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The historian Jon Meacham has written the following about the American identity: “Americans would rather the world thought of us as Jimmy Stewarts, when there’s a strong strain of Humphrey Bogart in our national character.” Is American identity one of wide-eyed idealism in the exceptional little city on a hill, as apparent in the iconic figure of Jimmy Stewart? Or does the optimism mask a deeper and more troubling truth of the American identity, as exemplified in the brooding and cynical Humphrey Bogart?
“The American Identity” is an ambitious and sprawling 48-part set of portraits of Americans. For any lover of biography, this course is an exhilarating experience, due to the selection of the lives and the detail provided by the lecturer. As indicated by the speaker, the goal was not to select the fifty greatest Americans, but rather to capture the enormous diversity of American lives. As a whole, the course is like a history of the American experience as seen through the lens of biography.
Professor Patrick N. Allitt is the congenial lecturer, and the scholarship is superb. The speaker works carefully with primary sources, and the lectures are filled with quotes from the people being profiled, as well as their contemporaries. There is one priceless citation from Mark Twain about the polygamous Brigham Young, whom the sly Twain wryly applauds for taking pity on sixty “ungainly and pathetically homely creatures” who became Young’s wives. For Twain, that was “a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nation should stand uncovered in his presence, and worship in silence.” For that quote, this Great Course was worth the price of admission!
Professor Allitt’s presentations were impressive both in the crafting of the lectures and in his speaking skills.Read more ›
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