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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon October 4, 2009
Another very interesting book by Daniel Walker Howe situating American intellectual history in broader context. Walker Howe's theme is the self-realization of identity by a series of important and representative Americans. Walker Howe begins with Jonathan Edwards and concludes with Abraham Lincoln, and includes a variety of figures, some well known, like Thoreau, others less known like Catherine Bushnell. Two crucial themes bind together these disparate figures. One is individual capacity to shape identity as Americans. The second this is 18th century idea of faculty psychology; the idea that the psyche is composed of specific components (faculties), notably the passions and reason, and that successful personhood consists of an appropriate balance of the different faculties. Walker Howe argues well that while the different individuals he discusses stressed different components and had different ideas about what constituted the faculties, the structural view of the faculties and the idea of self-construction runs through about 150 years of American history.

Walker Howe shows how the idea of faculty psychology influenced and reflected important currents in American life. The idea of separation of powers in the period of constitutional formation paralleled the idea of balanced faculties in individuals. The general democratization that occurred in the early 19th century saw the widespread dissemination and diversification of faculty psychology. Individuals from humble backgrounds like Lincoln and Douglass would draw on faculty psychology in their quests of distinctive and self-consciously American identities. Like all of Walker Howe's work, this book is written very well and exhibits Walker Howe's comprehensive knowledge of American history.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2011
Reading Daniel Howe's "The Making of the American Self" is like hearing a unique and genuine voice amidst a crowd of disingenuous and typical voices. Where the crowd often sees history as deterministic and controlled, Howe suggests that history is instead a compilation of free will driven social interactions where men and women mold their own identities.

The book begins by comparing and contrasting Benjamin Franklin with Jonathan Edwards in the earliest part of the American narrative. Benjamin Franklin fashioned himself to fit neatly with his social situations, sometimes with and sometimes without moral constraints. To be thrifty, he starved himself to get the books he used to gain the knowledge that proved useful for his entire life. Later in life, he tried to appear to be an honest and plain Quaker to increase his diplomatic agenda with the French. Essentially, he altered his identity as a means to a utilitarian end. Jonathan Edwards, however, wanted the activity of molding the self to be spiritually provoked. For Edwards, self improvement was deemed a requirement for salvation not just for the person but for the community as well. Although one individual could achieve self enlightenment, salvation was seen as community oriented. In this way, construction of the self was a very selfless act because of the corporate outcome. The selfish versus selfless attributes given to the each man is the main difference Howe presents between Franklin and Edwards. The authors jabs at the notion of a socially constructed character implicitly by presenting these two paths of active self molding.

Despite this difference, similar qualities were both ingredients in Franklin's and Edward's personal development. Both perpetuated the 18th century concepts of facility psychology and balanced of character. Starting with David Hume, the beast that is the natural man was uncontrollably possessed by passions that aided in destructive behavior. These passions needed to be subjected to and controlled by reason. This was not the stoical interpretation of reason and passion which pointed nihilistically at one's fate, but one of moderation. This moderation required balance of character, a Victorian ideal which made each passion the check of the other in hopes that long term self interest would be actualized. Both Edward's and Franklin thought that untamed passion were natural and needed to be cultivated.

The Balanced character was as much political ideal as a psychological one. John Jay, and other Federalist at the onset of America, wanted to hamper the immediate desires of citizens to further long term self interest. For them, this meant investing in the country's institutions. The state was perceived as analogous to personhood which in term needed development for the sake of sustaining core values. If it did not keep unbridled impulses check, the nation might collapse into anarchy of passions.

During the antebellum period, the self improvement zeitgeist became less focused on balancing passions and more focused on the muddling of class and status. Mobility became possible as industrialization broke the Victorian molds of society. The middle class could actually strive for and succeed at earning material gain, since productivity increased several fold. More importantly then any material gain were the increased opportunities for the middle class. Many colleges and universities were founded to educate farmers and merchant's sons and daughters, not just those who were attached to wealth. Evangelicals and other people concerned with the countries welfare such as some sects of the utilitarian church enacted remedies to try and solve problems that plague society.

Self culture was becoming more wide spread; not limited to just the highest class, the idea of a self-made man (and women) became increasingly a populous ideal amongst all classes. The author uses Dorothea Dix, a mental asylum reformer who focused on self rehabilitation to again hint at better voice then the current one, as if to tip his hat at Foucault. Horace Mann pushed for the creation of teacher schools and standard curriculum where by "schoolteachers must learn how to these {appetites} and show the child how to do so for himself (PG 160)."

Howe's book presents a nuanced image of the experience of cultivating the self by selecting a sample of truly unique people but then tries to extrapolate a sociological theme. History is made by folk ingredients not by a few elite whose pawns are the masses. Howe implicitly wants the modern passive interpretation of the self to be reevaluated into a more freely defined but structures the argument around a few elite individuals who drive egalitarian sentiments of the self to the masses. It's clear that even in the increasingly industrial antebellum period, there were people deemed incapable of self improvement. Dix campaigned hard for asylum reformed but the result was more people controlled by asylum hierarchical structure. Mann presented children with a way to check passion but also crystallized how they should mold themselves to sociological standards. Social control is one form of controlled destiny, ideas driven by major actors to subordinates is another. Is folk psychology driven by the masses to enlighten their self interest or regulate them?

In the end, this question remains unclear despite Howe's well thought out position on social theory. Also in the end, this question remains unnecessary to enjoy the well written Pulitzer Prize written book.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2012
I bought this book to prepare for my comprehensive exams. I was very pleased with the content. Daniel Walker Howe presents clear, well-researched, and articulate arguments and interpretations of historical figures. However, I was very disappointed to discover many typos in the text. I ordered the kindle edition. I understand (and expect) typos in a free book that I "buy" from the kindle store, but I didn't expect such poor quality from a book that I actually paid for. I recommend buying the print version instead.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2015
Howe puts it all together. The significance of the religious background and the Enlightenment all contributed to making the American self.
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