Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America

The picture for the cover is
 Kindred Spirits, Asher B. Durand
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art,
Bentonville, Arkansas USA
Promised Land:
 Thirteen Books That Changed America
by Jay Parini
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have finally made it through all thirteen chapters. I loved that I found this book and love how Mr. Parini organized it. He has a formula that makes it easy to read. First, he tells you why he chose the particular book and something about its history as a public document. Second, he summarizes the book as it relates to his choice to include it in the 'Promised Land'. Third, he talks about the book and how it has been incorporated in our present society. A friend rattled off a list of books..."Well, did it include ????" No, it didn't include ???. I am not what Mr. Parini used as criteria as he went about an onerous task of selecting these thirteen books. I wondered at the beginning what other books were in the running. I found my answer. He has included an Appendix with 'One Hundred More Books That Changed America'. I guess if I wanted a reading list this is where I would start. My journey to the 'Promised Land' lasted from June through September. Now I am ready to find my next journey into the world of non-fiction. I read a lot, and I mean a lot of fiction, but I always have one non-fiction that I savor over a period of time.  I added a commentary on each book as I read them.

#1 June 12, 2012 "Plymouth Plantation",
William Bradford, the second Governor of the Colony. To summarize: "Establishing a beachhead for Puritans in New England, the Plymouth Colony ...acquired legendary status mainly because of the first Thanksgiving, as described by Bradford and, later translated into a national myth holiday that celebrates reconciliation and survival." p.27." noted by me: The Puritans came to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620. However, it was not the first,only, or oldest colony established by Europeans. (Other Puritans were in Massachusetts and Connecticut.) The English arrived in Virginia, at Jamestown, in 1607, but were not successful. The oldest settlement is St. Augustine established by the Spanish in 1565. The Spanish had also settled in Santa Fe by 1608.

#2 June 19, 2012 "The Federalist Papers",
by Publius (Pseudonym for the three authors, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay) It consists of 85 essays (52 by Hamilton, 28 by Madison, and 5 by Jay) in defense of the proposed U.S. Constitution recently drafted in Philadelphia. It was designed to persuade New Yorkers and people of other states to look favorably on the controversial documents and vote for it ratification. There were many against it. All states except New York had their own constitutions. In 1825, Jefferson recommended these essays as the best guide to what was in the minds of the framers, perhaps even better than the actual document itself. Hamilton lays out the general idea of the papers in one paragraph. By and large he and his co-authors stick pretty closely to this outline: "I propose, in a series of papers, to discuss the following interesting particulars: The utility of the UNION to your political prosperity-The insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union-The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed, to the attainment of this object-The conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government-Its analogy to your own State constitution-and lastly, The additional security which its adoption will afford to the preservation of the species of government, to liberty, and to property."

#3 June 21, 2012 "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin"
Four things stand out to me. One-With this book Benjamin Franklin invented the category in our libraries labeled, Autobiography. There were memoirs in the past and they were mostly spiritual or intellectual, not one that tracks the creation of an individual self. Two-"It remains a foundational book for Americans, in that it offers a template for self-invention-in other words, 'The American Dream'. Three-In addition, he was a scientist of note. Not only did he fly a kite and prove that electricity is a single fluid and invented the lightening rod. The Franklin stove still exists. He was also a Statesman, playing an instrumental role in the creation of the American republic. Also, did I mention that he was a printer by occupation; established the first subscription library in America that led to our current library system; thought of the idea of fire insurance;started an academy that evolved into the University of Pennsylvania; devised the capital-raising vehicle of matching funds; and many more to mention.

#4 July 4, 2012 The Journals of Lewis and Clark...
...documenting for President Thomas Jefferson the recent Louisiana Purchase and looking for a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. They started out on the Missouri River hoping for a water passage to the West Coast. Along the way Sacajawea and her husband joined the Corps of Discovery. Their journals are still used today for researchers.

#5 July 13, 2012 Walden...
...is the major work of Henry D. Thoreau. Walden was selected because in the opinion of the author "it has inspired generations of young people to go off by themselves, to separate from the pack, listening instead of talking,reading, making note, marching to the beat of a different drummer. He was inspired and mentored by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The author in defense of his adding Walden to this list stressed Emerson's work, 'Nature', as an important influence on Thoreau. I wonder why he didn't select 'Nature' instead of Walden. The only conclusion that I could come to was that Emerson only wrote about living with nature. Whereas, Thoreau actually put action to his words and went to Walden Pond to live as he wrote.

#6 July 17, 2012 Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
It goes without saying that this book was a major influence on how the people thought about race in the 19th Century. It sold more copies of any book in the 19th Century except for the Bible. From Jay Parini in this book: "It fueled the abolitionist movement in obvious ways, drawing attention to the horrors of slavery and putting African American Characters before a mass (largely white) audience in vivid ways."

#7 July 22, 2012 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
"In writing this novel, Twain forged a fresh medium for the American language, creating a salty, amusing vernacular, a flexible medium that could range from the highest to the lowest levels of thought and feeling in colorful, even 'coarse" diction.(157) Twain showed us how to talk and handed us one of our founding myths, which involves lighting out 'for the Territory,' heading off into unknown regions in search of the fable promised land.(158)" "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain call Huckleberry Finn."...Ernest Hemingway

#8 August 1, 2012 The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois
The story of the black American evolved to the next step when this book was published. It gave 'white' Americans a sense that Afro-Americans actually had a soul. They had the same feeling, thoughts,and sense of family as a white man. In 1903, when the book was published, he defined the major problem of the 20th Century, "color-line". Although he had positive comments about George Washington Carver, he did not agree with his philosophy published in 'Up From Slavery' in which he argued that "blacks should propel themselves forward by entrepreneurial energy". He argued that to train blacks for a trade, encouraged them "to trade political power and civil rights for the freedom to cultivate a certain kind of education within the black community, accepting the notion of a separate but unequal black community". This book more than any other was an inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement. of the 50's and 60's.

