A friend recently posed this question: “If you had to recommend one book for a first-time visitor to the U.S. to read, to understand our country, what would it be and why?” The first suggestion was, unfortunately, Atlas Shrugged, but other, more interesting suggestions followed: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and the Declaration of Independence.
If the goal is an education, we could recommend Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager’s Growth of the American Republic, a two-volume history that used to be required reading. At the end of 1,800 pages, our visitor would know considerably more about America than anyone who graduated from an American high school in the last 30 years. He’ll learn all he needs to know about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, de Tocqueville, all the way through the 20th century: more than enough for an understanding. But suppose our visitor doesn’t have the time for the full story. Can we compress a conception of America into a shorter space?
Huckleberry Finn may be the greatest American novel — and certainly everyone ought to read it. But by itself it’s not enough for an understanding of America: If we added Hemingway’s First World War novel A Farewell to Arms, and Irwin Shaw’s Second World War novel The Young Lions, and a touch of Saul Bellow — Canadian though he technically was — an understanding of America would emerge. We might include a portrait of America in relief — that is, America as seen from Europe. Henry James’s The American would be a good choice. Or The Ambassadors, which is the same novel written from the other end of James’s career. As an addition to the program, it would round out the picture nicely. But there is no single novel, no matter how great, that can do the job alone.
Consider instead the great American essayists who invented a new style of writing in the 1920s and founded The New Yorker. E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat is the finest such essay collection, a document of his move from Manhattan to a saltwater farm in Maine. It is suffused with America, in imagery and feel and the mode of expression. Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel is nearly as great — an exploration of New York City at its most vital, when new subways were being built and the Fulton Fish Market still sold fish and McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon was just a saloon. (Mitchell’s essay made McSorley’s famous.) Either of these collections does a better job than any novel of presenting an idea of America — largely because they have the scope for treating more subjects more broadly. The writing is clean, buoyant, optimistic, and never takes itself too seriously: It is George Gershwin’s music in prose, a brisk walk through town. But if we are looking for the most succinct statement of America, we can do better still.
Teddy Roosevelt’s short book The Strenuous Life, which opens with his 1899 speech by that name, is an explanation of America’s view of itself — a view that greatly shaped the 20th century. It was the peculiar marriage of power and prosperity together with a sense of moral urgency. Roosevelt demands an active life, a life of struggling for personal and national virtue. He commends a triad of strength in body, intellect, and character — of which character is the most important. America must meet its moral obligations vigorously, he tells us: “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”
Roosevelt’s exhortations on America’s role and responsibilities may strike a first-time visitor, or even a contemporary American, as overbearing or unnuanced. But there is no more direct explanation of the engine that drove America through the 20th century and onto the world stage. America, as America has emerged and even as it is now perceived in Europe and elsewhere, finds its explanation in The Strenuous Life. But not, perhaps, its motivation.
The origin of that moral urgency was America’s most important spiritual crisis. It is best expressed in a single speech, rich in Biblical imagery and contemporary prophecy: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which is the greatest of all American writing. It is a tone-poem or photograph of the American soul. A complete understanding, in just 697 words.