Jay Parini's knowledgeable analysis of key texts that have formed Americans' ideas about themselves and their nation, "Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America," would make an excellent starting point for a college course.
The author makes clear that his choice of books is representative and not necessarily definitive: They are meant to be "nodal points, places where vast areas of thought and feeling gathered and dispersed," and within each chapter he brings up related works.
It's an effective, economical way to survey American history and culture. You can practically hear Parini, a well-regarded poet, novelist ("The Last Station") and nonfiction writer ("The Art of Teaching"), laying out his themes to a roomful of undergraduates at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he is a professor.
The opening chapters, in fact, sound a bit too much like academic lectures as they smoothly recapitulate received wisdom about four famous early American works. Parini lucidly identifies the elements that make "Of Plymouth Plantation" by William Bradford "a founding myth" of the nation, including the Pilgrims' belief that they were guided by God and their fraught relations with the Indians.
He capably summarizes "The Federalist Papers," drawing the first of many contemporary parallels by noting the effort to "create a balance between liberty and stability (or 'safety') -- always a delicate combination."
He accurately depicts "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" as a seminal text of the American mantra of self-creation and class mobility, and "The Journals of Lewis and Clark" as "part of every American's imaginary landscape."
This first part is informative, unarguable -- and a trifle dull. Things pick up some with "Walden." It's mildly amusing that "if Benjamin Franklin was our Founding Yuppie, as David Brooks once quipped, then Thoreau is our Founding Hippie."
Parini does better by "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." He honors Mark Twain's groundbreaking use of distinctively American language but doesn't denigrate Harriet Beecher Stowe's more traditional prose.
He restores "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to its stature as a fine example of Victorian fiction whose sentimentality and moral fervor are essential aspects of its power, while paying tribute to "Huckleberry Finn's" more challenging and sardonic portrait of freedom's pitfalls.
The author seems energized by his foray into imaginative literature upon his return to nonfiction with "The Souls of Black Folk" and "The Promised Land." There's a new note of passion as he analyzes W.E.B. Du Bois' "steely self-confidence in the face of virulent racism" and Mary Antin's paean to the American Dream.
Their contemporary relevance resonates as Parini contrasts Du Bois' militancy with Booker T. Washington's conciliatory approach and reminds us that Antin's idealistic assertion that the poor, uneducated immigrants flooding into the nation were "the touchstone of American democracy" remains as controversial today as when her book was published in 1912.
Parini excels with his most unconventional selection: "How to Win Friends and Influence People." The author discovered Dale Carnegie's self-help bible as a lonely 14-year-old at a huge junior high school in Scranton, Pa.
Applying its technique of finding something nice to say about everyone to the task of winning his classmates' approval, he writes, "I learned a great deal about myself, about others, and about the ways of the world. I also developed a mild distaste for Carnegie, finding his method manipulative, even demeaning."
The author's personal engagement with this material gives punch to his conclusion: "Carnegie's presuppositions also point to depressing aspects of the American system, which values success over sincerity, individualism over community. . . . Carnegie just assumes (unconsciously) that he is dealing with a world of pathological narcissists" -- a regrettably apt description of modern America at its worst.
The chapter on "The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" is almost as good. Parini's enthusiastic résumé of Benjamin Spock's revolutionary 1946 manual, which advised parents to relax, trust their instincts and let their children develop naturally without adhering to rigid timetables or rules, staunchly defends Spock against the clichéd charge of "permissiveness."
Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" gives the author an opportunity to draw together many strands: "It's about encounters with the sacred, in music and the arts, and about the confrontation with the American landscape. It's about the quest for a promised land, that far, impossible shore where liberty and equality flourish and where every vote counts." Parini easily could have added the conflict between individual and communal values, and the optimistic faith in self-invention and self-transformation to make this list nearly complete; immigration and assimilation are the only principal themes he has discerned that Kerouac's novel doesn't really address.
An unexciting chapter in Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" brings the text to a less-than-stirring close.
Perhaps it's unfair to wish that Parini's structure of "Promised Land" weren't quite so rigid, his selection criteria quite so magisterial (lasting influence, consolidation of a major trend).
But the best pages here, which are also the quirkiest, whet the appetite for a more unusual, more personal -- and, frankly, more interesting -- work waiting to be written in which this intelligent author ignores his self-imposed limits and writes only about the books that matter most to him.
Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times