December 2008

Jay Parini

Jay Parini turns the pages of America’s soul
Interview by
Share this Article:

Like a cultural cartographer, poet and novelist Jay Parini charts the major literary islands that expanded to form the landmass of the American psyche in Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America.

His landfalls include Of Plymouth Plantation, The Federalist Papers, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Walden, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Souls of Black Folk, The Promised Land, How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, On the Road and The Feminine Mystique.

No mere desert island collection of personal favorites, this baker's dozen met a higher standard as what Parini calls "nodal points" that either moved nascent intellectual currents forward or changed the direction of American life and thought. "This is an X – ray of the American spirit," Parini says. "These books either consolidated ideas long in place or shifted things and caused a pivot in the road."

Only a few of Parini's selections were obvious, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. "I would say that book invented the American language," Parini says. "Twain had such an ear for how Americans talk that I really think he transformed how people actually spoke to each other. It's also a book about race in America, the westward journey, about lighting off for the territories and independence. It's everything. It is the great American novel."

Others took Parini completely by surprise. "I never thought I'd include Baby and Child Care by Dr. Spock. I kept asking people what they would consider the most important books in their life, I must have asked about 100 people, and over and over again, people said, 'Well, the book that changed my life was Dr. Spock because I kept it by my bedside and raised my children by going back to it and back to it.' It transformed the way children are raised in America."

Some choices, such as The Federalist Papers, helped shape our vision of America almost without our knowledge. "There's a great book that nobody has read. It's endlessly cited and often misquoted and misunderstood," says Parini. "So much of what we think is in the Constitution is not in the Constitution, it's in The Federalist Papers."

By contrast, it was only by sheer accident that the manuscript of Of Plymouth Plantation, a journal of Pilgrim life written by William Bradford between 1620 and 1647, was discovered in an English library after being lost for 200 years. Had it not been reintroduced in 1856 and enthusiastically embraced by a nation on the cusp of the Civil War, it's highly possible that President Abraham Lincoln might not have felt compelled to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

Important American fiction, including Moby – Dick, The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath, didn't even make Parini's appendix list of 100 more books that changed America, where instead you'll find The Sears, Roebuck Catalog, The Whole Earth Catalog and Jane Fonda's Workout Book. Don't novels change nations?

"They don't," Parini says. "Nobody reads novels and has their life transformed. They work on the consciousness, but very slowly; they don't have earthshaking effects."

An exception: Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

"Road novels are a big part of American novels," Parini says. "The idea of two buddies getting in their old jalopy and taking off cross – country for California and just experiencing the pleasures and terrors and adventures of the road is a real American story."

That the most recent title in the Promised Land short list is Betty Friedan's 1963 feminist manifesto The Feminine Mystique speaks volumes about the modern ambivalence toward the written word. "It's frightening but true," says Parini. "For example, how many people write real letters anymore? Publishers endlessly complain about the fact that novels no longer sell very well. There really is not much audience for real books anymore."

Which makes guidebooks like Promised Land all the more relevant today.

"We are the United States of Amnesia. It's like when you have an Alzheimer's patient that you're talking to and you have to keep supplying memory as you're talking to them. That's one of the things this book is doing, supplying the memory of a nation, re – igniting the memory of a nation."

Jay MacDonald writes from Austin, Texas.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.

Trending Interviews