Hello, Martians. Let Moby-Dick Explain

Judging America by its literature.
  1. Last night the Martians touched down in the backyard. They were oval and bright pink, with two antlike antennae topped by eyes fringed with sea-anemone lashes. They said they’d come to study America.

    “Why ask me?” I said. “America is farther south.”

    “You are an observer,” they said. “Please tell us: Does America have a different ‘flavor’ from that of other countries? Is it the center of the cultural world? How does it look to outsiders?”

    “America has always been different from Europe,” I said, “having begun as a utopian religious community. Some have seen it as a dream world where you can be what you choose, others as a mirage that lures, exploits and disappoints. Some see it as a land of spiritual potential, others as a place of crass and vulgar materialism. Some see it as a mecca for creative entrepreneurs, others as a corporate oligarchy where the big eat the small and inventions helpful to the world are stifled. Some see it as the home of freedom of expression, others as a land of timorous conformity and mob-opinion rule.”

    “Thank you,” said the Martians, after looking up “thank you” on translate.google.com™. “How may we best discover the essence of America?”

    “Through its literature, would be my choice,” I said, “but I’m biased.”

    “O.K.,” said the Martians. “What should we read first? Can we have marshmallows?”

    “Let’s start with two stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne,” I said. “‘The Maypole of Merry Mount,’ and ‘Young Goodman Brown.’ Here are your marshmallows.”

    Their p...