Nothing seemed to dampen the din of Noah Webster’shome in the early nineteenth century. With his seven childrenrunning through the house, peals of laughter and shrieks ofplay punctuated his workdays. The sound of water boiling for teaor his wife preparing lunch—therewas never silence. Try as hemight, Webster could never find the peace required to concentrate.One day, a solution finally dawned on him: a material thatcould dull even the boom of a crashing ocean. He filled the wallsof his study with sand.
Finally free to think in silence, he turned to his life’s work:writing the American dictionary. Noise would be only one of Webster’s innumerable foes throughout his decades-long project. He feared regional division, foreign cultures, and variations in accent. His plans for the dictionary—and for the United States at large—extended far beyond the task of lexicography. Webster longed to codify national identity, to create a single, galvanizing definition of “American.” His critics decried his project as “perfectly absurd,” “vulgar,” and “subtle poison.” But Webster’s dictionary would succeed in becoming one of the perennial bestsellers in U.S. history, defining much more than words for generations of Americans. In writing a dictionary that manyAmericans now refer to as simply the dictionary, he hoped togive them a blueprint for a shared culture.
It would become one of a number of American “bibles”: those dog-eared books for daily life that ostensibly taught readers one subject, all while subtly instructing them about their role in society and their responsibilities to family and to country. These were dictionaries, school primers, cookbooks, how‑toguides,and self-helpmanuals—spanning the full range of our 245-year history—many of which sold tens of millions of copies, setting out specific archetypes for the ideal American, from the self-made entrepreneur to the devoted homemaker or the humblefarmer. What makes these books so compelling—and why theyare worth studying—is that underneath their surface are the blueprints for American values that endured long after publication.The foundation for American popular culture can be located more easily not in highbrow literary books— or even in the Constitution, a text that fewer than half of Americans read—but in the ordinary, instructional books that average Americans have consulted every day.
All the books in this collection are either guidebooks or texts with an explicitly didactic bent. While a cookbook, a self-help book, and a dictionary might seem disparate, they are united in the way they functioned in people’s lives. These how‑to books taught people certain skills, all while delivering messages about American beliefs, encoding everything from individualism and self- reliance to meritocracy and personal freedom. People also tended to treat these books in a similar fashion, not reading them once and putting them away but rereading them, using them every day, and even passing them on to their children. Novels might be the books we love hardest and remember most fondly, but these are the books that raise us. What better way to understand a people than to look at the books they consumed most—not the ones they were told to read by teachers or par-ents, or read once and put on a shelf, but the ones they returned to again and again, with questions about everything from spell¬ing to sex?
I’ve chosen books from the full scope of American history to the end of the twentieth century, based on their outsize influ¬ence and their status as bestsellers, usually in the tens of millions range (using data from The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and a select few authoritative lists). To avoid personal bias, I relied heavily on the data, focusing on those nonfiction how to books that have consistently sold the most and influenced the greatest number of people throughout history. But sales in themselves were not enough of a reason for me to include a book here. I combed through newspaper and magazine archives to see which books struck a chord in the national conversation, which authors went on to spread their message through syndicated columns, radio shows, and sequels. I looked also to the books that spurred some change in an established custom or mode of thinking, or those that inspired other authors to write a bestselling book promoting a similar ideology. Academics across disciplines of American cultural study— literature, history of science, and history of publishing—have deeply informed this list, helping to discern not just what soldwell but what reflected or reshaped the ideals of our national consciousness throughout history.
These bestsellers showed Americans what they could aspire to: namely, an ever-evolving archetype that addressed the challenges, conflicts, and insecurities of its time. They reveal the extent to which the things we take for granted about being American—freedom, justice, and liberty for all—are part of a constructed narrative in the goal of survival, economic prosperity, and social stability. Like most myths, they are lodged somewhere between an aspirational ideal and a pernicious delusion. But the gap between reality and the mythology that these books represent can offer a glimpse into our shifting understanding of what being American means. They allow us to see how we’ve arrived in a time where fact is up for debate and American identity seems more divided than ever. These books grapple withquestions such as: What does it take to be a good American?And who gets to decide?
The relevance of how‑to books is a product of American culture itself. If one of the highest compliments we pay one another is the moniker of “self-made,” then asking for help becomes at least a little shameful. These books have helped generations of Americans avoid that awkward need that everyone has for assistance. If we can ask a book for help—the logic goes—then at least we do not have to ask another person, much less astranger, a priest, or a government program. Beyond their practical purposes, these books served as a refuge from ambiguity, offering both reassurances of who “we” were and the promise of control in times of turmoil. The appearance of many of these books was clustered around war, economic depression, or societal upheaval: their publication tended to follow the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II, to name a few. Our society is more uncontrollable, disparate, and diverse than these authors would want us to believe, but their books served as a salve for national tumult, and their vision of the “good American” gives us fresh insight into our own identity.
Noah Webster and Dale Carnegie wrote our national story just as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson did. Their beliefs and quirks became the values and habits of millions ofAmericans, woven into our cultural DNA over generations of reading and rereading. And yet their motivations—ranging from a desire to be useful or an attempt to cope with personal trauma, all the way up to commercial gain and nationalist fervor—often remain unexamined. These authors at once recorded elements of American customs or behavior and shaped the culture by codifying it. They alone did not invent the ideas of the self-made man or the domestic housewife, but they amplified existing strains of thought to the point of becoming mass culture, all while mixing in their own agendas, incorporating their fingerprint into the daily lives of millions of people. Reference books or guidebooks are meant to convey facts without ulterior motive. But these books were forged in the crucible of their authors’ personal tragedies, secret hopes, and burning desires for their country. At the same time, what I see in the lives of these authors was not simply a desire for control (though that is certainly there) but also a real resilience. The books they created are the result of personal and national trauma, and the stories they wrote come out of survivorship. Their stories—which have become “our” stories—are a reflection of the idiosyncratic, sometimes visionary, and always flawed people who wrote them.
