Some conservative thinkers might view the library list as distinctly multicultural, blatantly offering something for everyone. But if America is anything at all, it is multicultural. It’s also refreshing to see William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Allen Ginsberg representing 20th-century American poetry instead of those usual cosmopolitan modernists Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. But Walt Whitman is here, too, and Emily Dickinson, and all of them remind us that the recurrent theme of American literature is loneliness, that somehow amid all our plenty we remain hungry for connection with others. Little wonder that two of the most popular plays in the American theater are about such yearning: Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Any list yields surprises. If you were to pick the greatest five-year period in American literature, you would be hard-pressed to match 1850-55: Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” (1851), Melville’s “Moby-Dick” (1852), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852), Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” (1854) and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” (1855). In the careful write-up of Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” there is no mention that the villains of this famous western are Mormons. Sexual politics is another major theme throughout our history, from Margaret Sanger on birth control to Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,”from Alfred Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” to the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”
At the same time, the list doesn’t shy away from such bloated bestsellers as Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War romance “Gone With the Wind,” Ayn Rand’s melodrama-cum-economic tract “Atlas Shrugged” and Robert A. Heinlein’s weirdly libertarian “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Many people might not care for such pop titles, but they are books that others revere, argue about and reread. Happily, the list also includes quieter masterpieces such as Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon,” Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and Ezra Jack Keats’s “The Snowy Day.”
The Library of Congress boldly invites people to register their comments on the exhibition and its titles at its special Web site, www.loc.gov/bookfest. In my case, I was surprised that major works of historical and sociological scholarship didn’t make the cut: Where, for instance, are Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis,” Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” and W.J. Cash’s “Mind of the South”? Shouldn’t the work of the pioneer-iconoclast H.L. Mencken be represented? And where is the great storyteller of our generation, Stephen King? At the same time, I might argue that “The Education of Henry Adams” is wildly overrated and unworthy of inclusion on the list, its second half being interminably boring. And while Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” was certainly popular, it somehow seems out of place here, being best known as a television series rather than a book.
No matter. This exhibition is meant to generate argument, surprise and controversy. And it will. But the Library of Congress also deserves kudos for having produced this exceptionally imaginative and convincing list of many, if certainly not all, “the books that shaped America.”
READ MORE: What books had a big impact on you? #booksthatshapedme
Dirda reviews each week in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/