12 Most Fundamentally American Literary Works
This is a near impossible task, identifying the top 12 literary works that best represent the great American themes, values, ideals, conflicts, passions, and identity. In fact, it is so clearly beyond possible that I must lay down a disclaimer upfront: this is *my* list. I am not trying to represent what is fundamentally American for all Americans at all times in American history.
And a further disclaimer: I am using the broadest possible interpretation of the word “literature;” i.e. words that have been written down. They could have been written on the back of a napkin for all I care, so long as they somehow hold true to the 200 plus years that are the great American Experiment. My list represents those written works that best represent for me the overarching themes of what is fundamentally my America: idealistic, free, young, conflicted, fighting, underdog-loving, ornery, brave, flawed, striving, independent, alive. Always, fundamentally, alive.
1. The Declaration of Independence (1776)
Thomas Jefferson was given the task of authoring the document that would throw down the gauntlet for old King George, that masterful list of grievances known as The Declaration of Independence. The words would mark the territory over which we would fight as a nation continuously for the next two hundred years, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
2. Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America (1787)
Thanks to “School House Rock” on Saturday mornings of my childhood, I have the Preamble to the Constitution memorized. I have to sing it to remember it, but I do know it by heart, particularly the first three totally American words, “We the people.”
3. The Defense of Fort McHenry (1814)
Better known as The Star-Spangled Banner, The Defense of Fort McHenry was the four-stanza poetic response of Francis Scott Key to the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy during the War of 1812 (which actually lasted until 1815). With its capital city and morale in ashes, America was at a low point with a none too optimistic future. While many today may hear our national anthem as that of an aggressive warrior nation, it was truly the rallying whoop of the underdog. At a point in this country’s fledgling history when all appeared lost, Key saw with amazed and unbelieving eyes that the by-all-measures more powerful British were retreating and that our flag — and our country — still stood.
4. Moby Dick (1851)
If nothing else, the United States of America is big. Third in geographic size, only after Russia and Canada, America just feels big, thinks big, acts… big. In the world of fishing, you can’t get much bigger than Moby Dick, now can you? Aside from the size factor, Herman Melville’s classic work bears the quintessential American themes of individualism in the context of the universe, good versus evil, monomaniacal obsessiveness, and of course, adventures at sea.
5. Gettysburg Address (1863)
“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” said a humble and ironic Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address. Not only will we long remember the iconic, “Four score and seven years ago,” the words are forever embedded within the American psyche, such that “… government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
6. Is it a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote? (1873)
Susan B. Anthony’s speech On Women’s Right to Vote is not only important for the milestone it is for women’s suffrage. It also represents an ongoing challenge to hold to the ideals of the country’s founders and say, “Hey, what are we playing at here? Are we serious about that equality stuff?”
7. The New Colossus (1883)
Better known as the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty with the echoing “”Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus was written as part of a fund-raiser for the statue’s pedestal. The title and first few lines refer to the Colossus of Rhodes, a “…brazen giant… with conquering limbs.” In contrast, the Statue of Liberty is described as, “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / Mother of Exiles.” And in whose symbolic soul American ideals are held with care.
8. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
When I think American literature, I think Mark Twain. Written in the southern vernacular of the antebellum period, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provided a scathing look at the racism of the day. Although it was criticized at the time and since for course language and stereotypical characters, Huck Finn stands up to any measure of what it means to be fundamentally American.
9. Mending Wall (1914)
Robert Frost’s Mending Wall tells another part of the American character, the fiercely independent, somewhat ornery New England neighbor that is careful to rebuild the fences that make for good neighborliness.
10. Little House (1932-1943)
My friend Lancia Smith said it better than I ever could, the reason for including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series in this list. For many, it had “a deep impact and influence on … developing perceptions of what it is to [be] an American as well as being a good girl growing up in a broken and often bad world. … they defined the essence of American goodness when so much else … defined badness.”
11. I Have A Dream (1963)
When Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his address at the Lincoln Memorial on that sultry August day, he echoed the words from the American documents, speeches, anthems that came before, weaving them into a speech that is remembered for its eloquence, grand scope, and unifying effect. He challenged Americans to meet the ideals that the authors of those previous works had articulated.
12. The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee (1976)
While not the traditional pick of patriotic works, N. Scott Momaday’s poem The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee embodies the essential “e pluribus unum” (from many one) nature of the American dream. This country brings together many cultures, values, ways of being, and somehow forms one great nation that is, above all else, alive. “You see, I am alive, I am alive.”
My husband tells me I’ll be taken to task for not including Emily Dickinson. I expect to get some flak for excluding Langston Hughes and Harper Lee as well.
Well, I say, bring it on! What else did I miss? Where did I overstate the importance of certain works? As you reflect on this country’s independence and what it took to get and keep it, what literary works do you turn to for clarity, inspiration, and challenge?
Featured image courtesy of Vince Alongi licensed via Creative Commons.