This is a near impossible task, identifying the top 12 literary works that best represent the great American themes, values, ideals, conflicts, passions, and identity. In fact, it is so clearly beyond possible that I must lay down a disclaimer upfront: this is *my* list. I am not trying to represent what is fundamentally American for all Americans at all times in American history.
And a further disclaimer: I am using the broadest possible interpretation of the word “literature;” i.e. words that have been written down. They could have been written on the back of a napkin for all I care, so long as they somehow hold true to the 200 plus years that are the great American Experiment. My list represents those written works that best represent for me the overarching themes of what is fundamentally my America: idealistic, free, young, conflicted, fighting, underdog-loving, ornery, brave, flawed, striving, independent, alive. Always, fundamentally, alive.
1. The Declaration of Independence (1776)
Thomas Jefferson was given the task of authoring the document that would throw down the gauntlet for old King George, that masterful list of grievances known as The Declaration of Independence. The words would mark the territory over which we would fight as a nation continuously for the next two hundred years, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
2. Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America (1787)
Thanks to “School House Rock” on Saturday mornings of my childhood, I have the Preamble to the Constitution memorized. I have to sing it to remember it, but I do know it by heart, particularly the first three totally American words, “We the people.”
3. The Defense of Fort McHenry (1814)
Better known as The Star-Spangled Banner, The Defense of Fort McHenry was the four-stanza poetic response of Francis Scott Key to the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy during the War of 1812 (which actually lasted until 1815). With its capital city and morale in ashes, America was at a low point with a none too optimistic future. While many today may hear our national anthem as that of an aggressive warrior nation, it was truly the rallying whoop of the underdog. At a point in this country’s fledgling history when all appeared lost, Key saw with amazed and unbelieving eyes that the by-all-measures more powerful British were retreating and that our flag — and our country — still stood.
4. Moby Dick (1851)
If nothing else, the United States of America is big. Third in geographic size, only after Russia and Canada, America just feels big, thinks big, acts… big. In the world of fishing, you can’t get much bigger than Moby Dick, now can you? Aside from the size factor, Herman Melville’s classic work bears the quintessential American themes of individualism in the context of the universe, good versus evil, monomaniacal obsessiveness, and of course, adventures at sea.