The concept behind Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books is nothing short of brilliant, and journalist Jess McHugh delivers on her inspired premise with insight and aplomb. As the book’s subtitle explains, she looks at the history of America through the success of 13 bestselling books, but the curveball is that these are not the sort of titles that immediately come to mind when we think of bestsellers. There’s no Gone With the Wind here, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Roots. The bestsellers McHugh explores are true megasuccesses, to be certain, each having sold tens of millions of copies. They’re even books many of us have on our shelves. But they’re probably not titles we’ve given much thought—such as Webster’s Dictionary, Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book and Emily Post’s Etiquette. But according to McHugh, these books have both reflected and shaped society and the American character in ways that far surpass any novel.
This refreshing dive into American social history uses the unexpected lens of reference books, primers and how-to guides that shaped our national identity.
McHugh recounts the origins of these books as she investigates their content and influence, beginning with The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which published during our country’s infancy, and ending with two New Age self-help books that are still influential: Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life and Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Along the way she delves into Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). She also looks at books that we in the 21st century may not remember but that played seminal roles in molding many generations, including the McGuffey Readers that educated children for decades and Catharine Beecher’s 19th-century domestic guides, which defined a particular ideal of womanhood and launched many imitators.
McHugh’s well-supported argument is that while these books grew out of the particular needs and mindsets of their times, they were all built on societal underpinnings that support our national mythology: that self-reliance, self-sacrifice and self-improvement pave the road to success and to becoming a “good” American. Of course, this is a white-, Protestant- and male-centric mythology. Even something as seemingly benign as a dictionary is complicit. As Hugh reveals, Noah Webster’s impetus for his speller and dictionary was to codify the way “proper” Americans speak and write, with no room for immigrants and outsiders to dilute the language with regional or cultural variants. Historically, even sex manuals, despite their titillating aspects, generally hewed to conventional, heterosexual norms. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* was blatantly homophobic and racist, despite being published and gaining popularity on the cusp of the sexual revolution in the late 1960s.
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.