The concept behind Americanon is nothing short of brilliant, and journalist Jess McHugh delivers on her inspired premise with insight and aplomb ... Some of the most astute observations in this penetrating history are about how these books’ creators did not always live by the same rules they imposed upon their rank-and-file readers. McHugh’s book is essential reading—illuminating, engaging and absorbing. You’ll never look at the dictionary or cookbook on your shelf in quite the same way.
McHugh’s chapters, winningly, are not close readings of each book but mini-histories of the texts’ creation and reception, the authors’ biographies, the public’s moods, the contexts of various eras. She’s on her firmest footing from the country’s founding up until the Great Depression ... McHugh has a knack for squeezing a lot of research into smallish spaces, and she sweetens the pot with throwaway but vivid details ... On the flip side, McHugh tends to belabor some of the obvious but necessary context, including how exclusionary this canon has been. And she sometimes relies on blandly broad historical statements for use as spackle ... The book’s subtitle advertises an 'unexpected' history, and one can quibble with that. Some of the conclusions about the composite American character — especially in its early years — won’t shock too many citizens ... But the book resoundingly and memorably establishes these qualities through reading habits, and it highlights two qualities that perhaps haven’t been as well covered: We are prescriptive and hypocritical. Without overdoing it, McHugh clearly delineates how good Americans are — or at least American authors are — at giving advice they don’t follow.
... belongs to a critical strategy of attacking current inequities in American life by attacking prior representations of those inequities. This is an entry in the new culture wars ... Given her thesis, it’s a little strange that one of McHugh’s most frequent epithets, in criticizing these books, is ]arbitrary.' She accuses Emily Post and David Reuben and even Noah Webster of arbitrarily imposing their own norms on their users. But, as she herself points out repeatedly, every book in her canon was one of many just like it being published around the same time ... McHugh ends her discussion of every book in her canon with this criticism, and the reader comes to approach those pages with dread, knowing that the mighty hammer of diversity will soon come crashing down. This is a very predictable book ... Still, who can argue with the thesis? Even if her books only reflect the unequal social dispensation out of which they arose, they also project that dispensation back. Within a world in which success was defined mainly in terms of what white male Protestants had achieved, and manners and mores mainly in terms of how middle-class heterosexuals behaved, these books can be read as telling their millions of readers, This is normal. Other ways of doing things are not.
... at its best when Ms. McHugh is doing actual reporting ... But the high points are relatively rare, and when she ventures from the particular to the general the book suffers. The biggest problem, perhaps, is her overall lack of familiarity with the immense body of scholarship about many of the books and individuals and all of the themes she writes about. A basic principle of writing is that the more you know about a subject, the stronger your prose. Americanon shows the inverse to be true as well ... The clearest indication of her lack of assurance is her astonishing overuse of qualifiers ... Another principle of good writing is attentiveness to what you have written. Not being mindful leads to clunky rhythm, dodgy wording, cliches and mixed metaphors. Ms. McHugh is prone to all four but especially the last ... Any proficient editor could and should have red-flagged all those sentences and most of those 'arguably's, and I think it’s terrible that a first-time author has been left hanging out to dry in this way ... The question behind Americanon is valid and intriguing...But the legitimacy of the idea only makes the shortcomings of the writing more frustrating.
... [Benjamin] Franklin mostly figures in McHugh’s narrative as a genial progenitor of the gospel of success—which proved an altogether more inclusive literary tradition than Webster’s world-conquering linguistic nationalism ... And that, in turn, points up a key limitation of McHugh’s otherwise suggestive and imaginative survey. McHugh tries to argue throughout the book that each of the works she examines tended to reinforce the same process of cultural homogenization. Yet, while Franklin and Webster both wrote out of an impulse for self-improvement, they are not, at the end of the day, offering the same kind of advice ... It’s not that this estimation is wrong, per se—rather, it’s that it explains everything and nothing. Yes, national myth-making tends to obliterate difference in most historical settings—but tensions within such myths produce significant changes over time ... this is ultimately why Americanon, for all of its energetically reported detail, ultimately adds up to considerably less than its bestselling, culture-making parts ... the larger design of Americanon produces a singular flattening effect, in which one fabricated cultural myth is piled atop another, with no apparent resolution or egress on offer.
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 ... Among McHugh’s accomplishments is the deft way she establishes the evolution of ideas across the books she explores ... Another aspect of Americanon that makes it so readable is the way McHugh blends in the biographies of the writers she covers ... If there is a flaw in Americanon, it is its repetitiveness ... As the principles repeat, so do the ulterior motives of the writers behind them ... 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 ... 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.
... delightful ... McHugh’s conclusions can be too pat, and her analysis occasionally lacks rigor ... Still, due in no small part to the appeal of its premise, Americanon is an edifying read, one that might lead readers to reconsider their own dog-eared American classics.
General readers and history devotees might enjoy this compilation and its use of corporate archival and secondary sources; they might also have additions to suggest ... McHugh’s work is distinctive and engaging as it describes American social history through the lens of mainstream nonfiction advice books, and explores how they define or redefine us.
Clearly enthusiastic about her subject, the author sometimes finds herself in the tall weeds; her account of the making of the Old Farmer’s Almanac is everything you ever wanted to know, and then much more besides. Early on, McHugh points out that her field contains 'a striking absence of nonwhite authors and LGBTQ authors,' for the simple reason that dispensers of advice have usually been White men, and often of a conservative religious bent ... A worthy, capably told look at a small canon of works demonstrating how to do well by doing good.