That American Life: An Overstuffed Intellectual History Explores the National Ambivalence Towards Freedom

Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism
By William H. Goetzmann
Basic, 399 pages, $35

In 1851, in the forests of Long Island, Josiah Warren and Stephen Pearl Andrews founded a community dedicated to individualism and free love. They named it Modern Times and it flowered, for a period, attracting an array of converts to match the broader, motley population of the new republic. But in 1857, Modern Times collapsed, mirroring the fate of other utopian ventures of the period, including the partner-swapping Oneidans of upstate New York and the ecstatic, celibate Shakers of Harmony, Ind.

It’s easy, now, to laugh at the folly of the utopian impulse, but in Beyond the Revolution, intellectual historian William Goetzmann reminds us that the most brazen utopian ambition of them all had nothing to do with sex or rapture, but was rather founded in the radical provisions of “we the people” and those “certain inalienable rights.” And in 1851, he argues convincingly, there was good reason to believe that the United States would not survive the century.

The full title of Mr. Goetzmann’s book, Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought From Paine to Pragmatism, is something of a stretch. In reality, he covers the founding through the Civil War and then rushes through the final 40 years in the last 10 pages. The book proceeds largely by an accumulation of facts and might have been a better read in places if Mr. Goetzmann, who taught at Yale for 50 years and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for Exploration and Empire, had chosen to omit more of them.

 

KNOWING WHAT TO INCLUDE and what to leave out has always been a particularly American dilemma, and Beyond the Revolution focuses on the efforts of early intellectuals and artists, politicians and activists, to make sense of so much freedom. Mr. Goetzmann writes that the agreement at the founding was that each citizen be free to “select whatever lifestyle he chose from the world’s supply of options.” In the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman called America “a teeming nation of nations,” a cosmopolitan utopia where citizens could cull from all the world’s traditions, and weave together their own proprietary model of the Good Life.

That was the idea at least. But just as jealousy and disease complicate free love, America found itself shackled to slavery, and hampered by the reality that people, when given limitless opportunity to choose, do not always choose well. The country grew rapidly between 1790 and 1850, expanding from 13 states to 31, and from four million people to more than 23. It didn’t take long for the flush of the revolution to fade, and young America quickly found itself short on the social institutions and sources of authority required to order its multiplying citizens.

In 1841 Nathaniel Hawthorne surveyed bustling, acquisitive Boston and concluded that all this freedom had gone for naught. He decamped to Brook Farm, an agrarian commune in West Roxbury, but found no fulfillment there, either. “It is my opinion,” he wrote, “that a man’s soul may be buried and perish under a dung-heap, or in a furrow of the field, just as well as under a pile of money.” Of the voices that emerge from Beyond the Revolution, only Whitman maintained an unalloyed faith in the country. He wrote, in 1855, “Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature.” Few others, contemplating the country at mid-century, would have agreed with him.

 

IT’S CONVENTIONAL TO SPIN American history as a story of unfolding freedom, a quest to perfect our founding ideals, but Beyond the Revolution introduces something of a countervailing narrative. The country was as free and limitless as it would ever want to be right after the founding, Mr. Goetzmann contends, and the task since then has been to find a workable frame to harness that freedom. Hawthorne’s restless discontent is taken as much as Whitman’s rhapsodic soul to represent the true American character. Writing about the Civil War, Mr. Goetzmann argues that it presented an opportunity in which “the confusions and indifferences of the struggling republic could be laid to rest and America’s boundless parameters could once again be rendered clearly visible.”

There were few things America’s charter citizens agreed on, but one was that the government should be agnostic about what makes the good life. That neutrality left the field open for utopian projects like Brook Farm and Modern Times, and makes room today for everything from mega-churches to television ads that hawk deodorant as a lifestyle. In fact, Beyond the Revolution argues, the entire frenzy of American enterprise from the founding to the present can be understood as an effort to invent, peddle, connive or discern, a model for how to choose and what to value in country where anything is possible.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer living in Philadelphia. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

That American Life:  An Overstuffed Intellectual History Explores the National Ambivalence Towards Freedom