My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 4, #45,
June 21, 1999


I was just reading a column Philip Hamburger wrote in the New Yorker back in the 1930's, about newly arrived refugees from Hitler crowding into the New York Public Library, seeking to learn about their new country, America. Which of course raises the question: what books would you give such new immigrants to help them make sense of their daily lives and the daily news? What books are basic to understanding who we are and how we got to be that way?

The thing I think may be hardest for foreigners to understand about us is our distrust of government and our pugnacious insistence on our rights. That's why the first thing I would have them read is the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson explains that governments are legitimate ONLY if they secure for their citizens the rights God already gave them to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If a government can't do this, people have the right to overthrow it.

Next I'd have them read the Constitution. It's one thing to tell the world why you are divorcing your parent country, and another thing altogether to establish a new government -- especially when you believe governments tend to become tyrannies. Our founding fathers' solution was to disperse the powers of government so that no one person or body could rule absolutely, creating a government that resembles nothing so much as the children's game of scissors cuts paper, paper wraps stone, stone breaks scissors.

To make absolutely sure the government would refrain from sticking its nose into ordinary citizens' business, they stipulated all the rights citizens had that government had no authority to interfere with. Because we have a constitutional right to say and believe what we want and defend ourselves against the intrusions of government, we tend to treat any other attempts to limit our behavior as violations of our rights as well, and we are constantly discovering new rights: to smoke, to own surface-to-air missiles, to shout insulting things at other ethnic groups, and such.

Another thing new immigrants need to make sense of is the issue of race in America. For this reason, I'd hand them Huckleberry Finn along with Nat Hentoff's The Day They Came To Arrest the Book, the story of an attempt to remove Huck from a required high school reading list.

Both books are revealing about more than just race. Because Huck is historically accurate -- it refers to black as "Niggers," because that's what Missourians called them in the period the bookis set in -- it is misunderstood by people who know little about history. People who can't get past the "N word" miss the point: that Huck comes to see Jim as fully human, and helps him escape even though he believes slavery is right. In Nat Hentoff's book, the arguments for and against censorship are fully explored in terms of the damage that racist words and censorship can do.

But Hentoff also shows that the urge to censor lies deep within us. Our passionate belief in our own rights coexists with the belief that "there oughtta be a law" about things someone else does or says.

And Huck, instead of staying and risking being "sivilized" by Aunt Sally, lights out for the territory, thus becoming the symbol of an America that would rather walk away from its problems than fix them, a feckless society that builds things, uses them up, and throws them away.

That's one of the reasons I'd give the immigrants Douglas Brinkley's The Majic Bus, his account of a bus trip through America with his students, visiting key shrines of American history and culture: Monticello, Graceland, the Rocky Mountains, Ken Kesey's farm, the endless plains with little to distinguish them but Wall Drugstore.

Brinkley, a gifted historian and teacher, explains much about our popular culture and history, while demonstrating that we are equally moved by both. But their long trip also gives a sense of the overwhelming size of America, a country you can travel thousands of miles in without once being asked to present a passport. People who don't grasp this can't begin to understand the American conviction that there are no boundaries, that there's always more where that came from, that we can always pack up our lives and start again fresh.

There is a steady progression of books, from Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography through The Great Gatsby to the current flood of self-help books, which assure us we can take charge of our lives, remake ourselves, become what we want to be, and I would have our immigrants read at least one of these.

Without grasping the incredible danger and hard labor involved in taming this land, they couldn't begin to understand why we place such a premium on individualism and self-reliance. Nor could they understand the constant tension between the people who built towns, schools and churches upon it, and the men who reveled in their isolation and their daring.

So I would also give them Stephen Ambrose's book, Undaunted Courage, about the Lewis and Clark expedition, to give them a sense of the risks and challenges of this unknown wilderness. These men had no idea whether they could live off the land along the way, or make their way safely through Indian territory. They hoped for, but couldn't assume, a river passage direct to the ocean. They hoped, but could not assume, that they would return. All they could count on was their wits and courage and a taste for adventure -- which, as it turned out, was enough.

And I would also give the immigrants Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat, because in our best-loved children's stories, we tell kids what we value most. These two treasured books encourage us to explore our own adventurousness and wildness, and yet come safely home.

Of course our immigrants should read an actual history of America; my own choice would be the third volume of Daniel Boorstin's history, The Americans: the Democratic Experience, which shows how we took all our disparate races and ethnic groups and religions and homogenized them into "Americanness." But my friend Mark correctly points out that there is only so much that we can explain with words about America, so I would also have them look through the Album of American History, which traces our past in pictures from the colonial period through the 1950's.

To capsulize American values, I would give them Joshua Hammond's book The Stuff Americans Are Made Of: the Seven Cultural Forces that Define Americans (which are: choice, impossible dreams, big and more, NOW, tolerance for mistakes, improvisation, what's new).

Having read these, our new Americans would be able to make at least a little sense of our commercials and our movies, our politics and our social life. At least that's my belief. What do you think new Americans need to know about us? What would you have them read to learn it, and why?

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