What does it take to be a good American? And who gets to decide? Journalist Jess McHugh examines thirteen seemingly innocuous, mega-bestselling reference books, guidebooks, and self-help books that have become blueprints for core American values and shaped our national story.
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.