Literature

American beauties

Promised Land attempts to link 13 great novels, with mixed success

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Edward Pettit

Jay Parini’s latest book, Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America, plots the course of America’s Manifest Literary Destiny. As the title suggests, Parini has chosen a baker’s dozen of seminal American works “that helped to create the intellectual and emotional contours of this country,” from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn toJack Kerouac’s On the Road. Each left an indelible imprint on the American character.

In his introduction, Parini argues that this is not a greatest-hits of American literature. There is no Scarlet Letter or Great Gatsby. He also excludes poetry, because, he writes, verse only really affects the “tiny group who actually read poetry.” An exception might be made for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but I think Parini is probably correct: Poetry has yet to change the course of American culture.

Parini, a professor at Middlebury College, is the author of books of criticism (on Theodore Roethke) and biographies (on Robert Frost, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner), as well as several novels and collections of poetry. He’s an academic who consistently writes for a wide readership, a professor for the common reader. His novel about Leo Tolstoy’s final years, The Last Station, is currently being made into a movie.

Each chapter in Promised Land focuses on one book, with each divided into four parts: a thumbnail sketch of the book’s importance; a historical context for the writer and the work; a description of the main body; and a case for the work’s legacy. The books’ cultural and political climates are often as important as their content. In his chapter on William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, Parini describes 1856 America, with its states heading toward disunion and its westward expansion coming to define the country’s “Manifest Destiny” credo. “Bradford’s account of the early Pilgrim adventures offered an alternative reality,” a society of “fiercely united and determined men and women” who would create America’s mythic first Thanksgiving. In 1856, the country needed a unifying myth, and Bradford’s fit the bill.

Parini has written a kind of guide to reading these works. Each chapter could serve as an excellent introduction to the books, and indeed, reading Promised Land made me want to read, or re-read, most of these seminal American books. I write “most” because I’m not sure what literary pleasure would be gained by reading Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.

The Details

Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America
Three stars
Jay Parini
Doubleday, $25.
Amazon: Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America

A few other odd choices help Parini’s work stand out. There are chapters on Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and the little-known immigrant narrative The Promised Land, by Mary Antin. Parini makes strong cases for Antin and Spock, but his allegiance to Carnegie seems more about that work’s influence on Parini’s own life.

Several themes run through Promised Land, and as it progresses, one can see the connections among the books. America’s “outward expansion” is reflected in Plymouth Plantation and The Journals of Lewis and Clark. The “inward exploration” of the American mind is developed in Franklin’s autobiography and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Later books, such as On the Road, encapsulate both inward and outward journeys.

Of course, many of the books deal with democracy, independence and race. These books speak to each other, some making promises and others reminding us to keep them. Parini consistently reminds us that all 13 are nodal books of the American character.

Sometimes these broad, sweeping statements seem too trite for a serious critic of American literature, but Parini backs up his rhetoric with detailed analysis. And, for the scholar itching to point out books that were omitted, the author has included an appendix of 100 more great American works, and a short paragraph about the importance of each.

Still, Promised Land left me a little cold, providing one serious discussion after another, each like a dose of American medicine. Most of these books are works to be studied more than enjoyed, so Parini’s book falls into a pattern, like 13 lectures in a row. Taken individually, each is fascinating and deep. But after the first half-dozen, one needs a little pulp fiction to enliven the palate.

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