National Characters

Thomas C. Foster‘s Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America has an easygoing, folksy vibe that’s hard to get mad at but harder to enjoy as it goes along. A professor of English at the University of Michigan-Flint, Foster whittled down the whole of American literature to a shortlist of books, mostly fiction, that cover a lot of ground in terms of history and diversity—he recently discussed his culling strategy with the Atlantic. But the final selections pretty much stick to warhorses like Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Cather, Faulkner, Bellow, Morrison, etc.

That’s fine in itself; any book that presumes to create a canon has to reckon with those writers in some way or another anyhow. What’s frustrating is the way Foster turns so many of the books selected to into exemplars of big-hearted, roughage-eating, old-fashioned, rough-and-tumble, jus’-plain-folks American-ness. A book qualified for the list, Foster writes in the introduction, if it spoke to the idea of change, by which he means “something that helps develop the national character, that defines but also in some way directs who and, possibly more importantly, what we are.” He didn’t want novels that moralized or had a specific lecture to deliver (he avoided Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle for that reason). But his choices promote, if not a value system, then at least a kind of mythology—American literature as a thoroughly wholesome body of work. Hawthorne shows us that “we are a people who are going someplace, and that place is not behind us.” Thoreau says, “Wait a minute, they say, have you tried meeting nature on its own terms? Actually looked at it? Smelled it? Listened to its racket—and its silence?” Whitman “teaches us to become Americans—open, positive, assertive, confident, forward-looking, unafraid, boisterous, contentious, passionate.” Moby-Dick is “big sprawling, brilliant, occasionally chaotic, impassioned, violent, generous, tragic, mirthful, so various that it cannot be pinned down. Sound like anyplace you know?” Sam Spade is “pure American. Tough. Unafraid. Good with his fists or his gun. Adept at street lingo and wisecracks.”

And so on. Enough of this and it’s more than tempting to jump ship for Henry Miller, a sleazier Roth novel, or the literature of a different country altogether. It’s unfortunate that the tone and conclusions of so many of the book’s essays feel reverse-engineeered from a Morning in America ad, because Foster can be a great close reader, and when he’s deep in the text his bromides become blessedly irrelevant. His essay on John Dos Passos draws a straight line from the U.S.A. trilogy back to Whitman, he tidily lays out the targets of satire of The Crying of Lot 49, and his piece on The Great Gatsby shows how its narration, imagery, and themes of disillusionment work together to create its vision of Jazz Age decadence. But in the last paragraph of the Gatsby essay Foster backslides from criticism and into homiletics: “So what’s the deal with a bunch of seedy people with challenged ethics? I hate to bring this up, but they’re us.”

It’s the “us” in that sentence I find grating. Was Fitzgerald trying to speak so broadly about “us,” or was his audience the individual reader, the “I” who can find his or her own greed and narcissism mirrored in its pages? The “us” and “we” that Foster regularly intones is the occupational hazard of making a list of books that “shape” an entire nation—the idea of a work being widely admired is conflated with the idea of a work having a single message to deliver or its making a common statement about a whole group of people. Foster took pains to avoid books with a message, but in the process he often lapses into celebrating books for having a narrow social utility. The selections model a scruffy patriotism, civic right-thinking, esteem, and uplift—though Foster’s no Pollyanna, he has a way of pitching even novels like The Grapes of Wrath as exemplars of stick-to-it-ive-ness. (It may say something that one of his chief examples of antiauthoritarian literature is The Cat in the Hat.) The books’ themes are stretched to fit across an entire country, but if there’s any broad statement to be made about “us,” it’s that we don’t live in a country like that, and we resist finding value in a literature like that.