Inspirational Messages


The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation, edited by Diane Ravitch, New York: Harper Collins, 383 pages, $35.00

A near-paralysis has set in at many of the more august centers of higher learning: The anti-Eurocentric cops are hovering about, ferreting out any supposed overemphasis on the doings of dead white males (DWMs), the better to purge the academy of its presumed biases. While your typical Smoky Valley State College manages to move students through the assembly line of learning with little commotion from the thought police, the places where political correctness (P.C.) thrives are in a dither. May history, for instance, be taught such that, oh, George Washington plays a slightly bigger role than, say, the Washingtons' wine steward?

Outside the academy, only the fancier newspapers and the more easily intimidated broadcast outlets have been seriously troubled by all of this. One might guess that the ordinary reader of books feels no untoward guilt about picking up a tome that tells it—whatever "it" is—relatively straight, without benefit of the "contemporary sensitivity, " to use another current catchphrase.

Unfortunately, between what might be called the standard view of things (which has been woefully short-sighted in recognizing the involvement of those who weren't dead white males, preferably Christian and heterosexual dead white males) and the new P.C. approach (which distorts, sometimes grotesquely, in the other direction), there is little of note.

Which brings us to a valiant and on the whole successful attempt to find a plausible theme for a broad survey, one intended for the general trade but surely destined as well for late high school and early college courses. Diane Ravitch, who teaches at Columbia University's Teachers College, has sought and discovered a way to advance readers through American history by directing their minds to the words, as she puts it, that moved a nation. If we grant, as we must, that more Americans seven years ago were moved by "Where's the beef?" than by the latest profundities issuing from the president's mouth, then surely one may fairly conclude that that which inspires and takes hold of the minds of our countrymen comes from all kinds of sources.

Ravitch has as keen an ear for the sounds of a nation on the move as for the enduring themes given vibrancy by those sounds. She is not driven to search in every faraway corner to the exclusion of the mainstream. We've John Adams's reflections on liberty and knowledge from his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law as well as Abigail Adams's stern advice to her husband to "remember the ladies." We've all the central, abidingly uplifting documents of our history, together with a hefty gathering of popular songs, doggerel, and slogans, from every era of our history.

The people, after all, cotton more easily to "This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land" than even to such stirring declarations as Martin Luther King's letter from the Birmingham jail. Ravitch has seen, or felt, the abiding popular substratum of our culture and given her readers a splendid selection to mull over.

No significant group is slighted, except perhaps two: She has skipped over the specifically Jewish and homosexual utterances of Americans. Irving Berlin's songs, among them "God Bless America," are by a Jew but not specifically expressive of Jewish thought. And Harvey Milk., a gay activist and San Francisco supervisor murdered by a vengeful colleague, appears here with a speech on neighborhoods from 1977. This is as far as Ravitch goes to acknowledge the particular significance of that man in America' s contemporary history. Everybody else gets his (and her) share of the credit, with perhaps a slight tilt in the direction of feminist declarations and sloganeering. For blacks, the selections encompass documents from the 1775 appeal to the royal governor of Massachusetts to Alice Walker's poetry.

The libertarian impulse flows from Thoreau on civil disobedience to Milton and Rose Friedman on economic freedom. Protest arises at the start and is with us this very second, as exemplified by passages from the writings of Hispanic and American Indian observers of our still far from happy land. The labor movement is given voice, from the earnest speeches and pamphleteering of its fathers to such musical offerings as "Joe Hill."

There are some mistakes in the manufacture of the book, including a few erroneous dates. Perhaps in a subsequent edition of The American Reader Ravitch might include a cry of anguish from somebody protesting the decline in standards of American business, including publishing.

When appropriate, the thoughts of presidents take their place in the book, including Lyndon Johnson's speech at Howard University in 1965 and Ronald Reagan's at Moscow University in 1988. But the book shows, honestly enough, that we've experienced a dramatic falling off in presidential utterances from the days of the early republic and the mid-19th-century giant, Lincoln. The people speak, increasingly, from our own hearts and our own experiences, while the big-shots confine themselves to prepackaged pap. The American Reader intelligently and excitingly shows American readers our sometimes quite wonderful tradition of speaking our minds.

Contributing Editor David Brudnoy teaches in the College of Communication at Boston University and is a radio talk-show host in Boston. He has taught American history at several universities.