The goal is a noble one, and his list, for the most part, an admirable culling of national texts. The book falls into the tradition of other efforts to capture the nation’s cultural heritage — the Modern Library’s line of novels and E.D. Hirsch’s books on cultural literacy come to mind — but although there are other entrants, the contest tells us something important about our national character: that the United States, comparatively young to be wielding the remarkable influence that it does, is still trying to figure out how it got here and what makes it special.
The texts Prothero has chosen are organized, perhaps too preciously, along lines that readers of the Bible will understand: Genesis, law, chronicles, psalms, proverbs, prophets, lamentations, gospels, acts, epistles. Many of the chosen texts are wonderful, and I enjoyed finding, in a single place, the Gettysburg Address, John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and an excerpt from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The author’s prose is, as usual, spritely, informed and incisive.
But some of his choices seem awkward. He includes Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial as a lamentation. The brilliant wall isn’t pictured — was there a copyright problem? — so we are treated instead to various commentaries about it. But the commentaries can’t possibly be considered canonical, and Lin’s explanation, also included, isn’t the lamentation; her work is.
Film makes no appearance — not even “Gone With the Wind” or “Star Wars,” which, I suspect, taught the world more about the United States than any other movie in recent memory — but Prothero quite correctly includes novels in his canon. And although I might have made different choices (No “Gatsby”? No Steinbeck?), his are entirely defensible. (The award for irony goes to the estate of Ayn Rand, which refused to allow the excerpting of “Atlas Shrugged,” a decision Prothero cleverly marks with a blank page.)
Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address is included among the prophets, but George Washington’s farewell address falls among the epistles, even though his warning about entangling alliances with foreign states was at least as prescient as Eisenhower’s concern about the “military-industrial complex.”