I ran a piece in last week’s New York Observer reviewing William Goetzmann’s intellectual history, Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism. A dry title, I know, and somewhat dry inside the cover, too. Goetzmann is near the end of a long academic career and the book felt a little like cleaning out the closet. Still, I found it an interesting read. There’s a novel synthesis running through all the facts and anecdotes, one that I think is particularly useful in our time:
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.