#9 August 12, 2012 The Promised Land by Mary Antin
Antin's book was a national bestseller, "the most popular immigrant autobiography of its time", and a book that inspired a generation of newly minted American's, who saw in her story a version of their. "What it changed was American attitudes toward this frightening wave o newcomers. Her memoir also helped to confirm the United States as a land of promise. The immigrant memoir outlines the immigrant experience, its cycles of arrival, optimism, confusion, and assimilation. This genre will be "a staple of our literature"...and Mary Antin is a founding mother of this genre.(quotes are taken directly from the book to describe what I perceive to me to be the salient points...ones that I want to document so I can remember what I got from reading the author's opinion of this important book.

#10 August 22, 2012 How To Win Friends and Influence People
by Dale Carnegie
Background: This book appeared in the dark of the Great Depression when breadline formed in the streets. In the U.S. where failure is shameful and success has become something of a religion, there has always been a need for advice about how to get ahead..
No other book has been more successful at the business of success than this one. Published in 1936 is is an early prototype and iconic model of the self-help genre. "One can walk into any bookstore in America today and find long shelf of self-help books that owe a huge debt to Carnegie." Although the author admits that this book had a definite effect on his life and at some level still influences him, he is very critical about Carnegie's methods...calling them manipulative at the least. Carnegie's acknowledged forerunner was Benjamin Franklin (see No. 3) and many of his best ideas, are drawn from the world's sacred scriptures. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That is the essential message of this book."

#11 August 28, 2012 The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care
By Benjamin Spock, M.D>
First thing that caught my attention: I missed being raised by Dr. Spock by seven years. The book was published in 1946. I cannot recall seeing a copy of Dr. Spock's book in our house. Although I have to say that my Mother and Dad always respected me as an individual. I was shy by nature so a "child should be seen not heard" was not an issue in our house.
The statement by the author says it all: "Dr. Benjamin Spock changed how Americans raised their children, probably forever." It helped shape the Baby Boom generation, who are now ready for retirement. Before Spock most advice on the raising of children came from the pulpit, "spare the rod,spoil the child". Dr. Spock's main message to mothers: you know more than you think you do; follow your instincts. He wanted children to grow in ways that suited their individual personalities, and to make the most of their innate abilities. It is interesting that Dr. Spock for most of his life was a well-known and loved pediatrician, speaker, and author. However, somewhere in the 1960's he became a antiwar activist advocating nuclear disarmament. He took part in protest marches and was actually charged with conspiring "to sponsor and support a nation-wide program of resistance" to the draft. (Note: In 1973, after the Vietnam War Congress abolished the military draft in favor of an all volunteer Army.)
All I have heard about Dr. Spock was that his theories were responsible for a permissive age of self-centered/indulgent children who grew into self-centered/indulgent adults. However, Garry Wills, the writer who spent time in jail with him remembers: "Spock was the father not of a permissive age, but of an imaginative one. He had a respect for individuality, in babies as in grown citizens....He had come to protest war, not to wage it..."

#12 September 6, 2012 On the Road, Jack Kerouac
I really cannot relate in any way to this book. I think it is because I am part of the generation Mr. Kerouac defined as the "Beat Generation". In 1957 my generation had already been established and it wasn't 'beat'. I was part of the establishment and 'beat' wasn't part of it. I am not really sure even why Mr. Parini chose this book as one of the 'Thirteen Books. His first sentence was the only explanation: "'On The Road' (1957) identified, and helped to define, the notion of an American counterculture." He compared it as he some of the other books he has chosen as a rite of passage mainly for the male of the species. Also, Mr. Parini summarized the goal of this book as the search for IT. IT's the "search for enlightenment, for heightened consciousness, for God," which never ends. And finally, I think, most importantly, his last sentence says it all: "the going may well be more important than actually getting there." As a recent TV commercial trying to sell us cars says: The destination is the journey.

# 13 The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
Mr. Parini chose to include this book not because it was the only book that played a role in the women's movement, but because of the shock effect it had..."which almost single-handedly ignited a revolutionary phase that has deeply affected the live of countless American women and men." In my opinion, this movement is still evolving. Women are still trying to find their place in the greater scheme of things. I am not sure I will see it settled in my life time.
You know,I really can't relate to this book any more than I can 'On the Road'. I never had a 'stay at home' mom. My Mom and Dad owned a small cafe before the time of franchise fast food drive-ins. They both worked from 4am to 9pm every day, except Sunday. They didn't close on Sunday until all of the church crowd was served. I didn't find out until I was in my 20's that job opportunities were limited for women. Actually, maybe the fact that I didn't have a 'stay at home' mom...I call it a 'Life with Father' mom...made me dream to be one. I always wanted my Mom to be there when I got home from school. I can remember laying a guilt trip on my Mom..."why can't you be at home with cookies and milk when I get home from school like the other moms"? ...I didn't even like milk:)

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