Friday , February 23 2024
Breezy critical studies of the books that made America.

Book Review: Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America: White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits by Thomas C. Foster

You’ve got to hand it to Thomas C. Foster — he has managed to do something that more than a few of his literary colleagues have found impossible. He has made the critical analysis of literature both interesting and accessible. Twenty- Five Books That Shaped America: How White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits Forged Our National Identity is a fast-paced irreverent look at some of the major landmarks of American literature, with an eye to explaining their importance to what has become the idea of America. Each of the 25 anointed tomes gets its own short chapter, usually under 10 pages; Foster, unlike his verbose brethren, never goes on at length. He understands how quickly literary critique can turn off the popular audience. He makes his points about individual works, places them in the context of the American experience and moves on. Some of what he says is new and radical, some fairly conventional, but predictable or original, and whatever he has to say is sure to be said with wit, brio and panache (if indeed these are not just three ways of saying the same thing).

Let’s begin with the choosing of the books. Twenty-five is more or less an arbitrary number. Clearly it could just as easily have been 26, 27 or 31. Twenty-five is a small enough number to suggest major significance, and not so large as to suggest that everyone gets a trophy. Moreover, as Foster points out in the introduction, it’s easy to include everything, winnowing the field down to the “fit though few” is both a difficult and a worthy task. Next there must be some criteria by which to do the winnowing. Foster explains that he is not trying to elect the 25 best American books, the 25 most important American books, not the 25 most influential American books. He is not trying to describe “the” 25 anything. These are not the 25; these are 25. There are, as he points out at the start and again at the end, many others for which excellent cases can be made. These are his 25; readers are free to choose any others they like and make cases for them.

There is no point in complaining that he left out this book or that author. He is clear from the get go. This is his list. If you don’t like it, make your own. If Henry James doesn’t get a book on it, well at least he gets honorable mention in a final chapter on fifteen also rans. Edgar Alan Poe doesn’t even make his way into that. Nothing against them, indeed Foster has nice things to say about Poe in the course of his discussions of other books, even if he is less enthusiastic about James. The point is he has a criterion for his choices, and Poe and James, at least by his lights, great though they may be, do not meet his criterion as well as those who have made the list. Criterion? It’s in the title: Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America, shaped in the sense that they are the literary works that created the American image, the American myth. And besides, you can always manage to sneak two or three other writers and books into the discussion of one of the books that did make the list without getting readers too upset.

Okay, so who makes the cut? Ben Franklin gets in with his Autobiography. This despite the fact that as Foster is quick to point out, old Ben is not always as truthful as one might like. James Fenimore Cooper gets in despite what Mark Twain has to say about him and Foster’s own critique of his clunky prose and narrative inadequacy. Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is included even though Foster claims he would have preferred the short stories or even The House of the Seven Gables. Given his assertions in the introduction, this seems like a cop out, but again as he likes to point out it’s his ball. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to play. He includes representatives of nearly all the neglected minorities —  women, Afro-Americans, Native Americans and gays. There are a few outliers: Dr, Seuss most notably. Most all the big names are there: Melville and company for sure. Seventeen of the authors are post-19th century which might seem a bit late in the myth-making game. Again, it’s his ball.

As far as analysis of individual works is concerned, his readings are usually grounded in orthodox academic opinion. Given the irreverence of his writing, one might expect his criticism to be more rebellious; if so, one would be disappointed. His discussion of Huck Finn is fairly typical of what academics have to say. He talks about the problems with the ending; he talks about the narrative voice and the colloquial dialogue. What he says is important, but it’s not particularly novel. His chapter on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has a lot of plot summary, which, while it may be justified in a work that may well be less well known, doesn’t usually make for significant criticism.

He is fond of explaining a book’s importance by listing the writers it influenced. Without Dashiell Hammett, there would have been no Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane; without Walt Whitman, no William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and a list of eight more; without Dr. Seuss (one of his 25 is The Cat in the Hat), no Sesame Street. There is certainly truth here, but these kinds of assertions could use a bit more analysis than he bothers with.

But why quibble?Twenty- Five Books That Shaped America is a book for the general audience. Foster is not writing for scholars: more than likely they don’t want or need a book like this. If it sparks interest and gets people rereading Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath, even reading Thomas Pynchon or Saul Bellow for the first time, why find fault?

About Jack Goodstein

Check Also

John Lisle

Book Interview: John Lisle, Author of ‘The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lovell, The OSS, and The Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare’

"History should be about storytelling."