What makes us American? What defines us and sets us apart? In honor of the Fourth of July, I assembled a list of novels to help us discover the essence of America, help us probe the heart and soul of our great country.
It may seem easier to read traditional histories like “1776,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” “Walden” or anything by Doris Kearns Goodwin or Bruce Catton, but if we really want to get America, we have to read American fiction. It is the fiction writers who have their ears to the ground, who find the truth beyond the dry dates and places.
My red, white and blue sampler evokes different eras, various cultures, several wars and some of the iconic events in our 237-year history. These novels help us find the common ground between the Boston Brahmin and the North Carolina tobacco farmer, the Maine fisherman and the Florida mobster — and the glorious differences among them all.
Here are more books than you can read in a summer. Pick a few out of the picnic basket and enjoy.
Start with “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. The author taps some of the bedrock themes of American life: a boy coming of age, adventure out on the great Mississippi, racism in the South and friendship, American-style. The setting, the regional language, the humor and the characters are particular to America.
Then move on to the war stories, from “The Red Badge of Courage” to “Gone With the Wind” to “Catch 22” to “From Here to Eternity” to “The Thin Red Line” to “The Bridges of Toko Ri” to “The Things They Carried.” I recently wrote about Kevin Powers’s novel “The Yellow Birds,” saying that if you want to know what happened in Iraq, forget the news accounts and read this piece of fiction. One can say the same for the best novels that came out of the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam.