their faith firmly in the will of God. They reveled in their independence from the Church of England and its hierarchies, which had forced them into exile in Holland. Unlike other Puritans who settled in New England (mostly in Massachusetts), these were the hard core, known as Separatists. They did not believe in trying to reform the Anglican church from within, as did most Puritans. They might well have remained in Leyden, where most of them were concentrated, had poverty as well as the prospect of Holland being overrun by Spanish Catholics not prompted them to set off for the New World.

We would have known relatively little about the Pilgrims of Plymouth had William Bradford (1590-1657) never kept a journal. He was present at every phase of the project, from the initial separation from England and removal to Leyden through the great journey on the Mayflower across the Atlantic, the establishment of the Plymouth settlement, its trials and triumphs, and its eventual decline as children of the original settlers lost faith in the overall project—much to Bradford's dismay.

As he was only human, Bradford skewed his account in favor of his own interests and friends. Of course he had the incomparable advantage, as historian, of being a player in the events described, with enviable access to everything that happened. He ran the inner council at Plymouth, so he knew what people said, even why they said it. As chronicler, he tended to dwell on things that interested him or showed him in a particularly good light—it's his journal, after all; he could (as he chose) suppress whatever displeased him. Historians have noted that he passes over many things in silence or, on rare occasions, alters the sequence of events. Bradford did not like opposition and dealt fiercely with those who displeased or countered him. Nevertheless, his account is noticeably balanced and scrupulous. In general, his account of the Plymouth Colony is without rival as a precious early document on this important subject.

III.

From the outset, Bradford assumes a reserved, ironic tone, quite in contrast to one notable outburst scribbled in the margins of the document after it was finished, where he registers a wail of disapproval for the younger generation:

O sacred bond, whilst inviolably preserved! How sweet and precious were the fruits that flowed from the same! But when this fidelity decayed, then their ruin approached. O that these ancient members had not died or been dissipated (if it had been the will of God) or else that this holy care and constant faithfulness had still lived, and remained with those that survived, and were in times afterwards added unto them. But (alas) that subtle serpent hath slyly wound in himself under fair pretences of necessity and the like, to untwist these sacred bonds and ties, and as it were insensibly by degrees to dissolve, or in a great measure to weaken the same. I have been happy, in my first times, to see, and with much comfort to enjoy, the blessed fruits of this sweet communion, but it is now a part of my misery in old age, to find and feel the decay and want thereof (in a great measure) and with grief and sorrow of heart to lament and bewail the same. And for others' warning and admonition, and my own humiliation, do I here note the same. (xvi)

As this note amply suggests, Bradford felt a visceral disappointment with the younger colonists, who seemed willfully ignorant of their history and failed to realize the sacrifice of their parents and grandparents, who risked their lives for a cause of conscience, a dream of community. But this marginal outburst stands in contrast to the journal itself, where the author writes with coolheaded grace, relying on what happened to inform his prose, a tale that required no embellishment.

Indeed, in the first paragraph he says he plans to write "in a plain style, with singular regard unto the simple truth in all things" or "at least as near as my slender judgment can attain the same" (1). He succeeds well at this, beginning in the reflective mode, with a chapter on Separatism. The basic idea, as he frames it, was to convince English churches to "revert to their ancient purity and recover their primitive order, liberty and beauty" (2). The Separatists formed a minority sect among the Puritans, itself a fringe of the Protestant Reformation, which had convulsed Europe in the sixteenth century. The church at Scrooby, in the English county of Nottinghamshire, was among the most radical of Puritan churches.

It was there that William Brewster, a friend and mentor to William Bradford, spread his Separatist views as minister to a younger generation. Brewster had gone to Cambridge University, where he came under the influence of Robert Browne, a founding theologian of the Puritan movement. Browne published two seminal books in 1582: A Treatise of Reformation Without Tarying for Anie and A Booke Which Sheweth the Life and Manners of All True Christians. In these stringent, influential works, Browne argued that one could not afford to wait for the state to take action—as John Calvin, a leading Puritan figure on the Continent, had suggested. Browne believed it was the duty of the individual to act according to what he or she felt was right, whatever the state thought. He was fond of quoting Saint Paul on this point: "Come out from among them, and be ye separate, said the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing" (2 Corinthians 6:17). This single verse provided the biblical foundation for Separatism.

