In 1781 the French immigrant Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur asked, "What, then, is this new man, the American?" From that time onward, there has been a steady procession of authors attempting to answer his question. Among their many books, I have chosen a few which I found to be especially valuable in the preparation of my own work. Some of them have a claim to be considered classics or near-classics, and the others are definitely well above average. I have deliberately avoided including any items from recent years, since the genuine value of a book is much easier to assess once the preoccupations and preconceptions of the time in which it was written have passed away.
Emerson is different from the other authors on this list. They are attempting to explain realities (what Americans believe and how they behave); he is proclaiming ideals (what Americans should believe and how they should behave). "Self-Reliance" and "Divinity School Address" are his two crucially important essays Emerson: Essays and Lectures: Nature: Addresses and Lectures / Essays: First and Second Series / Representative Men / English Traits / The Conduct of Life (Library of America). They expound a doctrine of individual freedom: Each human being contains within himself marvelous potential, which he has the personal duty to identify, nurture, and realize in the conduct of his life. This is a faith that all Americans share as an implicit and often unstated dogma of their national culture. Those on the left accept it (although they believe that society--specifically government--needs to help the members of certain disadvantaged groups in their effort to achieve full potential). Those on the right also accept it (although they, in contrast, believe individuals should manage on their own without collective help).
Tocqueville's original work Tocqueville: Democracy in America (Library of America) appeared in two volumes, of which the second is the more theoretical as well as the more significant and rewarding. It is, as the title implies, not so much an analysis of America as it is an analysis of democracy with America providing the material for examination. As a result of this perspective and approach, Tocqueville's thought is often rather abstract and consequently leads at times to misunderstanding and controversy. His discussion of "the tyranny of the majority," for example, has provoked various interpretations. That particular topic is best understood when read together with George Combe's detailed examination of public and peer opinion in his Notes on the United States of North America. Philadelphia, 1841. v. 2, p. 257-272.
If Tocqueville has the reputation of being the foremost interpreter of America, James Bryce (British politician, diplomat, and historian) has been viewed by some as the author in second place. While Bryce lacks Tocqueville's originality and depth, he excels in breadth and specificity. His writings on the subject are long, massive, and almost encyclopedic (American Commonwealth and Modern Democracies - in two volumes, Vol. II). While the theoretical nature of Tocqueville's approach often enables him to transcend the circumstances of time and place, Bryce is far more an observer of a particular America at a particular time. His works nevertheless contain many perspicacious insights that the present-day reader will find valid and significant.
Trollope and Martineau: Two English women in antebellum America
Frances Trollope is the more readable of the two. She was, after all, a popular novelist in her day. The book that she produced as a result of her experiences in the United States (Domestic Manners of the Americans (Penguin Classics)) is filled with vivid annecdotes and lively narrative. When it first appeared, it created a sensation among American readers, since they found themselves the target of the author's sharp criticism and forthright disapproval. Despite her negative bias, her picture of the country was quite accurate (as Mark Twain later admitted), and she had the advantage of a foreign visitor, who may often notice things that natives tend--and prefer--to overlook.
Harriet Martineau was prominent in the English intellectual life of her time as an author of social, economic, and historical works. She is a far less entertaining writer than Trollope, but one with more weight and depth. Whether she is analyzing religion in America or the power of American public opinion or any other aspect of American society, her observations merit the attention of the modern reader. The sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset certain thought so, since he edited an abridged edition of her book Society in America (Social Science Classics Series).
Riesman and Lipset: a changing American character?
In 1950 David Riesman's sociological study The Lonely Crowd, Revised edition: A Study of the Changing American Character became an unexpected best seller. It argued that Americans had undergone a fundamental alteration from "inner-direction" (a person's internal values determine his thinking and behavior) to "other-direction" (a person's peers determine his thinking and behavior). This theory did not go unchallenged. In The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective Seymour Martin Lipset argued that the American character had not undergone a basic change and that Americans had always been "other-directed." The opposing sides of the controversy were more subtle and intricate than I am able to explain in this terse summary, but I might add my own verdict that Lipset was right and that Riesman was unduely influenced by the unique nature of the post-war era, with its excessive fear and conformity (a legacy of the Great Depression). Nevertheless, Riesman's work is still very much worth reading for the various insights and sociological information that it contains, as is Lipset's, especially for his survey of observations by foreign visitors to America.
With the exception of Trollope, the books listed above are rather demanding intellectually, and at times they can be somewhat heavy reading. So perhaps it is best to end with a lighter work. The American People: A Study in National Character appeared in 1948, written by an Englishman, Geoffrey Gorer, who updated his book with a significant postscript in 1963. It contains a certain amount of the popular psychology of the time, but if one skips over that, a large quantity of useful material still remains. Concrete examples, often quite vivid and memorable, illustrate the general points that the author makes, and the validity of the points themselves have held up rather well over the years.