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American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 23, 2011

3.5 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Lively and illuminating . . . Kazin’s book [is] a pleasure, but it is also a work of honest rigor. Kazin understands the limitations of the left, its self-destructive divisions, its difficulty in establishing an American presence within an international movement . . . It is, to say the least, timely.”
—Jim Newton, Los Angeles Times
“Compendious and erudite . . . Kazin’s is no rosy account of the continual march of progress; rather, it is a careful and nuanced view of the saga of the American left . . . For the political junkie as well as those simply curious about the saga of the left, his book is helpfully crammed with numerous informative portraits of famous as well as more neglected figures.” —Jacob Heilbrunn, The Washington Monthly
“A spirited defense of the positive role played by left-wing radicals in shaping American society. . . .  A coherent, wide-ranging analysis of a century of political and social activism in America.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[A] perceptive history of the radical left . . .  a lively and lucid synthesis of a vital political tradition.” —Publishers Weekly
“Young progressives owe themselves the pleasure of reading American Dreamers to understand the tradition in which they’re engaged and how the historical successes and failures of the American Left shape the choices they face now. Kazin has shown through the years that asking questions relevant to current struggles does not distort history. On the contrary, in the hands of a relentlessly honest historian, this approach sheds new light on the past and unearths truths that eluded others. Kazin will be read many years from now as one the most productive, graceful, provocative and intelligent historians of our era, and American Dreams is his masterwork.”
 —E. J. Dionne, author of Why Americans Hate Politics and Souled Out
“Michael Kazin writes about politics at its most romantic and reckless, with a rare empathy for history’s protagonists, great and humble. American Dreamers will stir those who share the left’s dreams and fascinate those who do not.”
—Christopher Caldwell, senior editor, The Weekly Standard
“Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers could not be more timely.  At a moment when “the left” is a term of glib dismissal, Kazin resurrects a vital American radical tradition—everyone from Frederick Douglass and Emma Goldman to Betty Friedan and Doctor Seuss. With deft biographical portraits and telling historical detail, he shows how abolitionists, feminists, socialists, and even anarchists challenged Americans to embrace a larger life. Inspiring and engaging but also judiciously critical, American Dreamers reminds us that visions of utopia—whatever their flaws—remain an essential resource for creating a more humane society.”
—Jackson Lears, Board of Governors Professor of History, Rutgers University
“With American Dreamers, Michael Kazin assumes his place in the tradition of Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger, and Christopher Lasch as an invaluable interpreter of the American past as it applies to its present. This book is a tour de force of solid scholarship, stolid good sense, and remarkably precise and fluid prose. Simultaneously sympathetic and critical, it will be a pleasure for anyone interested in the left to read and a necessary challenge for its partisans to ponder.”
—Eric Alterman, author of Why We’re Liberals
“Michael Kazin has distilled years of his deeply informed thinking into a eminently readable book full of astute judgments, bringing generations of radicals and reformers out of the shadows, restoring them to the honored place they deserve in the history of an America that serves ‘the better angels of our nature.’”
—Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties

About the Author

Michael Kazin is professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, The Populist Persuasion, and Barons of Labor and coauthor of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. He is coeditor of Dissent, a frequent contributor to numerous publications, including The New York Times, and The Nation, and the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and twice from the Fulbright Scholar Program. He lives outside Washington, D.C.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (August 23, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307266281
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307266286
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #853,128 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By MarkK VINE VOICE on August 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Contrary to the hysterical rhetoric of conservatives, the United States is unique among Western nations in the absence of a true, viable, left-wing political movement. Unlike in the nations of Europe, radical and socialist parties have never succeeded in establishing more than a temporary foothold in American politics. Yet as Michael Kazin notes, their failure to establish an enduring political presence stands in stark contrast to their success in shaping the moral culture of American society. This contrast forms the core of his new, book, a survey of the American left from the early 19th century to the present day. In it, he chronicles both the battles lost by the left in American politics and the broader wars they won to change the values and attitudes of the nation over the past two centuries.

Kazin begins in the 1820s with the emergence of the first social movements dedicated to the moral transformation of the country. These groups pioneered the basic approach that would be followed by their successors: charters establishing their goals, the use of street protests to demonstrate their commitment, and the exploitation of media to broadcast their message. Though such groups pursued a range of goals, Kazin focuses on those which campaigned for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women. These movements challenged not just the legal shackles binding these groups but the prejudices underlying them as well. While the campaign for women's rights stalled, the cause of abolitionism grew in popularity with the outbreak of the Civil War, turning "anti-slavery firebrands into respectable figures." (pg. 49) Motivated by the moral arguments of abolitionists, Northern politicians turned the Civil War into a war for freedom, eventually bringing about the emancipation of the slaves.
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I liked this book a great deal. It is an easy read (meaning it is not filled with academic jargon), but it also has copious notes at the end if you would like to investigate further topics that Kazin writes about. This is an especially important book for those who fancy themselves socialists, anarchists, or Marxists of any flavor, for it shows how radicals in the past had an important impact on this country, even if the "revolution of the proletariat" never happened. He starts out by covering the abolitionist movement, which started in the 1820s. Then, he moves on to the years shortly before and after the Civil War. After that, he delves into the Populist movement, which resulted in the reforms of the so-called Progressive Era. Before dealing with the present day, he sheds light on the influence of the Communist Party U.S.A. and the New Left. I liked the book because it clearly shows that the hard work of those who claim the tag "Leftist" does result in change, however slowly. It also shows that Americans, who worship at the altar of individualism, will not tolerate radical change and will go to great lengths to crush such movements. I mentioned this book on several radical blogs that I frequent and it was dismissed as a useless book. I'm sure that Michael Kazin would understand. If you are an activist for social justice and are down in the dumps and questioning the worth of what you do, read this book - it will show you that your work does, indeed, have an impact. You might even be cheered up by reading the book, because it situates social justice movements in the larger history of this country.
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The author has undertaken a massive topic - the American left since the days of the abolitionists until the 21st century. Mostly he succeeded in what he planned to do, which was to show that even when the careers of leftist activists seemed to have ended in failure, the movements which they advocated often succeeded in the end. I thought that his handling of the subject of the American Communist Party was particularly good, and important for people who know nothing about the subject, or know only what they heard in the 1950's. I was disappointed not to find a few of my favorite names included in the book - e.g. Joan Baez - but other important activists are very well represented. I think people who know nothing about this subject, AND people who think they know all there is to know, should read this book.
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In starting, Kazin discusses the conflict between freedom of the individual and the power of the state to control the individual. Over time, in the United States, concern for individual freedom has been paramount, subject however, to gradual moves to government involvement as the result, in part at least, by strenuous efforts of the left. It is Kazin's opinion that the left will never be dominant. He then proceeds to an overview of those efforts and the resultant successes and limitations starting with abolitionists in the early 19th century and contining to 2011. What seemed like hopeless tasks did, after all, produce some fruit. I chose the title "fair and balanced" because Kazin does admit shortcomings and failures of leftist efforts. Kazin hopes the book prompts heated discussion. I doubt if it will. I recommend American Dreamers for anyone who wants to get a taste of left wing efforts in the US over the past two centuries.
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