Publication Date: June 1, 2021
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What does it take to be a good American? And who gets to decide? Journalist Jess McHugh examines the thirteen books that defined a nation to tell this fascinating and untold history of the United States.
A surprising history of thirteen of the nation’s most popular reference titles—books that hundreds of millions of Americans have bought and dogeared over the centuries—Americanon explores the strange personalities and social upheaval that led production of our common language, customs, and culture. Far from innocuous texts, our dictionaries, spellers, almanacs, and how-to manuals have shaped our world in profound and unappreciated ways. Spanning the full range of our 245-year history, the books sold tens of millions of copies and set out specific archetypes for the ideal American, from the self-made entrepreneur to the humble farmer.
Reference books are meant to convey facts without ulterior motive. But these books were forged in the crucible of their authors’ personal tragedies, secret hopes, vanity, bigotry, and burning desires for their country. Their stories—which have become “our” stories—are a reflection of the idiosyncratic, sometimes visionary, and sometimes manipulative people who wrote them. And their understanding of what “American” meant was as much about defining who it was as who it was not.
You’ll note in this collection a striking absence of nonwhite authors, women authors, and LGBTQ authors. Throughout our national history, our bestselling “authoritative” reference texts have been written primarily by white men, most often from evangelical communities. Across the chapters of the book, I’ll explore how these authors have encoded and reinforced nationalism, patriarchy, and other power structures within their texts—and confirmation bias has in turn pushed readers to snap up their “truths” by the millions. Americanon is as much about what is left out and repressed by these books as what is in them.
Their beliefs and quirks became the values and habits of millions of Americans, woven into our cultural DNA over generations of reading and rereading. And yet their motivations and influence—ranging from commercial gain to nationalist fervor to a desire for social control—remain unexamined. Until now.
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