Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman wrote and then obsessively spent much of his life rewriting this classic poetry collection of his. Leaves of Grass is a celebration of much of Whitman’s philosophy—his pursuit of pleasure, taking joy in nature, nature’s power over man and its symbolism, etc. Not only is Leaves of Grass considered a major work of American poetry, but it also includes the poem “Song of Myself,” a major reason we’re singling this book out for Independence Day. That poem celebrates much of American culture as Whitman saw it, including the landscape of the quickly urbanizing cities, alongside the rural American pastoral scenery. Langston Hughes, another major American poet, also saw Whitman’s work as a great equalizer, embracing all people of various racial identities and class categories.
The Red Badge of Courage
A classic American war novel that takes place during the Civil War, the title refers to a wound, the would-be red badge of courage that proves a soldier’s participation in battle. Henry Fleming, the novel’s protagonist, flees from the battle scene during his first encounter with the enemy Confederate soldiers. He deserts his regiment but ends up back with a group of injured men from the battle, including a friend of his from home. As Henry moves from one rag-tag band of men to another, he earns himself a wound from another impatient soldier, and when he finally does join in the next battle, he finds himself facing up to it, proving himself a good fighter. One of the novel’s characteristics is that unlike some that came before it, this early war novel explores the inner life of the soldier it portrays, not only the realistic battle scenes in which he participates.
George Washington. We know him as one of the United States’ founding fathers. But what else was he? Who was he? In this single volume book (a rarity for biographies this comprehensive) Ron Chernow delves into Washington’s life from his boyhood to manhood. From his early life and difficult childhood to the fierce courage he showed as a general serving in two wars to his being elected as president of the Constitutional Convention, Washington is brought to life in this biography. Chernow refuses to merely revere the figure but rather investigates the man in all his complexity. This includes his relationship with his mother and later with his adopted children, as well as his position as a slave owner and master. Without whitewashing him, Chernow brings the complex character closer to something that we can understand rather than worship.
Never heard of Aaron Burr? Well, he’s the man who killed Alexander Hamilton (yes, that Hamilton, the one from the musical) in a duel, and who was a founding father himself. He was tried for treason following the duel with his nemesis but was acquitted. This novel by Gore Vidal, which begins a series of novels he wrote about American history, shows Burr as an older statesman, in 1833, telling his story to a young New York journalist. Burr’s candid confessions and attempts to set the record straight make this fictional-but-historically-accurate (though interpreted, of course) tale come alive for readers who may not be interested in dry biographies and histories. Vidal is a master of storytelling and the novel looks at a man who was considered by many to be a monster with new eyes.
The Federalist Papers
For hardcore history buffs, or for those who are interested in becoming better-versed in our nation’s birth, The Federalist, which was renamed The Federalist Papers in the 20th century, is a must-read. Essentially, it is a collection of essays by three of the founding fathers, who published the pieces anonymously in their day. The essays are mostly concerned with trying to convince voters to consent to the Constitution, and so each of the writers lays out their arguments for various parts of the document, one so oft-cited today in political arguments. A Poli-Sci classic, these essays show the thought process behind what is still considered one of the most well-written and careful documents of government: the United States Constitution.
Book of Ages
A historian whose work can often be found gracing the pages of The New Yorker, Jill Lepore’s books of social and political history are always engaging (see her book about Wonder Woman if you need further proof). In Book of Ages, Lepore examines the sister of one of the most famous American men of history, Benjamin Franklin. Jane Franklin was an accomplished and well-educated woman, who gave birth to 12 children while also being a voracious reader, a wonderful writer, and staying politically engaged (now that’s a superpower, right there!)—but she is virtually unknown, even though Ben wrote to her more than he wrote to anyone else. Lepore draws on their letters and on recently found objects to portray Jane Franklin’s world, one of an intelligent woman with the resources to both be well-informed and care for her family.
For some lighter reading, we recommend Donna Thorland’s excellent novel The Turncoat, which is full of intrigue, romance, and history lessons. In 18th century Philadelphia, a young Quaker woman, and bluestocking, Kate Grey, is seduced by a British noble who commands her to return home to the motherland with him. But before leaving, she is implicated in his anti-American activities and is almost convicted of treason herself. Instead, she turns spy for General Washington, and when her British ex returns to Philadelphia, the dangerous games begin, especially as she is now engaged to his cousin and working actively against him. Will the desire of the flesh or the desire for independence win out?
Every 4th of July, we gather around our flags, families, and, often, the grill to celebrate our nation’s birthday. But besides the barbeque or the gorgeous displays of fireworks that explode pretty colors across the sky, Independence Day is also about our history as a nation. This year, it falls on a Monday, which gives us the extra bonus of having a lovely long weekend, and you know what long weekends are perfect for? That’s exactly right: reading. In honor of the holiday weekend stretching out before us, we’ve put together an eclectic round-up of fiction and nonfiction that you can pick up and read this Independence Day weekend—because we’re pretty sure that it says in the Constitution that “We the People of the United States…should never be without a good book.”
Which of these have you read? What are you reading this weekend that you would add to this bookshelf?
Featured image: Julia_Sharikov/Twenty20