Heard on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson

Author Jess McHugh Re-examines American History Through 13 Bestselling Books

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Image credit: Penguin Random House

McHugh says there is a “national bookshelf,” which reflects a varied American identity.

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Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books,” is a new book that explores America’s favorite literary works and how they reflect the nation’s collective psyche. Author Jess McHugh looks at American history through the lens of the almanacs, cookbooks and dictionaries that have shaped our universal national experience.

With time, things become more precious to us … the idea of a national bookshelf could perhaps say something about our country.” —Jess McHugh, author of “Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books”

Listen: Author Jess McHugh on what America’s favorite books tell us about who we are.

Dutton Adult
Dutton Adult


Jess McHugh is a writer, researcher and author of “Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books.” She says she wanted to examine the nation’s past and present through its bestselling novels. ”I tried to focus on data … which books sold the most consistently over our history … whether it’s an almanac or cookbook … the books you re-read.” McHugh says the books that impact us the most are the ones that we continue to revisit. “With time, things become more precious to us … the idea of a national bookshelf could perhaps say something about our country.”

With many of the books McHugh explores, she says there is an overarching theme of independence. ”I had always imagined a dictionary to be designed by a committee … but Webster really saw the dictionary and the speller … as a way to form a new American identity that we could rally around. ‘We can make American English different’ … [was his approach].”

Even though these books reflect U.S. ideologies, McHugh says they can also portray a restricted view of American society at the time of their publications. ”Even the Betty Crocker picture cookbook … we often have this understanding of June Cleaver 1950s (womanhood) but in the 1950s you also see female employment growing … so the image of all women being at home isn’t necessarily the case,” she says. 

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Nora Rhein, Detroit Today Intern

Nora Rhein works with the production team on “Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson” on 101.9 WDET. She’s very proud to be a public radio nerd.

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