edited by Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass and Diana Schaub
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011, 790 pp., $35
The title of What So Proudly We Hail tells the prospective reader pretty much what to expect. No doubt another worthy collection of American documents and stories of the sort made popular a couple of decades ago by William Bennett, put together in the hope of countering the contemporary orthodoxy of race-class-gender which, even in the curriculum of our public schools, tends to inculcate disdain for much of our heritage. Well, yes, but more importantly, not quite.
The book’s three editors, Leon and Amy Kass and Diana Schaub, clearly hold the general view that America is indeed a Good Thing. But given that all three are political philosophers, they are more interested in making readers think about what it is to be American. This they do ably both by the selection of texts, six dozen in all, some of them old warhorses but most not, and by the editorial questions they raise at the start of each selection. Thus, on Hawthorne’s “The Maypole of Merry Mount”, a story about Puritans clashing with pagans, they urge us to think through some large and perennial questions: “What can be said for and against the two dominant parties? Is there really some middle way combining the virtues of each without their correlative vices?” Similarly, on Henry James’s “Pandora”, they note the heroine’s name and ask if, like the original, who released evils on mankind but preserved hope, “the gifts of the new Pandora, the self-made girls, [are] equally ambiguous?”
The book consists mostly of short stories, which is slightly unusual for a compilation of this sort. But it does feature political documents, too, including speeches by Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Oliver Wendell Holmes and, yes, Calvin Coolidge. There are also selections from the Federalist Papers and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It ends with patriotic songs and symbols. It is organized thematically, starting with national identity and “the American creed” and then moving to topics like civic virtue, self-sacrifice, compassion, “the goals of civic life” and the creation of unity out of diversity.
Three themes emerged for me over both the time the book covers (from the Founding to the present, but there isn’t much that is really contemporary in it) and the time it took me to read through its 781 pages. First there comes admiration for toughness both physical and moral; second a moralism in content and a tendency to allegory in form that traces pretty obviously back to the Puritan heritage; and third a preoccupation with...