How to Describe America’s Character Through Her Favorite How-To Books

Although some readers found Franklin’s Daily Task Checklist irritating, many others craved it. A theme in “Americanon” is the appetite for a maniacal combination of spiritual and physical self-improvement. McHugh presents the book’s perfect avatar in its final pages, when she describes how Stephen Covey, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” would start his day by reading the Bible while riding a stationary bike.

McHugh has a knack for doing a lot of research in small spaces, and she sweetens the pot with throwaway-yet-vivid details. (There are passing and tantalizing references to things like a “TB-fueled vampire panic” and a religious anti-dancing book titled “From the Ballroom to Hell.”)

On the other hand, McHugh tends to emphasize some of the obvious but necessary context, including how exclusive this canon has been. And she sometimes leans on historical statements broad enough to use as a spackle, for example: “The existential crisis created by the Cold War and the Vietnam War was felt by all Americans to some degree.”

The book’s subtitle announces an “unexpected” story, and one can quibble about 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, proud of themselves, optimistic, and performative virtuous.

Yeah.

But the book resoundingly and memorably establishes these qualities through reading habits, and it highlights two qualities that may not have been covered so well: We are prescriptive and hypocritical. Without overdoing it, McHugh clearly describes how good Americans are — or at least American authors are — at giving advice they don’t follow. Catharine Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister) argued that women belonged in the home and shouldn’t have the vote, but she traveled the country to maintain her very public career as a household guru and often spoke on political issues. Emily Post was hardworking and divorced, but her advice only reinforced conventional gender roles, even at a time when those roles were beginning, however slowly, to become more flexible. Dale Carnegie started out as a “traveller selling soap, bacon, and lard in the Dakotas” before moving to New York. 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-salesman “There’s a Gap” , writes McHugh, “between the story he tells the reader and the life he has led.”

Nowhere is such a discrepancy more eerily revealed than in the case of a famous housewife. “Betty Crocker,” writes McHugh, “was ‘born’ in the 1920s at the Washburn-Crosby Company, soon to become General Mills.” Crocker was a corporate invention. A “fleet of General Mills employees” responded to the letters with their voices. For more than two decades beginning in 1924, Marjorie Child Husted, an executive who rose to remarkable corporate heights for a woman of her time, took the initiative to “shape Betty’s role in women’s lives” . (Betty’s advice was to make everyone happy at home.) An internal company report said, “Emotionally, women need to think Betty Crocker is real.

In Crocker we also see a reflection of all the other books, all the advice, the grip and the intense inspiration (You can do it! Just like me!) – a canon of imaginary friends for the overworked and alone.


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