Many of these authors’ understanding of what “American” meant was as much about defining who it was as who it was not. You will note in this collection a striking absence of nonwhite authors and LGBTQ authors. Up until very recently, our bestselling “authoritative” texts in this genre were written primarily by white men, with a large number from fervently religious communities. Americanon is as much about what is left out and repressed by these books as what is in them. Each of these authors had a very specific vision for what the ideal American looked like, and that ideal was often predicated on uniformity, limiting who could be an American from the earliest conceptions of the word. We have a white, mostly male canon of bestsellers because privilege serves as an echo chamber in whichonly certain voices emerge. Furthermore, many of our most closely held American beliefs—from meritocracy to the powerof the individual—are self-perpetuating, functioning as a justification for who is at the top.
Part of the value in studying shared culture, or canon, is not only to look critically at what gets included but also to think about the ways in which two (or 2 million) people reading the same text can land at such different conclusions about its meaning. It is why these books have such a biblical quality. Much like the Constitution itself, a book such as How to Win Friends and Influence People or Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home can inspire opposite conclusions about what the book is trying to tell its audience. I challenge readers to revisit these texts in this new way, to think about people’s beliefs as a path from author to text to culture, rather than a natural evolution of “right” and “wrong” ideas. Why this lens of reading history is important, too, is that these books were designed to appeal to some aspect of popular culture. They were made not for the few but for the many, and in that way, they offer an especially poignant vision into what people feared, loved, hoped for, and worried about at their times of publication.
Like many Americans, I grew up with Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and The Old Farmer’s Almanac, as well as cookbooks, advice books, and all other types of self-help and how‑to books. I also credit my maternal grandfather in particular for my interest in these books. He was a quick-witted person with a love of learning, always reading biographies and travel books, and he had a special fondness for the kind of self-improvement books that fill the chapters of Americanon. At the top of the family split-level home in Stoughton, Massachusetts, he hung framed copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence alongside Poor Richard’s Almanac. Later, as a journalist, I became fascinated by these types of books as cultural objects afterI learned of Webster’s fanatical motivations—by way of an off-hand comment in a lecture. I had never imagined that the dictionary that sat on my shelf, guiding me through primary school and then college and even the early phases of being a journalist, had been written by a born-again Christian nationalist who hoped American English would become as different from British English as Swedish or Dutch was from German.
I have struggled to limit myself to ten chapters, and there are many, many books that remained on a shortlist for several years (everything from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to Who Moved My Cheese? and The Secret). There were also the books that felt like canon to me—that everyone I knew read and owned—but did not have the numbers behind them. (For my Massachusetts third-wave upbringing, this book was Our Bodies,Ourselves.) Writing about American culture in and of itself poses its own set of problems. The idea of talking about a singular culture presents a challenge in a country as vast and diverse as this one—who is to say that what feels part of the dominant culture in Seattle or Macon, Georgia, is the same as what “American” means to Bostonians or New Yorkers or residents of Cheyenne, Wyoming? Indeed, what many of these authors accomplishedwas to create an idealized vision of a unified Americathat in turn exerted a pull over the reality of a regionally, politically, and ethnically diverse nation. When I tell friends and dinner-party acquaintances that I am writing a history of bestsellers, they usually rattle off a list of books—someyou will find here, some that did not make the cut, and some I have never heard of. Americanon is not intended to be a complete history of all the bestselling books that served this role but rather a starting point. I hope it will spark conversation about the books that shaped your community and your generation.
In revisiting these books and their messages about Americanness, we have the opportunity to look at the “truths” that we take for granted about our country. What are the ideals that we still unfailingly believe at the core of ourselves? What are the stories we have told ourselves so often and so convincingly about what being an American means that they seem beyond question?Perhaps the one that resurfaces the most is that the United States represents a place where anyone can go to try somethingnew, to be “self-made.” What I saw in my Irish ancestors who had toiled in Massachusetts mills—or in my Italian great-grandmother, who was forced to drop out of high school to work in a shirt factory but went on to become a respected leader in local politics—was what so many of us like to believe about the United States: that we all have a chance. That this is the place where hard work and the right attitude can be leveraged for a better life. And sometimes that is true, and the many stories like those in my own family (and in so many other American families) serve as a testament to that belief. It is hardly true for everyone who has come here, however, and it is at present truer for residents in countries such as France, Denmark, and Canada. These stories, the mythical ones that have come to feel like objective truth, are the ones I hope to look at most closely here.This book is more a reevaluation than a revisionist takedown; just because we have often failed to live up to our own ideals does not mean that they cease to exist.
Reexamining popular culture is an exercise in disillusionment, even humility. Living as an American in France, I am frequently lectured in all the ways the United States is uniquely bad (usually some combination of geopolitical hawkishness and the Coca-Cola corporation). It has made me curious about the ways in which we are unique, even if not uniquely good. In writing this book, I found myself at times disappointed by and at times nostalgic for the United States as I had understood it as a child, or for the United States of Frank Capra movies—all while understanding that this vision of American was necessarily unreal, a combination of partial truths mythos, and imagination. The word "nostalgia" comes from the Greek nostos for "coming home" and algos for "pain." I hope this book can serve as a homecoming for those who reckon with our complex history and yet still hope, despite everything, to return to the place they are from.
Copyright © 2021 by Jess McHugh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.