There was, as one might guess, fierce resistance to the Puritan movement in England, and many of its leading lights were imprisoned or executed, driving the hard core of believers abroad for safety. By 1607, the political waters for religious rebels had reached a boiling point, and many from the Scrooby congregation found themselves under warrant for arrest. Not surprisingly, Bradford begins Of Plymouth Plantation here, with a tale of dispossession. His narrative is very much written like an Old Testament story, where God's people are driven off their land, suffer exile among heathens, and go off in search of their own promised land in the New World. The whole mode of the unfolding story, its flavor and texture, will be familiar to anyone who has skimmed the five books of Moses.

Led by Richard Clyfton, the Scrooby pilgrims set off on foot in the autumn of 1607 for the town of Boston, a journey of sixty or so miles. In secrecy, they boarded a ship for the Continent, only to find themselves turned away by the captain, who hoped for greater compensation. They returned to Scrooby, where several of them were arrested. But no trial was forthcoming, and these quiet Christians were soon freed, as their jailers could hardly believe they posed much of a threat to the community. A few months later, they tried to get away again and succeeded, taking a ship from a port near Hull. This was not an easy journey, with all sorts of dangers looming, including the threat of discovery: it was illegal to travel abroad without formal documents. The ship made its way into the North Sea, where dark waters nearly overturned the vessel. Yet they arrived in Holland in one piece, and others from Scrooby followed, finding illegal passage on other ships. Now they had to contend with a land where English was not spoken and where living conditions were harsh.

Bradford puts the journey of the Scrooby congregation in context, recalling earlier migrations to the Continent in search of religious freedom, quoting from the famous Book of Martyrs of John Foxe (1517-87). Under Queen Mary, a Roman Catholic who burned many Protestants at the stake, Foxe and others like him took up residence in a range of European cities, including Frankfurt, Geneva, and Basel, where Foxe originally published his book in Latin. Bradford glosses over nothing, recalling the bickering that took place among his fellow exiles over matters of dogma. He also puts this bickering in context. "And this contention died not with Queen Mary," he says, "nor was left beyond the seas" (5).

One goal of Bradford's generation of exiles was to ensure "the right worship of God and discipline of Christ established in the church, according to the simplicity of the gospel, without the mixture of men's inventions" (4). Bradford hoped to get back to basics, as preached by his mentor Richard Clyfton, "a grave and reverend preacher," as well as by John Robinson and William Brewster. What the latest band of pilgrims found in Holland, however, was hardly the promised land of Canaan, although Bradford skips rapidly over what happened on arrival in Amsterdam, where the English Separatists joined Puritan exiles from different places.

As often happens among isolated groups of exiles, conflicts arose. The various sects were in disarray, with any number of accusations flying about. There was, for example, a group called the Ancient Brethren, who battled each other with shocking displays of bad temper. One figure of note was Thomas White, a minister from the west of England who had arrived with a dozen followers. White's flock briefly worshipped with the Brethren, but were soon repulsed by their acrimony. They pulled away from the Brethren, whom White himself viewed as "rash, heady, and contentious." He actually called the Brethren "a brokerage of whores," alluding to accusations of incest and adultery in a diatribe that was widely circulated. Bradford skips rather briskly over these conflicts. After a year, he and his group migrated to Leyden, "a fair and beautiful city." There he picks up the story with renewed energy.

Leyden was the home of a major university, a place where religious debates flourished, and the English Separatists spent a dozen years there. Yet they felt isolated from the local population and could not make a decent living despite their talents for handicrafts and trades. Poverty and poor living conditions were perhaps the main reasons for putting everything at stake by traveling to the New World, although Bradford prefers a political explanation—the Netherlands had forged a truce with Roman Catholic Spain that was about to end, in 1621. "The Spaniard might prove as cruel as the savages of America," Bradford writes, "and the famine and pestilence as sore here as there, and their liberty less to look out for remedy" (28).

North America was not the ideal destination for every Separatist, as Bradford recalls. The Amazon and other tropical regions attracted some, who imagined them as places "rich, fruitful, and blessed with a perpetual spring and a flourishing greenness" (29). But the Spaniards had been on the march in those areas as well. Furthermore, who could say what local dangers lay in store in hot regions, including the threat of disease? Virginia, on the other hand, was a familiar climate, and the Pilgrims hoped they would not be persecuted as Separatists there as they had been in England. To reassure themselves, they petitioned the Virginia Company in advance of their departure and were kindly answered, though they eventually settled on the "more northerly parts of that country, derived out of the Virginia patent and wholly secluded from their Government, and to be called by another name, viz., New England." This latter name, which stuck, was first used by Captain John Smith in his Description of New England (1616), an account of his travels to that part of the New World in 1614.

Excerpted from Promised Land by Jay Parini Copyright © 2008 by Jay Parini. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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