Ask anyone in the higher ed biz: Kids today are great at copying down lists. We’d been trending that way for years, but thanks to good ol’ George W. and the Lake Woebegon Act of 2001, now all children are above average in that particular skill. Yay standardized testing!
The problem is, lists aren’t explanations, and college work is all about explanations. Yeah yeah, they’re all of the “explain why straight white males are evil” variety, but still, “X and Y, therefore Z” is a skill we expect our students to master. Lists like this one aren’t helping. Via Steve Sailer, via Vox Day, we have the Library of Congress’s 88 books that shaped America. The LoC tells us
It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.
See what I mean? I get stuff like this on exams all the time, immediately preceding a straight regurgitation of bullet points from my lecture slides. WHY and HOW was, say, Gone with the Wind so influential, LoC? I’ll let you rewrite this question and resubmit it for half credit, but while you’re doing that, I’ll scrape together my own list as an example for the rest of the class. And since there really were 88 books — seriously, LoC? — I’ll follow the Z Man’s suggestion and pick the 14 that really matter, one from roughly each time period. Here’s how it’s done:
Early Colonial Period: Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather (1693). One of the key documents surrounding the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Those trials are, of course, among the most overdone subjects in American history, but Wonders is important for all that. It’s a Harvard man explaining, as only a Harvard man can, all the rational, theological, and scientific reasons the North American colonies are under siege by the Devil. That part of the country never really got over Puritanism; they’re still looking for witches to burn (in an eco-friendly, sustainable way, of course). Wonders is a master class in Daddy Issues, Social Significance of, which in turn is the root of all modern Liberalism.
Middle Colonial Period: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards (1741). The key document in the First Great Awakening, which solidified the transition from Puritan to Yankee. A Puritan, you’ll recall, will cast you out of society for a whore after he’s fucked you over and robbed you, because God commands it. A Yankee will fuck you over and rob you, then call you a whore, because a good Christian society doesn’t allow fornication. Yankeeism is public Puritanism, minus predestination — all the preachy self-righteousness, minus the humility of the all-but-certainly hellbound.
Revolutionary Period: “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine (1775). One of the proximate causes of the Revolution, “Common Sense” lays out the case for separating from a remote, despotic government that actively conspires against its citizens’ ancient rights. I have no idea why that would be relevant today, but hey, I gotta put something here.
Early National Period: New England Primer, Anonymous (1803). Get ’em while they’re young, and they’re yours forever. The anonymous author is the great-granddaddy of all those modern educrats who should be decorating every lamppost in the land, which is to say, all modern educrats. Dr. Goebbels called; he wants his morals back.
Jacksonian Era: “Exposition and Protest,” John C. Calhoun (1828). Lays out the case for Federalism as a bulwark against a remote, despotic government that actively conspires against its citizens’ ancient liberties. I’ll leave the translation of the following as an exercise to the reader: “If it be conceded, as it must be by every one who is the least conversant with our institutions, that the sovereign powers delegated are divided between the General and State Governments, and that the latter hold their portion by the same tenure as the former, it would seem impossible to deny to the States the right of deciding on the infractions of their powers, and the proper remedy to be applied for their correction. The right of judging, in such cases, is an essential attribute of sovereignty, of which the States cannot be divested without losing their sovereignty itself, and being reduced to a subordinate corporate condition. In fact, to divide power, and to give to one of the parties the exclusive right of judging of the portion allotted to each, is, in reality, not to divide it at all; and to reserve such exclusive right to the General Government (it matters not by what department) to be exercised, is to convert it, in fact, into a great consolidated government, with unlimited powers, and to divest the States, in reality, of all their rights, It is impossible to understand the force of terms, and to deny so plain a conclusion.” I have no idea why this would be relevant today, but hey, I gotta put something here.
Antebellum Era (North): Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852). Got the Yankees all riled up about the Peculiar Institution. Lincoln is supposed to have quipped to Stowe, “So you’re the little lady who started this war.” Probably apocryphal — get the Mount Vernon Association of Experts on it! — but true for all that.
Antebellum Era (South): The “Mudsill” Speech, James Henry Hammond. The so-called “Marxism of the Master Class” — that is, a class-based justification for slavery — is much better explicated in George Fitzhugh‘s Cannibals All! or Slaves Without Masters (1857), but Fitzhugh was a true American original… meaning he was a deeply idiosyncratic guy, and though read in the South, he had nothing close to Hammond’s influence. Fitzhugh’s a fun read, though, especially as he proudly proclaims that “slavery is the very best form of socialism.” Trigger an SJW with it today!
Gilded Age (general): The Gilded Age, A Tale of Today, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner (1873). The trope namer, as the kids today say. As everybody knows, all that was good in the world happened in the Gilded Age — the Pullman Strike, the Haymarket Square Riot, the Molly Maguires, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie (Robber Baron version, not Philanthropist version), Plessy v. Ferguson… you know, all the stuff doofy academics and fightin’ nutroots keyboard warriors still talk about as if they happened two weeks ago. Whatever gets you up in the morning, I guess (though it’s fun to point out that they get a lot of their sneering condescension from Mark Twain, a Southerner. The horrors!).
Gilded Age (political): What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, William Graham Sumner (1877). The only refutation of “Progressivism” anyone should ever need. Sumner so thoroughly demolished Marxism, equalism, and limpwristed namby-pambyism in general, that all the Left could really do is agree to pretend his book didn’t exist… which they continue to do right down to the present hour. Hugely influential in its day, you’ll never see it referred to, and only crusty old academics and/or deep cover shitlords like yours truly have copies. We sneak them to potential converts in the dead of night, like samizdat.
Gilded Age (social): My Dream of Heaven (Intra Muros), Rebecca Ruter Springer (1898). The classic spiritual response to the Civil War, Intra Muros embodies the saccharine spirituality of the Gilded Age and prefigures all the “spiritualism” stuff the British middle classes would get into in the wake of World War I.
Progressive Era (economic): Principles of Scientific Management, Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911). Probably the most important work you’ve never heard of, Principles of Scientific Management is THE founding text of modern industrialism. Taylor followed workers around with a camera and a stopwatch, looking for the most efficient way to do factory work. Every utopian communist dream about the glorious robot future can be traced directly back to Taylorism… as can every dystopian nightmare about the horrible robot future. You could probably go so far as to say that Taylor had a hand in founding modern science fiction, via stuff like R.U.R. and Metropolis, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Progressive Era (social): The Jungle, Upton Sinclair (1906). Even my students have heard of this one, which tells you everything you need to know about how much the Proggies revere it. Everyone in journalism today wants to be Upton Sinclair, even if they’ve never heard of him… which, being dumb as stumps and worse educated, they never have.
Progressive Era (education): Democracy and Education, John Dewey (1916). The second most important book you’ve never heard of, Democracy and Education is, itself, the reason you’ve never heard of it. Dewey rejected all that “facts” stuff in favor of exploration and free play. Good for the self-esteem, you see. It’s like the Dungeon Master’s Guide for teachers, and all the monsters are Special Little Snowflakes.
All Others: (tie) On the Road, Jack Kerouac (1957) / The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951). Every Liberal in America — that is to say, everyone in the media, academia, and the Democratic Party; that is to say, pretty much everyone who is anyone in American culture — wanted to be Holden Caulfield as a teenager, and Dean Moriarty when they grew up. Scratch that, most of them still think they are Holden Caulfield, and that’s your one-sentence explanation of every single thing that’s wrong with America today.
See, Library of Congress? That’s how it’s done! Feel free to add your own in the comments, Seven Regular Readers.