'Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America' by Jay Parini

Baker's dozen of classics seeks to provoke debate

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In his introduction to "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain issues this serio-comedic warning:

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

However, Jay Parini, in his discussion of the novel as one of 13 "books that changed America," ignores Twain and lists motive, moral intention and plot in justifying his pronouncement. In defying the cagey author, Parini comes across as just the kind of pompous bore that Twain warned us about.

   
"PROMISED LAND: THIRTEEN BOOKS THAT CHANGED AMERICA'

By Jay Parini
Doubleday (24.95)

   

Shooting is too extreme a punishment for Parini and he's too prolific a writer to be banished, having authored fiction, poetry and biographies in impressive numbers. I have no legal authority to prosecute him, so he escapes Twain's wrath, but not, for what it's worth, my skepticism.

In his introduction, Parini explains his plan:

"By books that 'changed America,' I mean works that helped to create the intellectual and emotional contours of this country. Each played a pivotal role in developing a complex value system that flourishes to this day."

My chief complaint with Parini, then, is his word choice, not his title choice. Helping to create "intellectual and emotional contours" is not "change," but influence. The 13 winners of the Parini sweepstakes are well-considered and worthy reading, but none of them had the kind of impact that could affect history. They are, in order:

"Of Plymouth Plantation," William Bradford's diary of the Pilgrim experience; "The Federalist Papers," a series of pro-Constitution newspaper articles chiefly by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison; "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" appearing after Franklin's death in 1790; "The Journals of Lewis and Clark," written by the leaders of the journey of discovery;

"Walden" by Henry David Thoreau (1854); "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist novel of 1852; "Huckleberry" (1884);

"The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. DuBois, published in 1903; "The Promised Land" by Mary Antin (1912), a vivid account of the immigrant experience; "How to Win Friends and Influence People," the proto-self-help book first written by Dale Carnegie in 1936;

"The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" by Dr. Benjamin Spock, first published in 1946; "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac (1957); and "The Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan's view of American womanhood published in 1963.

If we edit Parini and rate these works for their influences, then Spock, Friedan, Carnegie and Stowe deserve that label.

The other nonfiction choices are doubtful, despite Parini's at times vehement defense of his selections.

Thoreau is an obvious choice, but for "Civil Disobedience" rather than "Walden." That treatise surely had more impact on the world than his rather coy and self-promoting journal of living in the woods, a woods that was close enough to Concord that he could always grab a free meal at the Emersons when the bean pot was empty.

Fiction's tougher to corral. There are only three novels on Parini's list and only one, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," made a splash big enough to track.

" ... Stowe opened a vein of discourse in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' that has never been exhausted, illustrating the ravages of slavery ... and recalling with extraordinary power the bleak history of race relations in this country," writes Parini.

That "vein of discourse" was opened long before Stowe, worrying the Founding Fathers as far back as 1776, and remained a constant issue before the country.

Parini's final fiction choice, Kerouac's "On the Road," is a real stretch. This carefully edited advertisement for the Beat Generation opened readers' eyes to a distinct American voice, but little about it was original or ground-breaking.

Seen commonly as a manifesto for the 1960s cultural rebellion, "On the Road" was for hippie wannabes, not those seriously interested in making a break.

That said, "Promised Land" is a good starting point to review the "great books" of America and, in true American fashion, lead us to make up our own minds on the books' value.


Contact book editor Bob Hoover at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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