Matt Yglesias had a post the other day where he said that reading Moby Dick was essential to understanding America. Later, he recanted this as hyperbole but tried to explain what he meant:
America is the land of strivers, of people who believe in endless possibility, and where triumphs and tragedies spring from this endless reservoir of boundless desire. It’s the kind of place where a president boasting about his plan to expend vast resources on a avowedly pointless mission to the Moon can be remembered as a great moment in political rhetoric...A country of more practical people probably wouldn’t get into so much trouble. But then again, in a world full of more practical countries perhaps nobody would have ever gone to the Moon. And it seems to me that that would have been a shame. Nevertheless, this is also the kind of country that might decide one day that it wants to try to bring good government to Afghanistan (?!?!) and create an effective centralized state there. Impressive if you can pull it off, but you’ve got to wonder.
Which got me thinking about what I would want included in a Literature of America...books that were both "good" and spoke to an essential truth about the American experience, or psychology or what have you. The requirement that the books be "good" would get rid of some of the more annoying parts of American Lit classes (I'm looking at you, James Fenimore Cooper) and might open up some unconventional choices.
For example, I'd include Moby Dick and Huck Finn, but I'd also include Seven Guitars and both parts of Angels. James Baldwin's Another Country should probably be in there as well, along with Oakley Hall's Warlock (my personal contender for Great American Novel). I'd throw in David Foster Wallace's essay Authority and English Usage which touches on the problems inherent in Kushner's "Melting pot that never melted".
That's not meant to be a comprehensive list, or even a list of what's most important, just what, off the top of my head I thought I'd throw in. What about you?