There is a sense of size and grandeur that has always been central to the American mind – a land filled with an epic sense of vastness in both its physical (“From sea to shining sea”) as well as its mental (“All men are created equal”) identity. Part of the reason why people disagree upon a definitive American novel (my Huckleberry Finn could be your Moby Dick, or vice-versa, or both, or neither) or film (The Birth of a Citizen Gonewiththewindfather, anyone?) is because America is too large to fit into a 500-page book or 2-hour film.
Yet there is an inherently American identity that defies the vastness it thrives upon. I’ve been thinking a lot about this paradox as I’ve been mapping the terrain of my own personal epic adventure, setting up my iPhone. The fact that I’ve had it for well over half a year is irrelevant because what more is America than grand improvisation?
My goal, with equal parts love and obsession, is to strip America down to its bare essence and within the confines of a 14 GB iPhone, such that, the next time I ever get stranded on a desert island (with an outlet), I can keep the essence of America on my phone, and thus, keep it with me at all times. (And, of course, still have room for unrelated non-American things like my Beatles albums and the complete works of Shakespeare.)
I call my grand project iMerica.
What follows is a list of the core documents of my country-within-a-country, the essence of a City upon a Hill in 14 GBs or less.
The Historical Documents Ap, from StandardWorks. Covering over four centuries of American speeches, articles, court rulings, war papers, poems, and song lyrics, this ap will get you a basic all-in-one American desk reference; included are the founding documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Articles of Confederation), as well as every presidential inaugural speech (including Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, one of the finest speeches ever given), and all of the other usual suspects (MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and the Emancipation Proclamation, Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech and a complete copy of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”), as well as such light reading as the Mayflower Compact and the Federalist Papers. All this, and Nixon’s “Checkers” speech too!
I can’t afford a Barnes & Noble Nook (TM) (the “TM” stands for “Too Much”), so I just downloaded the free Nook (TM) ap and some cheap B&N editions of some classic literature and turned my iPhone into a Great American Bookshelf. Minus the sexy Barnes & Noble Nook (TM) cover case, of course.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. It’s said that if you were lucky enough to own books in the early 19th Century, you owned two: One was the Bible and the other was this. A pioneering autobiography/self-help/history/memoir that defined the American character almost as soon as it appeared. So charming, fascinating, and inspiring, no one ever seems to notice that it ends years before the American Revolution even begins. (Or perhaps, like the Great Experiment that frames it, it remains unfinished.)
Essays and Poems, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Declaration of Independence of American intellectualism, and one of the finest philosophers the country would ever produce. Ever wonder what people did before they could watch movies with sophisticated story-telling or television shows with ensemble casts and overlapping story archs? Just open to one of Emerson’s essays and try to keep up. In its own way, it’s as thrilling as any Martin Scorsese movie or Law & Order episode you’ve ever seen.
Walden and Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau. A nineteenth-century Into the Wild, this is the writing of a man who escaped his country by the very tenets it was established upon – reinvention and independence – to break life down to its essence and redefine it for himself. Walden was the sprawling epic, while “Civil Disobedience” was the concise essay, two halves of a whole that reiterated one of the chief rallying cries of the Revolution: Don’t Tread on Me.
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. An extended meditation on the depths of American obsession, as played out in a high-seas epic, and interspersed with the history of the whaling industry, c. 1850, for no apparent reason. Great God, where is the ship?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. A white boy and a black man go drifting down the Big Muddy on a raft, and the rest is history. (Or, perhaps, culture.)
The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. A history of the Guilded Age disguised as a children’s fantasy book; with all due respect to Ms. Garland & Co., this was the original book that was better than the movie.
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. Epic, brilliant, weird, and self-indulgent, Whitman stakes a claim for the American voice – a modern, unpredictable thing that can’t be held down by rhyme schemes, narratives, or anything more than a hip-yet-calculated whim.
The Collected Poems, by Emily Dickinson. Written in seclusion by a woman who spent most of her adult life self-exiled in her bedroom, she produced short, concise poetry that is among the finest ever penned; exploring love, loss, life, and death, her work was as universal as her existence was solitary.
The Essential Tales and Poems, by Edgar Allen Poe. A stunning look at the dark side of American life, which went on to influence everything from southern gothic writing to film noir and gangsta rap – all while inventing the detective novel.
The Complete Hot Fives and Sevens, Louis Armstrong. If jazz music is America’s answer to classical, Louis Armstrong is its Mozart. As the first important soloist, Armstrong and his bandmates worked out not just how jazz should sound, but also how it should feel; the result is a joyful and exuberant music, knocked off in loose, late-night recording sessions that redefined freedom in music and music in freedom.
Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band, Duke Ellington. As the first great jazz composer, Duke Ellington was the ying to Louis Armstrong’s yang – his music was all about form and structure and organization. This incarnation of his band (named after bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster) is generally considered the finest big band ever assembled, and with cuts like “Take the A Train,” it’s easy to hear why.
Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday. A two-disc overview of Billie Holiday’s peak years at Columbia, where she literally reinvented how a vocalist could sound (not to mention what a vocalist could feel and be), twisting words and skirting the beat with a gardenia in her hair and a tear in her voice.
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Frank Sinatra. The cream of Frank Sinatra’s legendary collaborations with arranger Nelson Riddle, this is the Chairman of the Board at his mature, mid-’50s peak. Don’t believe the Sinatra hype? Just put on “You Make Me Feel So Young” and try not to swoon.
Legendary Country Singers, Hank Williams. The closest thing we’ve got to a single-disc retrospective of the king of modern country music; it’s hard to narrow it down to an hour when virtually every song he recorded was a classic. Consider this an overview, with nowhere to go but up.
King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson. So much has been written about Robert Johnson it has become impossible to separate the myth from the man. Did Johnson really sell his soul to the devil in return for a sudden proficiency in blues music? Maybe not, but it sure as hell sounds like he did…
Elvis at Sun, Elvis Presley. Elvis “invents” rock and roll music on “That’s All Right Mama” and nine other sides, amongst the finest in rock and roll. The remaining nine tracks are the surviving masters (and one alternate take) of his output at Sun; what it lacks in quantity is made up for its brilliance, influence, and vitality – this is music you literally can’t get tired of. Have you heard the news?
Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan. Beginning with the storming “Like a Rolling Stone” and closing with the epic “Desolation Row,” this is Bob Dylan’s finest hour, and he doesn’t miss a beat. He sings of lovers, trains, confusion, and friends in music that blurs the lines between rock and blues, country and folk, past and present, comedy and tragedy, life and death. When he sings of needing a dump truck to unload his head partway through the album, you take his word for it.
Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen. On the Road remade into a hipster’s daydream with Elvis’s bravado, Dylan’s imagery, and Phil Spector’s production values, this was music that staked its claim to greatness through the act of mapping it out, music that tried very hard, and somehow still delivered on its own golden promise.
At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash. I once decided that if America had a voice, it would sound like Johnny Cash. This is his finest hour, singing songs of love, home, prison, and death to a crowd that meets his fuel and fury every step of the way.
Live at the Apollo, James Brown. Rhythm and blues as redemption as the Godfather of Soul begs, borrows, and screams his way through another night on the uptown chitlin’ circuit.
I Never Loved a Man The Way I Loved You, Aretha Franklin. With the title track, the Queen of Soul took the fervor of the church and brought it into the bedroom; with the landmark “Respect,” she then brought it out into the streets.
Citizen Kane.* The greatest film ever made. It’s everything they say it is and more, benchmark in filmmaking and production, and also a fascinating production that has barely aged since it was made. It succeeds where so many other films have failed because it understands that in America, success and failure exist back-to-back to each other, as opposed to on two separate planes.
[* – Citizen Kane will be on sale digitally for the first time on September 16; I am literally counting down the days until this occurs and being careful to leave ample room in my iPhone for when it does.]
King Kong. The greatest movie ever made. All big and spectacle, this paved the way for the great American tradition of the blockbuster – the granddaddy to Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Titanic and Avatar, and better than all of those movies without any of the Technicolor and not a single computer graphic in sight.
The Dick Van Dyke Show, “That’s My Boy?” Until the “Sammy’s Visit” episode of All in the Family comes out digitally – the most perfect half-hour of television comedy if I’ve ever seen it – this will have to do. The finest of all the early family comedies, probably because it was also just as effective as an early workplace comedy, this episode is included here for its trailblazing surprise ending that unwittingly defuses two hundred years of racial strife in one glorious moment of comedy.
The KJV Bible Ap, from Tecarta Bible. Okay, so this predates America, but you could’ve fooled me – from the moment America deemed itself a City upon a Hill, it used the Bible as its chief reference and touchstone, the passion play against which its national drama could unfold. Any lip service about separating church and state failed centuries ago to such an extent that we don’t notice how much religion is in our national rhetoric not because it isn’t there, but because we are long since numb to the fact that it is everywhere.
Alright, so that’s roughly four pages of American documents that can provide a basic skeleton for your own little iMerica. From there you can add to it what you wish; like the country it encapsulates, this is an improvisation powered by freedom and reinvention.
I know I for one am gonna be on the continual hunt for when or if iTunes ever releases “Steamboat Willie.”