Though some readers found irritating Franklin’s checklist of daily tasks toward betterment, many others craved it. One theme in “Americanon” is the appetite for a maniacal combination of spiritual and physical self-improvement. McHugh introduces the book’s perfect avatar in its closing pages, when she describes how Stephen Covey, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” would begin his day by reading the Bible while riding a stationary bike.
McHugh has a knack for squeezing a lot of research into smallish spaces, and she sweetens the pot with throwaway but vivid details. (There are passing, tantalizing references to things like a “tuberculosis-fueled vampire panic” and a religious book against dancing called “From the Ball-Room to Hell.”)
On the flip side, McHugh tends to belabor some of the obvious but necessary context, including how exclusionary this canon has been. And she sometimes relies on blandly broad historical statements for use as spackle, e.g.: “The existential crisis created by the Cold War and the Vietnam War was felt by all Americans to some extent.”
The book’s subtitle advertises an “unexpected” history, and one can quibble with that. Some of the conclusions about the composite American character — especially in its early years — won’t shock too many citizens. Americans are striving, competitive, materialistic, insecure, confident, proudly self-reliant, optimistic, performatively virtuous.
But the book resoundingly and memorably establishes these qualities through reading habits, and it highlights two qualities that perhaps haven’t been as well covered: We are prescriptive and hypocritical. Without overdoing it, McHugh clearly delineates how good Americans are — or at least American authors are — at giving advice they don’t follow. Catharine Beecher (the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) argued that women belonged in the home and shouldn’t have the vote, but she traveled around the country to maintain her very public career as a domestic guru and often spoke out about political issues. Emily Post was hard-working and divorced, but her advice only reinforced conventional gender roles, even at a time when those roles were beginning, however slowly, to become more pliable. Dale Carnegie started out as a “traveling salesman selling soap, bacon and lard in the Dakotas” before making his way to New York City. He was a very confident showman, but his real success, McHugh says, came from stubborn resilience, not affability, which he emphasized in his 1936 mega-seller. “There is a gap,” McHugh writes, “between the story he’s telling the reader and the life he led.”
Nowhere is such a gap more eerily revealed than in the case of a famous housewife. “Betty Crocker,” McHugh writes, “was ‘born’ in the 1920s to the Washburn-Crosby Company, which would soon become General Mills.” Crocker was a corporate invention. A “fleet of General Mills staff” responded to letters in her voice. For more than two decades starting in 1924, Marjorie Child Husted, an executive who reached a remarkable corporate height for a woman of her time, took the lead in “shaping Betty’s role in women’s lives.” (Betty’s advice was to make everyone at home happy.) An internal company report said: “Emotionally, women need to think that Betty Crocker is real.”
In Crocker we see a reflection of all the other books as well, all the advice and hand-holding and strenuous inspiration (You can do it! Just like me!) — a canon of imaginary friends for overworked and lonely people.