Works You Should Know
The New York Times Book Review recently published a list by the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. , written in September 1991 to the editors of The Reader’s Companion: A Book Lover’s Guide to the Most Important Books in Every Field of Knowledge. Schlesinger wrote to recommend “books I think Americans should read to achieve ‘cultural literacy’ about our own nation.” Here’s his list:
1. “Essays,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
2. “Speeches and Writings,” by Abraham Lincoln
3. “Democracy in America,” by Alexis de Tocqueville
4. “The American Commonwealth,” by James Bryce
5. “The Irony of American History,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
6. “The Shock of Recognition,” edited by Edmund Wilson
7. “An American Dilemma,” by Gunnar Myrdal
8. “The Promise of American Life,” by Herbert Croly
9. “Pragmatism,” by William James
10. “The Education of Henry Adams,” by Henry Adams
11. “The American Language,” by H. L. Mencken
Thus inspired, the faculty of the American Studies Programs presents its own lists of works we feel every American—or at least every undergraduate major in American Studies—should know.
Joyce Antler - Professor of American Studies, Emeritus
Jacob Cohen - Professor of American Studies
"Here, in no particular order, are ten books on America which I admire, am instructed by, and loved reading."
Thomas Doherty - Professor of American Studies
"When Arthur Schlesinger thought of achieving “cultural literacy” about America, he instinctively made a book list, but a culturally literate American should be no less conversant with the other great American arts—say, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five or Norman Rockwell’s paintings of the Four Freedoms. Or Hollywood cinema. The films below were selected for their historical importance, aesthetic innovation, technological significance, and commonality of reference. I think these films should be seen and absorbed by every serious student of American culture."
1. The Birth of a Nation (1915): D. W. Griffith’s racist classic, the epic that made the feature film the basic unit of Hollywood cinema and first seamlessly integrated all the elements of the language of cinema
2. The Jazz Singer (1927): the first synch-sound film revolutionized cinema and killed the silent cinema.
3. King Kong (1933) the great early sound film, an allegory of the Great Depression and a special effects landmark.
4. The Wizard of Oz (1939): the famous Technicolor musical, a product of the genius of the system.
5. Citizen Kane (1941): often considered the best American movie, a textbook of visual inventiveness, and the most un-characteristic of Hollywood films.
6. Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series (1942-45): the most important document series of WWII.
7. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): William Wyler’s brilliant social problem film about three GIs returning to their hometown after fighting WWII.
8. The Asphalt Jungle (1950): John Huston’s grim, beautiful film noir; also a landmark “heist film.”
9. The Searchers (1956): John Ford’s awesome Hollywood western.
10. Psycho (1960): Alfred Hitchcock’s shocking horror film—not only extraordinarily influential stylistically, but morally as well: it help kill the Production Code.
11. The Godfather I and II (1972/1974): Francis Ford Coppola’s lush, operatic saga of America as a gangster movie.
Brian Donahue - Professor of Environmental Studies
1. Henry Thoreau, Walden
2. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
3. Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization
4. Willa Cather, My Antonia
5. Woody Guthrie, "Dust Bowl Ballads"
6. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
7. Frederic Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederic Douglass
8. The Band, "The Band"
9. Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
10. Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost
Maura Farrelly - Associate Professor of American Studies and Director of the Journalism Program
My "must read" list includes a sermon, a political pamphlet, two memoirs, an extended essay, a speech, three novels, and one non-fiction book.1. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Jonathan Edwards
2. "Common Sense," by Tom Paine
3. "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano," by Olaudah Equiano
4. "Autobiography," by Benjamin Franklin
5. "Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience)," by Henry David Thoreau
6. "Ain't I a Woman?," by Sojourner Truth (with Frances Dana Barker Gage)
7. "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," by Mark Twain
8. "An American Tragedy," by Theodore Dreiser
9. "The Grapes of Wrath," by John Steinbeck
10. "The Feminine Mystique," by Betty Friedan
Paula Musegades - Florence Kay Fellow in American Studies and Music
Stephen Whitfield - Professor of American Studies
"The selections below spring in part from the faith that some authors operate in dialogue with one another, if only implicitly. Consider the continuity of American culture by noting how 10 links with 1 and 9 links with 2, for example. In any case here is my own list:"
1. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
3. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
4. Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings
5. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
6. Henry L. Mencken, The American Language
7. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
8. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
9. David Riesman et al., The Lonely Crowd
10. Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X