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.

7 thoughts on “National Characters

  1. Just wondering, Mark. If Foster’s close readings are so fruitful, why not quote and probe into these? From your description, the guy sounds a bit like the colorful denizen of a Red Hook bar (I speak from experience), a conversationalist who requires any number of sideways journeys to get to the meat of the stew. Which, you know, I’m totally fine with. Beats some sad existence listening to nothing more than the sound of your own voice. Fits into a great American tradition which you may not be privy to.

    I’m just wondering, in all seriousness, why that kind of thing rubs you the wrong way. Sometimes you have to be patient with another person’s impetuous conclusions to learn how she thinks and feels about the world. Especially when you seem to be the type (and, man, is it here in spades0 who wants to dictate to others how they’re supposed to cogitate over literature. Know what I mean, jellybean? I suspect you don’t. For all I know (and I should point out that we’ve never met), you may very well hate people, especially anyone who questions your “sound” judgment or who drifts outside your narrow notion of what “America” is. (Come to Red Hook, Mark, and I’ll buy you a beer and introduce you to a slice of real.)

    Basically, it comes down to this: I’m wondering why feel the need for all this poststructuralist malarkey about “us.” I mean, by your argument, we’d have to discount a good portion of David Halberstam’s volumes for the same reason. Celebrating books for having “a narrow social unity” is fair game. Penalizing books because they don’t have a broad mass appeal means that your tastes are mainstream or you wish to uphold marketing values. And that’s just so sad, given how small the stakes truly are.

      1. If I may repeat a point made previously, upon a similar occasion, it is clear to all who behold such vigorous self-pleasurings that, as the American expression has it, “somebody needs a hug.”

  2. Mark, Your post makes me wonder (again) about the reasons I tend to prefer (at least as far as classics are concerned) British to U.S. literature, in spite of my all-American roots. While reading I was also bristling, already feeling left out of the “us” described, which seems like such an over-masculinized version of our national character. (Sprawling? Rough-and-tumble?) I’m curious if Henry James (my fave) was in his canon and if so, how he was made to fit into the folksy mythology.

    1. @Kit: He mentions “Daisy Miller” briefly in a concluding chapter on books that didn’t make the cut: It’s “the clearest distillation of all those big novels…where clashes between Old World and New lead to misunderstanding and a bad end for some near-innocent.”

      I think Foster is mindful not to make the book too much of a sausage party—his list includes “Little Women,” “My Antonia,” “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Song of Solomon,” and “Love Medicine.” (Uh, six out of twenty-five ain’t bad?) But, as an example of the kind of soft-pedaling the book engages in, Foster dismisses the complaints that the Jo’s marriage in “Little Women” is forced, out of character, and obligatory considering the time in which it was written. He says he thinks it’s contrived, too, but: “if we understand the work as a whole to be a sort of guide to becoming a well-adjusted person, marriage is the one big adjustment that must be made. That step is a major part of the human comedy that is ‘Little Women.'”

  3. I wasn’t thinking so much about whether women authors were fairly represented as about the themes taken on by the male writers. It seems to me that some of our classic American male novelists wrote often about themes of more interest to men, whereas classic British authors seem to have had more social themes. But that’s just an impression, I haven’t tried to find evidence for it. And of course there are plenty of women authors who write about themes chiefly of interest to women, too. (All these generalizations should be taken very loosely, since not all men, and not all women, are interested in the same themes.)

    Interesting about LITTLE WOMEN. I’m unconvinced.

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