Five Classic Books To Get Woke By

Jeremy McCarter's lesson plan for the resistance


As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s co-author on last year’s bestselling Hamilton: The Revolution, Jeremy McCarter is well versed in the political DNA of the United States. In his new book, Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals, out this week from Random House ($30), he focuses on five American activists from the early twentieth century. It all makes McCarter something of an authority on which books might be taking on a newfound urgency in 2017. “Everything happening right now seems immense and unprecedented, but we’ve had moments like this in our past,” McCarter says, explaining why his five picks all hark to the past. They’re also all by Americans: “We’re the ones causing the mess these days — we should turn to our own authors to get out of it.”

Democratic Vistas, by Walt Whitman (1871)

“It is the most visionary American text about this country and its possibilities. Whitman had just lived through the Civil War, and understood that democracy had the power to draw people together [and] that the interplay between individualism and group action was going to propel America into the future. When I think today about the America that progressives are fighting for, the vision that comes to mind is Whitman’s.”

Jailed for Freedom, by Doris Stevens (1920)

“This is an insider account of Alice Paul and her militant suffrage campaign. Doris Stevens watched as Paul mobilized women to defy convention, risk everything including their lives, and ultimately prevail in enfranchising American women. It’s a story I think we take for granted, because so many civil rights battles have happened since. But the struggle they waged tells us something about what [the cost is] when — this will sound familiar — the country’s going insane.”

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (1961)

“Partly for the morale boost of it being the funniest book ever written, but also on the principle of ‘know thine enemy.’ The book is set in World War II, but it’s about modern society. It’s about trying to stay alive when the authority figures are crazy egomaniacs who are either indifferent or hostile to your survival. Which also sounds familiar these days. It’s a how-to book on staying sane in a world going mad.”

Song in a Weary Throat, by Pauli Murray (1987)

“To me, Pauli Murray led the most extraordinary American life of the twentieth century. She was a black women from North Carolina who had to fight through racial and gender oppression. She was a brilliant lawyer who helped defend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But she was also a poet and an Episcopal priest. And although she didn’t have a term for it, she [would probably have] identified as transgender. I love her autobiography because it helps us understand how we need to enfold lots of different kinds of people in movements for progress.”

The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, by Ganesh Sitaraman (2017)

“Vanderbilt professor Ganesh Sitaraman’s book is extraordinary, [though it’s one] people might not have heard of. I first heard about it because Sitaraman talks about the nineteen-teens, the era of Young Radicals. It was an era of huge, audacious dreams. Today, a lot of fights happen around the margins; they’re often about incremental changes instead of structural reforms. Sitaraman shows how dangerous that is to the republic Hamilton and the other Founders designed. There’s going to be a day after the crisis we’re in, and understanding what we need to build and how we’re going to build it is just as important as staying sane.”