cover image American: Beyond Our Grandest Notions

American: Beyond Our Grandest Notions

Christopher Matthews. Free Press, $25 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-4086-4

TV pundit Matthews invokes a kaleidoscope of cultural icons, including Lincoln, Bogart, Hemingway, Oprah and the Don't Tread On Me rattlesnake in this giddy, slapdash, intermittently coherent love letter to""American-ness."" Matthews boils down this broad idea into some basic--and sometimes contradictory--precepts. Americans, he says, are pugnacious but anti-militaristic; they admire gun-slinging loners and heroic men of action, but love the little guy and underdogs; they are optimists with a manifest destiny and an eye for personal reinvention. Matthews's analysis rarely goes beyond hagiographies of celebrities and politicians and ardent appreciations of movies like Casablanca and Rocky (or in a darker--but still light--mood, Taxi Driver, whose psychotic hero is an""oddly comforting figure from our frontier past"" possessed of an""edgy generosity"" and""readiness to give all""). Some claims are suspect: that Americans""reject the dandified haberdashery of war,"" for instance, might come as news to legions of Civil War reenacters. The volume's vaguely populist centrism nods benignly at Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, at pro-gun and pro-choice sentiments, at Vietnam War POW John McCain and Vietnam War draft-dodgers, all of whom partake of our transcendent national essence. His Whitmanesque embrace of contradictions papers over great fissures in American politics and society, but that is precisely the point of Matthews's positive, chest-thumping thesis: it's all good. Photos.