Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America by Jay Parinipromised-land

Host: Mike B.

Date: March 25, 2009

The Thirteen:
Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford
Federalist Papers by Publius
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

He was, during his 84-year life, America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical — though not most profound — political thinkers. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He sought practical ways to make stoves less smoky and commonwealths less corrupt. He organized neighborhood constabularies and international alliances, local lending libraries and national legislatures. He combined two types of lenses to create bifocals and two concepts of representation to foster the nation’s federal compromise. He was the only man who shaped all the founding documents of America: the Albany Plan of Union, the Declaration of Independence, the treaty of alliance with France, the peace treaty with England, and the Constitution. And he helped invent America’s unique style of homespun humor, democratic values, and philosophical pragmatism.

Journals of Lewis & Clark
Walden by Thoureau

To read well, that is, to read true books in true spirit, is a noble excercise, an one that will task the reader more than any excercise which the customs of the day esteem.  It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.  Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.


Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Souls of Black Folk by WEB Debois
The Promised Land by Mary Antin
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

Judges Score: Generally positive reviews.  Most pugilists had only read one or two of the thirteen, so having a concise summary that put the books and their authors in context was helpful.  Three themes emerged: rugged individual/self-actualization, immigration, and the road story.  But, it was difficult to explore each of these themes in the three hours alloted to the bout.  The discussion seemed cursory at times because we had to keep moving to cover all thirteen.

On the question of which book/movie/tv show/music defines our current times, two answers are worth recounting here: Google and Star Wars.  Neither of which are books, let alone anything by Wolfe, Updike, or even a FC favorite, The Matrix by the Wachowski brothers.  Has the book, as a medium, lost its ability to cause shifts in culture and society?

Food & Drink: Breaking a string bouts with pizzas, Mrs. B. whipped up a wonderful salad, lasagna, and pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting.  And, copious amounts of Summit and Amstel Light.

Other Sources:

A great review by former presidential candidate and Senator, Gary Hart in last Sunday’s NYT Book Review of two books:

335 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95

A TOLERABLE ANARCHY: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom by Jedediah Purdy
294 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $23.95

In “The Future of Liberalism,” Wolfe does not simply attempt a defense of the New Deal, as some have mistakenly done. He reminds us of liberalism’s deep conceptual, intellectual and, yes, moral roots. And he also reminds us that programs and policies, always contestable, are but the manifestation of principles that cause people of conviction to join parties, campaign for candidates and seek to demonstrate in practical ways that progress is neither a euphemism nor a chimera. 

Publishers Weekly interview with Jay Parini:

He Sees America Reading by Sarah F. Gold — Publishers Weekly, 9/8/2008

In Promised Land (Reviews, Sept. 1), Jay Parini offers a sometimes surprising list of 13 books that have shaped America, from Of Plymouth Plantation to The Feminine Mystique.

All 13 books you’ve selected represent certain constant American themes. Which came first—the themes or the books?

I went to this lecture in London, 10 Books That Changed the World. It seemed rather absurd, but it was interesting, and I thought, what would be the books that really changed America? I said, okay, you have to have The Federalist Papers. You have to have the Journals of Lewis and Clark. You probably have to have Uncle Tom’s Cabin…. And then I started saying, now what? And then that gave me a little freedom. I started to think, what are the key things about America? Immigration. Well, Of Plymouth Plantation is our first American narrative. It’s an immigration narrative, it’s a religious book, and it’s about the confrontation of races, white and Native American. That made me think, okay, I just need another, later immigrant book. And Mary Antin’s The Promised Land has always been a favorite of mine. It defined for many Americans the pattern of immigration.

Did writing this book change or reinforce your ideas about America?

I’m the son of immigrants. I was a real gung-ho American. But over the past seven years I’d become so demoralized in many ways, I’d forgotten what I was excited about in the first place. And going back in a deep, deep way, I was suddenly just thrilled by the American character: its bravery, its sense of freedom and autonomy, its sense that this is a new thing in the world and there’s endless possibilities here. This is a book which is meant to say, Look who you are, and be happy about it! Get on with the good work! Don’t get bogged down in all these stupid arguments.

Even though these books all represent some essential American quality, they were also disturbing and radically new.

Each of them was disruptive. You can’t change things without being disruptive. The Federalist Papers was making a case for this crazy idea of a U.S. Constitution. And it dawned on me as I was writing, holy God, this is the United States of Amnesia! This is a country—especially since 9/11—where we’ve really been in the lock grip of ignoramuses. Teachers are trying hard, but everything militates against a knowledge of our past. And one good way to find out who we are is to go back and see what books made us.

Some of those books, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are still controversial even today.



BEYOND THE REVOLUTION A History of American Thought From Paine to Pragmatism
By William H. Goetzmann
456 pp. Basic Books. $35


The Holy Bible: King James version
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx
The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life by Charles Darwin
 The Federalist Papers by Publius
 Politics  by Aristotle
Analects of Confucius
The Social Contract  by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
 Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
The Republic and The Laws (Oxford World’s Classics) by Cicero

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