Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Three American Books for Election Day

Having just cast my electorally crucial Ohio vote for Barack Obama (and yes, the Electoral College is an absurd 18th-century anachronism [like chinoiserie porcelain and powdered wigs] that should've been constitutionally amended out of existence long before the 2000 election--but that's another blogpost), I've decided to mark Election Day with my reactions to three major books about America:

I'll probably be expelled from the Temple of Highbrow for saying so, but Franzen's Freedom is not a bad novel. In fact, parts of it are pretty good. While by no means the "Great American Novel" its adherents wanted it to be, it's a thoroughly competent, often enjoyable work of standard contemporary American literary fiction. I suspect that the American litworld is so blinded by Franzen's blazing mediocrity, his overwhelming competence, that it has confused these qualities with genius. (Updike, whom Franzen hates, induced a similar blindness by more impressive means, using his lapidary prose to conceal a host of weaknesses.) Reading Freedom is like having mediocre sex: you enjoy it while it lasts, but afterward you can't become terribly excited about it in either a positive or a negative way. It also doesn't last long in memory (at least not for me). It's neither great enough nor awful enough to inspire passion. It's OK, a good enough novel, but certainly nothing to write a rave review about. Like The Corrections, Freedom is good enough to read once. That is all.

Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution, on the other hand, is a great, essential, provocative work of American history, one of the best books about America and Americans I've ever read. Arguing compellingly that the republican revolution that swept away the bonds of monarchical society could provide no social binding force of comparable power, and thus permitted the cash nexus of capitalism to rush into the vacuum, it's a deeply interesting, contentious, enlightening, challenging book, everything a great work of academic history should be. I understand that Newt Gingrich praised this book upon publication, a fact that suggests Little Newtie didn't read it very closely and certainly skipped at least the last three pages, where Wood recounts the Founding Fathers' late-life hatred of the money-grubbing society their revolution had birthed. They would've really hated Donald Trump's America--and Mitt "corporations are people" Romney's too.

Take the time to read Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. An epic-length, comprehensive history of a period most Americans know too little about, it impressively covers events from the Battle of New Orleans through the Mexican War, with a damning portrait of Andrew Jackson, a deeply admiring one of John Quincy Adams, interesting accounts of the birth and short life of the Whigs, the political vicissitudes of John C. Calhoun, the Texas rebellion, the Indian wars, and much, much more than you'll be able to remember upon finishing the book. The whole is enjoyable and informative, but I do have two major complaints: Howe is insufficiently critical when writing about religion (especially a problem in his treatment of Mormonism, which is virtually devoid of critical thought); the author is also too naive in his distinction between historical narrative and argument; he seems not to appreciate that the former is always, at least implicitly, the latter. Every story about the past is also an argument about the past, every act of narration has an agenda, is ideologically situated. There is no such thing as a neutral ground of narration. When in his closing pages Howe tells us that "[t]his book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis," the reader's response should be to read Howe's book in search of the unacknowledged thesis (or theses) his story implicitly argues.

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