Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books

  • By Jess McHugh
  • Dutton
  • 432 pp.
  • Reviewed by John P. Loonam
  • July 5, 2021

Can a nation’s character be defined by what’s on its shelves?

When J. Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur wrote Letters from an American Farmer in 1782, it was not certain what that identifier, “American,” might mean. Even 40 years later, Sydney Smith denied the existence of a distinct American culture and character, reviewing an early history of America with the question, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?”

Given the dominance of American power and culture over the last century, it may be difficult to grasp the idea that there was no such thing as an American when the Revolutionary War ended. The nation had been formed; now its people needed to be invented. In Americanon, Jess McHugh tells the story of this invention and the ongoing reinforcement and reinvention the American character has undergone since.

Her subtitle, An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books, might call up a list of important works of literature — Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle, or maybe The Great Gatsby or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But McHugh is up to something more interesting: Rather than examining American reading tastes, she maps the evolution of the national character through numerous guidebooks and self-help texts, from The Old Farmer’s Almanac through Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask) and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For better or worse, these are the works that taught us — and continue to teach us — how to be American.

In her discussion of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, first published in 1792, she points out that almanacs were once local phenomena, with dozens printed in the various communities around the original 13 states. What makes them unusual is their continued popularity. The Old Farmer’s Almanac still sells 3 million copies annually and still offers a view of the self-sufficient agrarian yeoman of Thomas Jefferson’s dreams: an icon of Enlightenment thinking actively making the world “rational and knowable.”

While McHugh celebrates this strain of America’s self-image, she does not buy into it. She points out that textile mills and factory production were making the independent New England farmer a thing of the past even as Jefferson and Robert B. Thomas, the Almanac’s founder, were singing his praises.

The image of the farmer as “a patriot and model citizen” is part of the story we want to tell ourselves about our origins, but it ignores the violent and duplicitous history of land ownership in America, both the way land was acquired from Indigenous peoples and the enslaved labor that cultivated so much of it. Yet The Old Farmer’s Almanac roots the reader firmly in a comforting dream of the past, as it has for 229 years.

The first several texts in McHugh’s study build on the theme she lays out in her discussion of the Almanac: the creation of an “American” as a pragmatic, independent democrat forging a new kind of nation in a new land. She shows us how Noah Webster created a uniquely American language by inventing new words and simplifying spellings; how Benjamin Franklin's autobiography crafted the template for the self-made man; and how William McGuffey found a way to educate children on being American.

The chapter on The McGuffey Readers is particularly rich, as it delves into 19th-century debates on education, religion, and immigration. McGuffey’s original Readers were explicitly Protestant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic, and key to spreading the narrative of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. McHugh notes the importance of these shared myths to a rapidly growing, politically fractious country. She also writes tellingly of their continued use: The Readers — shorn of their most offensive passages — have found a new audience within the conservative homeschooling movement, fueled by what McHugh describes as “a longing for a lost America, one that is part real, part imagined.”

Among McHugh’s accomplishments is the deft way she establishes the evolution of ideas across the books she explores. Her treatment of Catharine Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy and The American Woman’s Home, for instance, offers a solid introduction to the Victorian cult of domesticity. By preaching — amid a background of social upheaval — the value of a well-run home and offering pragmatic lessons on how to create one, Beecher provided an alternative to the disruptive feminism of peers like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Another aspect of Americanon that makes it so readable is the way McHugh blends in the biographies of the writers she covers. This is especially true of Emily Post, who, as the author points out, was born during Reconstruction and lived to see John F. Kennedy run for president, along the way enduring a failed marriage and a spectacularly humiliating divorce before remaking herself — a middle-aged mother of two — first into a successful novelist and then into America’s self-appointed expert on etiquette.

According to McHugh, Post’s divorce was emblematic for her of the messy divides in American society, and Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home was her attempt to reimpose order on a chaotic world. The book, and the public’s reaction to it, carried a veneer of democracy: No less an authority on the gilded class than Town & Country magazine promoted it as an invaluable guide for new immigrants trying to find their way in American society and culture.

However, like other such books before it, Post’s codified the gates of behavior being used to keep those immigrants out, providing an intellectual framework for snobbish conformity. It is fascinating, yet hardly unprecedented, that a divorced, working woman became the spokesperson for social orthodoxy. As McHugh reminds us, Ben Franklin somehow became a beacon of moral order, while prominent activist Catharine Beecher was anointed the ultimate homemaker.

If there is a flaw in Americanon, it is its repetitiveness. The ideals that Robert Thomas espoused in The Old Farmer’s Almanac are reiterated by Franklin, and given a slight gender realignment in The American Woman’s Home, before reemerging in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

As the principles repeat, so do the ulterior motives of the writers behind them, so that even Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* — which condemns both same-sex and mixed-race relationships — is shown to be as much about exclusion as education. Its physician author, David Reuben, effectively turned the sex manual into a plea for a straight, white America.

Of course, repetition is part of the point, just as part of these books’ point — or, if not their point, their effect nevertheless — was to obscure reality and harden myths into truth. A “people,” after all, can only be established if there exists a consistent set of values that defines us, or at least hints at our aspirations. Jess McHugh’s achievement in Americanon is that she makes clear some of the problems with these aspirations are baked into their design and not a result of our frequently having fallen short of them.

John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various journals and anthologies, and his short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn long enough to be considered natives by anyone but his neighbors.

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