The Promised Land: An American Reading List

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Compiled by Eleanor Franzén

So, the presidential election of 2016. As with the elections of 2012 and 2008, I will be telling my children exactly where I was when I heard the results, but this time, I will tell them, I cried not with rejoicing but with shock, disgust, horror. In the days that followed, the Internet was aflame with reactions, then with lists of pro-women, pro-choice, pro-civil rights organisations to which one could donate, then with injunctions not to let this bizarre new world where fascist beliefs were legitimised under the label “alt-right” become normal. It has been an exhausting year, and the past month has been perhaps the worst of all.

I’m half-American. I grew up there until the age of eighteen; I still hold a US passport. After the election, I thought of turning it in, but my hand was stayed by two things: one, without a US passport there is an outside chance I will find it extremely difficult to see my family again, and two, I still believe that America is capable of being a great, a beautiful country. It is a country built on the backs of other humans, yes, and that history is one that white Americans have, unacceptably, ignored and dismissed. It is also a country built on a radical idea: that all are created equal. That it has so far failed to live up to its founding belief is not due to a fault in that belief, but to the venality of economics, the brutality of religious dogmas, the selfishness of individual and collective human wills.

The people who have defended and preserved that belief have been writers. Artists of any description, actually—painters and photographers and dancers and musicians—but writers, especially, have championed the dream of American opportunity since the country’s birth. Here are some of the best books by and about Americans: books that remind me, every time I open them, of what we can be.

The West and Midwest

I suspect, when most people think “America”, this is what they think of: these wide flat prairies, this open and infinite sky. The West and Midwest were settled late and their history is one not only of taciturn farmers and competent housewives, canned pickles and prize pies, but also of displacement and violence. There is no On the Road on this list—Kerouac was just passing through—nor is there the glorified cruelty of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. These books, I hope, suggest both the quiet neighbourliness and the appalling legacy of loss that characterise the West.

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf. The short but bruisingly lovely story of two old farming brothers in Colorado who provide shelter to a pregnant and homeless teenage girl. Fans of Marilynne Robinson should discover Haruf immediately. 

Roughing It, by Mark Twain. Covering Twain’s travels through the American West from 1861 to 1867, this includes accounts of a visit to Mormon-controlled Salt Lake City, gold and silver mining, and even a visit to the still-autonomous Kingdom of Hawai’i. It’s all suffused with Twain’s trademark wit and sarcastic but liberal outlook on life.

O, Pioneers!, by Willa Cather. Worth reading on the basis of the exclamation mark alone, but also for its beautiful depiction of the determination and drive of the people who settled the West. The struggle of female farmer Alexandra Bergson to make something of her family’s land is elemental and powerful.

Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. Woodrell writes about the people no one else writes about: poor and under-educated whites, the very folks who supposedly elected Trump. If you wish to understand, or begin to understand, such people, you must read Woodrell. (Also, Donald Ray Pollock.) Winter’s Bone follows Ree Dolly, a teenaged girl who must find her missing father to protect her family from homelessness. It is an uncompromising, astonishingly good book. The film, starring a young Jennifer Lawrence, is also one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

The South

It is very, very difficult to find hopeful books about the South. It is a region suffused with melancholy; its defining characteristic almost from inception has been a tendency to romanticise the past. Like the West, it is a region born out of and sustained by horrific violence. Yet the South is also known nationwide for its hospitality, for its willingness to welcome and include strangers. It is a place of paradox, and will always, in some odd way, be one of my homes in the world.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. You could call this the Southern version of Winesburg, Ohio, though it focuses on just a handful of main characters: John Singer and Spiros Antonopoulos, the deaf-mute friends; the tomboy Mick Kelly; the alcoholic Jake Blount; Biff Brannon, who owns the local diner; and Benedict Copeland, an African-American doctor. It embraces and treats with dignity those who have been abandoned or hurt by society, and should, I think, be required reading for humanity.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. One of the funniest books I have ever read, following the misadventures of the eccentric Ignatius J. Reilly, denizen of New Orleans. Like New Orleans, it’s loud and brash and somewhat absurd. If you need a tonic against the cruelties of the world, let me recommend this.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. The first volume of memoir by the woman who wrote “On the Pulse of Morning”, “Still I Rise”, and “Phenomenal Woman”, among other poems. What Angelou endured, and achieved, during her lifetime should inspire us all. 

