- 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 (12 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,226,774 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 23, 2011
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“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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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.
Yet emancipation did nothing to bring about racial equality. Here Kazin develops another theme persistent in the history of the American left: the role of racism played in fragmenting their political efforts. Nowhere was this more evident than in the burgeoning labor movement in the nineteenth century. With the concentration of wealth becoming a pressing issue in post-Civil War America, workers sought to band together to demand more equitable treatment. Yet despite the efforts of a few activists, workers usually remained divided along racial and ethnic lines, frustrating attempts at unity. Racism also plagued the formation of a successful socialist movement in the late 19th century, with organizers forced to bow to racist attitudes in their efforts to win over working-class Americans to their cause. Kazin's examination of socialism in America is one of the strengths of the book, as he identifies three different, yet concurrent, socialist movements that existed in the country at the turn of the century: that of Midwestern workers and farmers, that of secular Jewish immigrants from Europe, and that of a "modernist left" of the bohemian communities of major cities in the Northeast and Midwest. In the end, though, none of these succeeded in creating a viable political movement, and collapsed amid the "Red Scare" at the end of World War I.
The political left reemerged in the 1930s amid the economic collapse of the Great Depression. Socialism had been replaced by Marxism, with a Communist Party trading obedience to the Soviet Union for financial support. With the widespread suffering of the 1930s, thousands flocked to the Communists searching for a better way, and while the party remained small, Kazin notes the disproportionate cultural influence they exerted through this period in a variety of arenas and credits them with reintroducing the issue of racial equality into the political scene. Though the Communist Party ultimately failed to establish itself more broadly, the issue of equal rights for African Americans survived the party's collapse, taking hold as a key issue of the New Left that emerged in the 1950s. Kazin details the massive shift the New Left effected in the attitudes of most Americans towards women and minorities, yet the triumph of equality overshadowed a failure to establish an enduring radical movement in the country, a failure which impeded prospects for further change as the 20th century came to an end.
Kazin's book is an insightful study of the history of American radicals and their impact upon the nation. In an age of historical specialization, his effort to provide an encompassing overview provides a useful account of how the left evolved over the course of American history, particularly in response to the larger social and economic forces shaping the nation's development. Some may quibble with particular aspects of his analysis, but the overall narrative he provides is insightful and convincing. With its accessible prose and helpful bibliography at the end, this is a superb book that should be read by anyone seeking to better understand the often derided or overlooked role the left has played in shaping America into the country in which we live today.