Review: Jess McHugh’s “Americanon” Explores America’s Obsession with Self-Help


Yet for all Franklin’s emphasis on modeling and praising the habits of success, he was far from being a mere apostle of ardent Americanism. He was both a notorious libertine during his tenure as US Ambassador to France and a staunch critic of the burgeoning tendency for wealth to be concentrated at the top of the social hierarchies of the New World. When he presided over the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention in 1790, he approved a failed resolution declaring that such accumulation “is dangerous to rights and destructive to the common happiness of mankind” – and that every state should therefore be empowered ” by its laws to discourage the possession of such property. Despite this, McHugh appears determined to make Franklin himself a proto-Webster, citing English professor Carla Mulford’s judgment that “the figure of Franklin was used to mask difference under a myth of national unity.” .

It is not that this estimate is false in itself, it is rather that it explains everything and nothing. Yes, the making of national myths tends to erase differences in most historical contexts, but the tensions within these myths produce significant changes over time. In the Jacksonian era, for example, McGuffey Readersare engaged in the fabrication of highly Protestant myths, once again “demonstrating who is part of ‘we’ and who is part of ‘them'”, while David Reuben’s sexual manual published a century and a half later “has also served as a standardization tool, much like many other books in this collection, written by an author obsessed with ridding the country of difference.

It is clear, however, that David Reuben and William McGuffey are not dedicated to exactly the same process of cultural homogenization for themselves. And that’s ultimately why Americanon, for all of its energetically reported details, ultimately totals considerably less than its best-selling and culture-creating pieces. What is more, if this disparate body of advice manuals were in fact issuing the same enthusiastic call to arms at the same white core, Imperial Protestant, this would be a striking demographic continuity, going against all kinds of other national trends, which would call for a far-reaching explanation. Instead, the larger design of Americanon
produces a singular flattening effect, in which one fabricated cultural myth is stacked on top of another, with no apparent resolution or output offered.


Indeed, the book ends with a weird, extended appreciation of the most legendary recent self-help franchise on the American scene, the business consulting empire built around Steven Covey’s 1989 bestselling monster, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Although Covey’s tract does not pay more attention to the harms of racism and sexism than the other works reviewed by McHugh, it finds its control agenda tempered by a soft emphasis on “principles”, “proactivity” and “Interdependence”. Such qualities, she asserts, are rare in similar works of best-selling literature, introducing a critical element of vulnerability into the usual procedures of morale building and virtue training: “In interdependence,” writes. she, there was a recognition of the individual. limitations, even fallibility, in a way that rarely happens in this type of literature.


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