He's running off to vote for a populist. Credit: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

June 14, 2021   5 mins

America was invented in 1828 by the lexicographer Noah Webster. Politically of course, the United States had already stumbled into existence. But Webster’s dictionary, published that year, contained a new superglue to hold the whole enterprise together. Not a new language, as some had demanded, but still: new words for the new world. “Skunk,” “squash,” “psychology,” “chowder,” “Americanize,” and “penmanship.” Honour became honor. Though to Webster’s disappointment and for reasons that are lost to history, soup was not to be soop.

And now the whole glorious project of uniting the states might be entering its final stages. I hope, and think, they will pull back from the brink as they did in 1968, that sweaty year of assassinations and street fighting. But it’s possible the United States is heading for the rocks.

The end-times thinking goes like this. The Republican party — only partially committed now to free and fair elections — will probably take back the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections in 2022. It has a good chance of taking the Senate too. If Donald Trump were to run in 2024 and lose, he could do then what he failed to do last time: use raw power and congressional poodles to get statewide votes annulled or altered and even electoral college decisions over-ruled.

The army might object or might not. Either way it would not be pretty. There could be a coup. Worse in many ways than the civil war because neither side would win. It would be the end of Webster’s unifying project.

One of the tasks that Americans must set themselves in the (quite short) space of time there is to come to terms with all this is to focus anew on the things that draw them together — or at least to analyse and address the things that have carved them apart. The ever-brilliant writer George Packer sets an example with his new book, Last Best Hope (out 1st July). In it, he sets out the divisions in a manner that invites reconciliation — or an effort towards it, at least.

One of Packer’s most telling points is simple but devastating. The people doing well in modern America have lost sight of the need for this task to be undertaken at all. They fail, in the modern age, to grasp the need for national myths and identities that can unite nations. “Smart Americans,” Packer says, “are uneasy with patriotism. It’s an unpleasant relic of a more primitive time, like cigarette smoke or dog racing.”

They are fiercely loyal to their families, and to “diversity and efficiency, heirloom tomatoes and self-driving cars.” But not patriotism. Nothing that binds them to their poorer (and increasingly distant) neighbours. “The winners in Smart America have lost the capacity and the need for a national identity, which is why they can’t grasp its importance for others.” But, always assuming they don’t want America to fall apart, they must re-grasp it.

Since these folks enjoy books as much as fancy tomatoes, here’s a suggestion. That they read another new one, Americanon, which brings together, well, the American canon. Not the classics. Not even the Constitution — a text that fewer than half of Americans read. The conceit of Americanon, written by the journalist Jess McHugh, is that it gathers thoughts on thirteen books that Americans have turned to, down the years, in huge numbers. They thus reflect, McHugh argues, the nation better than any other set of works. She includes cookbooks, self-help books. And in pride of place: Webster’s dictionary.

The dictionary was a dramatically successful tool of nationalism, which, McHugh says, “started to establish the idea that American was something anyone could become — as long as they adhered to the rules. It cemented, she says, “the notion of American as an identity that could be both taught and learned.”

And the same goes for the rest of the canon: favourites like The Old Farmers Almanac and Betty Crockers Picture Cook Book are seen by McHugh not just as popular titles but as foundational texts that shaped a shared understanding of the American story. “These how-to books taught people certain skills, all while delivering messages about American beliefs, encoding everything from individualism and self-reliance to meritocracy and personal freedom.”

This was not bottom-up. It was top down. American values were created and shaped by an elite group of authors. That’s an important point, when you consider George Packer’s contention that the modern elites just don’t care about building anything anymore. If they don’t, who will?

Sometimes the books in Americanon were seen as dangerous, such was their power. One night in 1942, a German agent was arrested on a train in New York City’s Penn Station. Among his few possessions, he was carrying a copy of that year’s Old Farmers Almanac in his coat pocket. The US government worried that it might contain too much useful information, in particular about the expected weather, so they considered closing it down. The canon was a window into the soul of America — a risky thing in the hands of an enemy.

In an age when the project of unification seems, to so many, to be going into reverse — what is the modern equivalent of the Almanac or Betty Crocker’s Cook Book? The stress in literature now is on the harms done by America to its own people. Real harms, as McHugh acknowledges, to black people, to native Americans, to all manner of people who have never shared in the promise of the place.

The trouble of course is that concentrating on those harms — and on the simple fact that positive stuff has often been tendentious or plain lying — disbars Americans from wallowing in the unifying features of the canon. And that could well mean that the healing these bestselling books could bring is unavailable, even in the event that any authors wanted to return to the project.

McHugh is sanguine, though. Myth-making, she says, is the amulet to ward off a national death. She thinks it can be revivified, and done so in a modern way: “The narrative is revised to incorporate new fears and fresh trauma, but the story never goes away. Culture, myth, and identity are fashioned over time; cobbled together in moments of doubt as a way of reassuring ourselves not just of who we were but of who we are.”

She suggests a broadening of the horizons of the myths, to tell a new, truer story, as she puts it: “one that does not respond to uncertainty with a rush to create meaning but instead embraces the ambiguity of an ever-changing nation.”

Good luck with that, as the Americans say.

The trouble is that writers who try to follow her advice — to write modern myths that balance the endless talk of distress and dysfunction with a little bit of 4th of July jollity — are either laughed at or edged out of the public space. Or both. The latest to be heading for the knackers yard is poor David Brooks at the New York Times, who has written some sweetly earnest books about the American Dream and still mentions in his columns the long littleness of American life, such as the vital issue of how to get the best sandwich in New York City.

“A deli sandwich was the main thing in his life that day,” said essayist Tressie McMillan Cottom in an interview last year. “I’m deathly terrified of that.” An incoming associate professor at a thing called the School of Information and Library Sciences at the University of North Carolina, Professor Cottom rebukes genial optimists: “We could laugh at David Brooks five years ago. What happened isn’t that David Brooks started being bad … It is that the problems became too real. And now we just can’t waste too much time on these writers.”

We are still united by sandwiches and the weather and apple pie. But in the age of Black Lives Matter, no one will write about them.

Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer