A genial guide to American literature from the bestselling author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor (2003) and How to Read Novels Like a Professor (2008).
Call this one How to Read the American Myth Like a Professor. For his 25 selections, Foster (English/Univ. of Michigan, Flint) gravitates toward texts that bolster the folksier conception of Americans: rough-hewn, individualistic, fun-loving but concerned about family, full of prejudices but generally assimilating. Those familiar themes are underscored by the familiar books included here: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Leaves of Grass, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Augie March are sacred texts of freewheeling independence; Walden and My Antonia are praise songs to nature and the heartland; Go Down, Moses, On the Road and The Crying of Lot 49 showcase the wildness of American experimentalism. Foster doesn’t mean to simplify these texts: In the better essays, he reveals Melville’s complicated moral territory and the politics that pushed John Dos Passos’ epic U.S.A. trilogy out of favor. When the author dedicates himself to close reading, as he does in chapters on Faulkner and Robert Frost, he unlocks plenty of insights. But with roughly 10 pages devoted to each classic, Foster is forced to generalize about the importance of each, making for bromides and upbeat interpretations. For instance, when he says a key message of The Grapes of Wrath is that “people can be generous and supportive and decent and even civic-minded when the profit motive is absent,” he’s not wrong, but he’s softening a novel that throws hard elbows at the profit motive. Many readers will wish they had a high-school English teacher as cheery and engaged as Foster, but that doesn’t make his choices feel any less outdated. He includes The Last of the Mohicans even though he admits that it’s a slog, and the most recent book on the list, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, was published more than 25 yeas ago.
A too-polite American Lit 101 primer.