The Library of Congress is currently running an exhibition (both digital and material) entitled Books That Shaped America as part of their multiyear “Celebration of the Book”. There are 88 books in all, and the list is intended to provoke reading, thought, discussion, and additions: According to the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, it is a “starting point… intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.” To contribute to this conversation, you can take a survey on the site. I have found myself thinking about the list quite a bit over the last week or so, and every time I make a mental case on why a certain book should be (or should not be) on the list I go to the exhibit website and read the Library’s rationale.
The books include classic examples of both nonfiction and fiction: the former category includes several works of grammar, cookbooks, scientific books, and quite a few works which call for social reform, pretty understandable given the list’s focus on impact, influence, identity. There are several early primers, but twentieth-century textbooks do not make the grade. Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796) is on the list, along with Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking (1931), but not Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (the first to use standardized measurements) or Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook (which really revolutionized the American palate, in my understanding).
A history of how-to: The New England Primer (1802), The American Woman’s Home by Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869) and Dale Carnegie’s incredibly influential How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936).
The fiction works seem more predictable: lots of New England authors, I must say, including Salem’s own Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, Alcott, Dickinson. Washington Irving is on the list, as is, of course, Mark Twain. All the expected southern authors (with the exception of Flannery O’Connor) are included, and many major twentieth-century texts, from The Jungle to In Cold Blood. The list also includes classic children’s books, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), Good Night Moon (1947), and Where the Wild Things Are (1973).
Forceful Fiction: Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951).
Actually, I think that children’s literature is a bit over-represented as compared to other genres. And I know I’m biased, but history seems under-represented, as well as economics (Sandburg’s Lincoln? Milton Friedman?). As for fiction, I think I’ve figured out why works by James Fenimore Cooper and Edith Wharton were not included but why no Poe? Certainly The Raven must be put on the list, at the very least.
Antonio Frasconi illustration for/of The Raven, 1959, in the current exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum: Picturing Poe: Illustrations for Edgar Allen Poe’s Stories and Poems.
September 21st, 2012 at 12:11 pm
In my own New England childhood in the 50s, even with the rise in Cookbook Culture, Fannie Farmer was THE book of choice in practically every local kitchen, even as it was joined and eventually replaced by JOC.
With my own bias for architecture and design, one thinks that perhaps Asher Benjamin’s ‘American Builder’s Companion’ and Wharton and Codman’s ‘The Decoration of Houses’ have their place—both revolutionary and gigantically influential in their time—but perhaps I’m being a bit parochial.
And dang it all, even if Strunk & White’s ‘The Elements of Style isn’t one of the most influential, it darn well should be. 🙂
September 21st, 2012 at 6:29 pm
Great choices: I’m with you on Fannie, DD! No Wharton at all!
September 21st, 2012 at 2:58 pm
and really – Ralph Nader? Ugh.
Fascinating. Thank you Donna. I wish I were one of your students.
September 21st, 2012 at 6:35 pm
What a nice compliment, Julie! This list has a definite bias towards reform and advocacy, I think.
September 21st, 2012 at 3:25 pm
Ha! Elements of Style. Can’t tell you how often I recommend that book. Should be required reading in school.
I, too, wish Donna was my teacher (I mean, in a classroom; she’s my teacher on the web).
September 21st, 2012 at 6:30 pm
Oh no, I feel too powerful! Didn’t mean to teach/blog–I guess I can’t help myself! No worries, though; you’re all smart enough to seek other sources…
September 21st, 2012 at 3:38 pm
Any list is an invitation to caustic critics such as myself. Still, I can’t help but note that of the of the 88, only four were published in the last forty years. But, oh, wasn’t the ‘sixties a glorious decade: 12 titles! It seems that in the 20th century only the ‘nineties failed.
Poe should be there… though for me – perhaps this says more about my current area of study – the glaring omission is Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, which is generally accepted as the bestselling American book before Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
September 21st, 2012 at 6:43 pm
Wow, Brian, Maria is new to me, but it looks very consequential—I think the book must have been excluded because Maria herself was Canadian; the Library’s list seems to be restricted to American authors rather than just American books. I’d love to hear more about your project–I have a colleague at SSU who wrote a book on the burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, MA. And I love your blog–as well as your wife’s, of course.
September 21st, 2012 at 7:08 pm
Donna, would your colleague be Nancy Lusignan Schultz? If so… well, it is a small world. I’m very much an admirer of her work. Though my interest goes way back, I’ve only just begun my work on Maria Monk. My hope is that leads to a book – something of a follow-up to last year’s John Glassco biography. Not that they are necessarily related – though both place Montreal front and centre and feature a certain amount of hoaxery. Central to Maria’s hoax is the fact that her Awful Disclosures were penned by an American… perhaps more than one, but that is just one question I aim to solve. Many thanks for the compliments. We’re both certainly fans of yours.
September 21st, 2012 at 5:37 pm
Good point. The Baltimore football team is named the Ravens after the famous poem, penned in Baltimore. He is beloved throughout the world, not just the US.
September 21st, 2012 at 6:33 pm
I really do feel that it is a glaring omission, Susan.