If you'd asked me, when I started this project, which of the lists I'd have in shape the soonest, the last thing I would have imagined was that it would be the American lists. For one thing, the entire idea of an "American list"--and there was only one in my mind, to start with--was something in the way of being a poke in the eye to somebody who'd annoyed me. I get sick to death of people who not only don't live here, but who have never lived here, telling me what "America" is like, and what "Americans" think. I get especially annoyed at it because I live in one of those parts of the country a lot of the rest of the world doesn't think exists. Here in New England, we don't vote Republican much, we aren't very religious, and our acquaintance with Wal-Mart and Disney World is minimal.

The more I worked on the original list, however, the more interesting the entire project became. Getting past the reductionist silliness--there are 281 million people in the United States as I write; you couldn't get 281 million people to all think the same thing at the same time no matter what it was--is there really something like an "American" identity? Is it the same thing as American popular culture? Are the Conservatives right when they say the Liberals are betraying the letter and the spirit of the American Founding? Are the Liberals right when they say the Conservatives are? Who was "more American," Henry James or Ernest Hemingway? Ulysses S. Grant or Robert E. Lee? Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter? What in the name of God is an "un-American activity?"

In a time when politics seems to come down to half of us telling the other half that they aren't "real" Americans, it makes sense to look at what "real" Americans have been, over time: liberals and conservatives, capitalists and socialists, God-fearing Christians and passionate atheists, native born and immigrants, feminists and traditionalists, Union and Confederacy, rural and urban, slave and free.

The lists that follow have adhered to exactly two rules:

First: primary sources only. That means no books about the Civil War or race relations or the meaning of federalism, but plenty of books by men and women who fought the Civil War, or took part in the debate on the power of the central government, or staged protests for and against slavery and for and against civil rights. It also means lots of documents that aren't books at all--Supreme Court opinions, political pamphlets, declarations of the government in power or the people challenging it.

Second: anything that has had a significant impact on the state of this nation goes in. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is here, and so is Barry Goldwater. William F. Buckley is here, and so are the Students for a Democratic Society. Henry James is here, and so is Superman. Theodore Roosevelt, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, William Pierce--I wasn't trying to be politically correct, and I wasn't trying to be "inclusive," and I wasn't trying to put the best face on history. I was just trying to get it all down in one place, who we are, who we were, and how we got here.

As with all the lists except the MetaList, the links go to Amazon and editions I think you'll like, or, in the rare cases where something is available for free on the Net, to there. Have a good time.

  • The American List
  • The American Literature List
  • The American Contemporary Fiction List
  • The American Contemporary Questions List

Copyright © 2004 Jane Haddam. All rights reserved.

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