I was going to do a “culture wars” history that would go back to the election of 1800 and forward to the Reagan era, and I noticed that people kept returning to these TOUCHSTONE DOCUMENTS, quoting them in the way that preachers and Christians quote from the Bible. I’ve always been fascinated by the rabbinic tradition in Judaism, that to be a Jew is to argue about what it is to be a Jew. It seemed the same — to be an American is to argue about WHAT IT IS TO BE AN AMERICAN.
I think of this book as the most political of my books. It’s about texts like “I Have a Dream,” the Gettysburg Address, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. It does seem to me they constitute a kind of canon the same way Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Epistles are part of the canon of the New Testament.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic example. There are people who say Huck Finn is the most racist book, and people who say it’s the most anti-racist book in American history. How is that? Moby-Dick is a better novel than at least two of the three novels I included, but I don’t think it generates the kind of conversation that Uncle Tom’s Cabin or AYN RAND’S ATLAS SHRUGGEDhas.
We have visual culture now in the way we didn’t in Lincoln’s day. Orators really were the celebrities, the movie stars of their day. That said, THE INTERNET IS STILL WORDS. I think words still matter a lot. I mean, “Yes We Can” is a powerful formula. It’s hard to imagine the election of Obama without those three words. We continue to fight about Roe v. Wade, gay marriage, and tax policy, and we do that with words.
— As told to James Sullivan.Interview has been edited and condensed.