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward. Ward’s protagonist, Esch, is a pregnant fifteen-year-old, and the story is told in the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, during which time Esch’s brother’s prized pit bull, China, gives birth to a litter of puppies. There’s a lot about family relationships (Esch’s mother is dead; she’s obsessed with the story of Medea, whom she’s reading about for school) and the elemental: things you can’t fight, like a Category 5 hurricane, or loyalty to a family.

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. Little-known fact: black slaveowners existed. Edward Jones explores this oddity in the character of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who acquires his own plantation, and slaves to go with it. On his death, everything begins to fall apart. An extraordinary novel, worth twenty of books like The Help for real insight into the historical complexity of race in the US.

The Cities

Cities are where you can see the American promise being pursued every day, with relentless courage, by people from all over the world and from all walks of life. This small list is New York-centric, I know, but I could have included dozens of others: the L.A. of Ryan Gattis’s All Involved, the Chicago of Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos. This big, brassy, sexy book is about a dynasty of Central American jazz musicians in New York City. Everything about it is addictive and larger than life.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. A novel that hovers between YA and adult fiction, this is the story of Francie Nolan, the daughter of Irish immigrants in early twentieth-century Brooklyn. Bookish Francie contends with poverty, her father’s alcoholism, and the knowledge her mother prefers her little brother to her. It’s a beautiful coming-of-age story that doesn’t shy away from rough truths—some scenes, in retrospect, are pretty scary for a children’s book—and celebrates the human capacity to endure and thrive.

Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin. I know of no other book that so epitomises the idea of living and letting live. This novel about a motley assortment of friends and neighbours in San Francisco was one of the first mainstream American novels to address and demystify homosexuality. It’s also funny, warm, and has rather a cult following.

Up In the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell was a staff writer for the New Yorker from 1938 to 1996. Up In the Old Hotel is a collection of his writings about the hidden corners of the old city: its “visionaries, obsessives, imposters, fanatics, lost souls.” It’s some of the best journalism of all time.

Where We Fail

It is not always enough to celebrate our diversity or our eccentricity. We must also look at the places where we have failed, and continue to fail. These books are unflinching; reading them can cause us to sorrow, but can also inspire us to do better, to redress wrongs.

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin. These essays have become so iconic that I hesitate to recommend them because they seem obvious. But they are iconic for a reason: focusing on race and religion in 1960s America, they are among the most influential pieces of American writing ever. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent Between the World and Me can be seen as a modern updating of Baldwin’s essay “My Dungeon Shook”, the first in this collection.

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller. Taught to bored high-schoolers the country over, this allegorical play draws parallels between the Salem witch-hunts of the 1600s and the Communist witch-hunts of McCarthy’s own era. Its terrifying portrait of how mob psychology, fear and power can coalesce to destroy lives makes it applicable to every era.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. Ask almost any social justice professional what you should be reading to get a sense of the problems in America today, and they will tell you to start here. The book’s subtitle is Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander argues that the much-vaunted “war on drugs” has been co-opted as a tool for acting out age-old forms of racist oppression, with devastating consequences to communities across the country. The scale of the problem is immense, and Alexander’s writing is both powerful and lucid.

And, finally:

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. There is something about Whitman’s long, loose, rocking lines that simply sings of acceptance. The way that he praises both the fineness of the human mind and the beauty of the human body is a true tonic in a world that often seems to scorn the intellect and stigmatise physicality. I commend Whitman to you most highly.

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Eleanor blogs at Elle Thinks and is currently writing her first novel.