“Americanon”: the popular books that brought Americans together

America’s messy democracy experience is best understood not through the country’s high-profile literature or its founding documents, but through popular books that its inhabitants have read and consulted repeatedly. This is the argument advanced by historian Jess McHugh in her delicious debut album, “Americanon: An Unexpected US History in Thirteen Bestselling Books”.

The 13 books include: Noah Webster’s Dictionary; “The Old Farmer’s Almanac”; “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”; “Etiquette: In Society, In Business, In Politics, And At Home” by Emily Post; “How to Make Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie; “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook in Pictures”; and many others. These books, she argues, helped create a shared culture in a sprawling country whose citizens lacked a common heritage.

For example, at a time when most Americans believed spelling and grammar should follow British usage rules, the famous lexicographer Noah Webster aspired to popularize a standardized form of American English. He believed that cultural independence from Great Britain was just as important as political independence. He set forth his vision for this new form in his 1783 spelling, as well as in the colossal dictionary – first published in 1828 – which is the ancestor of today’s Merriam-Webster.

Webster aimed not only to liberate American English from British standards – for example, by removing the “u” in “color” – but to harmonize the language of a regionally diverse young nation. “Education was the basis of national sentiment, and national sentiment was necessary for American survival, according to Webster,” observes McHugh.

Just as an ostensibly objective reference work like Webster’s Dictionary had a patriotic agenda, many of the titles McHugh covered did cultural or political work beneath the surface. “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” includes practical information on planting seasons and weather conditions in addition to recipes and more whimsical content. But in its early days, the almanac – which has been published continuously since 1792 – also knighted the independent Yeoman farmer. He was portrayed in its pages, in the words of the author, “as self-sufficient, intelligent but not overly educated, patriotic and civically engaged – all of which would become the foundations of the early American ideal.”

The first “Almanac” also contained civic information, including court dates and names of members of Congress. In doing so, McHugh writes, he “began to weave a tradition of democracy into the daily lives of average Americans, physically linking their agricultural cycles and the cycles of their government.”

McHugh observes that many “Americanon” books have suppressed dark truths about the American experience. Emily Post’s 1922 book on Proper Etiquette seemed to suggest that America was a meritocratic, aristocratic country in which social mobility could be achieved simply by mastering a set of rules of behavior. But a lot remained to be said in Post’s manual regarding race and class. Calling America’s moral standards “a cruel trick,” McHugh notes that Post herself attempted to strike a woman off the social register when it was discovered her father was “of color.”

The titles of “Americanon” extol virtues drawn from the country’s enduring national myths: individualism, self-reliance, thrift and industry. The chronological structure of the book highlights notable ways in which certain themes overlap and evolve over time. In “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” published as the country emerged from the Great Depression, Carnegie renewed his faith in the idea of ​​the self-made man that was popularized in the Benjamin Franklin story. In Carnegie’s worldview, however, self-promotion was as essential to success as hard work.

And Catharine Beecher’s 1869 textbook “The American Woman’s Home” – which was written with the help of her sister, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe – made women and their domestic work a priority. central element of the moral health of the nation. Betty Crocker’s cookbook, published almost a century later, promoted a similar message, but with a generous dose of consumerism added to the mix.

McHugh’s conclusions may be too clear and his analysis sometimes lacks rigor. For example, she writes that “Betty Crocker and General Mills alone are not responsible for the revival of the cult of domesticity in mid-century America.” This is not only obvious, but also draws attention to the fact that the author did not address the many other forces of Cold War America who were telling women their place was at home.

Yet, in large part because of the appeal of its premise, “Americanon” is an uplifting read, one that might cause readers to reconsider their own dog-eared American classics.

About Joey J. Hott

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