Yet for all of Franklin’s single-minded focus on modeling
and extolling habits of success, he was far from a straightforward apostle of
striving Americanism. He was both a notorious libertine during his tenure as
American ambassador to France and an arch critic of the emerging tendency of
wealth to concentrate at the top of the social hierarchies of the New World.
When he presided over Pennsylvania’s constitutional convention in 1790, he
endorsed a failed resolution declaring that such accumulation “is dangerous to
the Rights, and destructive to the common Happiness, of Mankind”—and that each
state should therefore be empowered “by its Laws to discourage the Possession
of such Property.” Despite this, McHugh seems determined to turn Franklin
himself into a proto-Webster, quoting English professor Carla Mulford’s
judgment that “Franklin’s figure was used to obscure difference beneath a myth
of national unity.” 

It’s not that this estimation is wrong, per se—rather, it’s
that it explains everything and nothing. Yes, national myth-making tends to
obliterate difference in most historical settings—but tensions within such
myths produce significant changes over time. In the Jacksonian era, for
instance, McGuffey’s Readersare engaged in high-Protestant
myth-making, once more “demonstrating who is part of the ‘us’ and who is part of
the ‘them,’” while David Reuben’s sex manual published a century and half later
likewise “served as a violent standardizing tool, much like many of the other
books in this collection, penned by an author obsessed with ridding the country
of difference.”

Clearly, though, David Reuben and William McGuffey aren’t
devoted to exactly the same process of cultural homogenization for its own
sake. And this is ultimately why Americanon, for all of its
energetically reported detail, ultimately adds up to considerably less than its
bestselling, culture-making parts. What’s more, if this disparate body of
advice manuals were in fact issuing the same rousing call to arms to the same
core white, imperial Protestant, that would be a striking demographic
continuity, running counter to all sorts of other national trends, that would
call for a far-ranging explanation of its own. Instead, the larger design of Americanon
produces a singular flattening effect, in which one fabricated cultural myth is
piled atop another, with no apparent resolution or egress on offer.


Indeed, the book concludes with a bizarre extended
appreciation of the most storied recent self-help franchise on the American
scene, the business advice empire erected around Steven Covey’s monster 1989
bestseller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Although Covey’s
tract pays no more attention to the harms of racism and sexism than the other
works McHugh examines, she finds its controlling agenda tempered by a
soft-focus emphasis on “principles,” “proactivity,” and “interdependence.” Such
qualities, she asserts, are in short supply in similar works of success
literature, introducing a critical element of vulnerability into the usual
morale-raising, virtue-forming proceedings: “In interdependence,” she writes, “there
was a recognition of individual limitations, even fallibility, in a way that
rarely happens in this type of literature.”