Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books

Dutton. Jun. 2021. 432p. ISBN 9781524746636. $28. HIST
In a work spanning literary criticism and history, journalist McHugh explores a series of popular nonfiction books that fostered stereotypical American values, such as entrepreneurship, individualism, or fealty to family and community, and also conveyed practical knowledge. She investigates primarily works written by Christian white men’s works whose books were used to encourage assimilation in people who were perceived as “other.” Her analysis includes works such as The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Webster’s spellers and dictionaries, the fictional Betty Crocker’s cookbooks, McGuffey Readers, and Catharine Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy. Notably, she also examines Emily Post’s Etiquette, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know about Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask), and the rise of self-help books during the 1980s. McHugh used distribution data to select the 13 prescriptive books of the title, volumes that became part of the national conversation, illuminating social and cultural concerns and pointing to characteristics that came to be associated with American national identity. General readers and history devotees might enjoy this compilation and its use of corporate archival and secondary sources; they might also have additions to suggest.
VERDICT McHugh’s work is distinctive and engaging as it describes American social history through the lens of mainstream nonfiction advice books, and explores how they define or redefine us.
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