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The American Jeremiad (Studies in American Thought and Culture) Paperback – April 19, 2012
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“Sacvan Bercovitch is a giant in American Studies. This book was his first classic work—and others followed. He stands alongside Perry Miller and F. O. Matthiessen as indispensable figures in our understanding of American civilization.”—Cornel West, Princeton University
“A deeply learned, revolutionary break with the dominant consensus models from Perry Miller through F. O. Matthiessen, The American Jeremiad rediscovered the prophetic core of American literature and culture, and it demonstrated how fully our national identity has been forged from conflicted narratives of self-examination and redemption. The author’s brilliant and searching new preface brings this classic work boldly into the twenty-first century.”—Eric J. Sundquist, Johns Hopkins University
“For more than three decades, Sacvan Bercovitch's work has both charted the most promising path and posed the most profound challenge to the academic project of radical political critique of U.S. literature and culture. So long as ‘change we can believe in’ amounts, by definition, to ‘forms of renewal that confirm the basic tenets of the system,’ as Bercovitch deftly puts it in his new preface to this classic study, The American Jeremiad will remain new and necessary.”—Evan Carton, University of Texas at Austin
“With Perry Miller—perhaps his only company—Sacvan Bercovitch stands above everyone else as America’s cultural and intellectual historian, and this new edition of The American Jeremiad, with its powerfully updated preface, is a striking reminder of that enduring fact.”—Frank Lentricchia, Duke University
“A truly seminal book. . . . the most illuminating study of the root paradigm of American culture yet written.”—Victor Turner, University of Virginia
“The American Jeremiad is by far the finest work in American studies of a generation. The scale and ambition of its agenda—its daring attempt to see the ideology of America whole—is one we have since shied away from, but this new edition, with Bercovitch’s incisive, brilliant, and eloquent new preface, will certainly provoke and may well inspire still another generation.”—Christopher Looby, University of California at Los Angeles
“This welcome new edition of The American Jeremiad makes available a major classic of American literary and cultural criticism. In his hard-hitting new preface, Bercovitch usefully reformulates and updates the book’s cogent critique of how opposition in America has a way of becoming a celebration of America.”—Gerald Graff, former president of the Modern Language Association
“A dazzling performance. It supplies conceptual links between phenomena where historians have often sensed a connection without being able to describe it adequately, between the Great Awakening and the Revolution, between Edwards and Emerson, between the Puritan vision of a city on a hill and the ‘manifest destiny’ of American expansion . . . [Bercovitch] has written intellectual history at the highest level.”—Edmund S. Morgan, New York Review of Books
About the Author
Sacvan Bercovitch is the Powell M. Cabot Research Professor of American Literature at Harvard University. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is a former president of the American Studies Association and the general editor of the eight-volume Cambridge History of American Literature.
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Bercovitch reports that he "had been raised by radicals who retained an egalitarian utopian dream after having lost faith in Communism" (page xxii). He "entered the United States from Canada in the mid-1960s" (page xvii). Earlier in his life, he "lost faith in the practicality of utopia after several years on a communitarian Israeli kibbutz" (page xxii). His "immigrant response [to the United States] was amazement at the power of rhetoric" in the 1960s and 1970s (page xviii).
He subsequently studied the New England Puritan jeremiad that is structured around the polarity, on the one hand, of denouncing Americans and contemporary American culture for failing to measure up to the utopian promise of the New World, but, on the other hand, of affirming the utopian promise of the New World. To this day, the American jeremiad follows a kind of manic-depressive structure.
"To become an American," Bercovitch explains, "is indeed to adopt a nationality; you commit yourself to the belief system of the United States. But as an `American,' your national identity promises private renewal. It opens the prospect of finally being yourself, choosing who you would be, discovering your unique path to self-fulfillment, and, as part of the process of self-fulfillment, adjoining your particular cultural past to a patchwork quilt, America, carrying as tribute (as it were) your particular cultural treasures to `the country of tomorrow'" page xl).
In principle, as an American, you are to cultivate your unique individualism to be part of a nation of individuals. So the "union ideal," the "perfect union," according to Emerson, is "in actual individualism, actual union" (page xxii). So Americans are going to have to be rather idealistic, to say the least.
Basically, the American jeremiad is structured around a rhetoric of promise. But the promise of the rhetorical "America" is mythic and utopian, an idealization. So the other part around which the American jeremiad is structured is denunciation of contemporary Americans and America (the real world) for failing to measure up to the promise of "America" (the idealized world). In the 1960s, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was probably the most skilled orator in the tradition of the American jeremiad.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator Barack Obama repeatedly demonstrated his skill in composing American jeremiads. Not that it was hard for him to find something to denounce. But he also excelled in reminding us of our American ideals. In short, Bercovitch's study of the tradition of the American jeremiad establishes the larger American cultural context for understanding certain features of Obama's campaign rhetoric - features he will most likely repeat in the 2012 presidential campaign.
Of course President Obama does not have a monopoly on using features of the American jeremiad. It is entirely possible that his Republican opponent will be able to use some of the same features to structure critiques of American culture during President Obama's years in office.
In short, the American jeremiad is virtually tailor-made for use in American political campaigns, especially when a challenger is running against an incumbent. So the Republican challenger in 2012 could denounce the American economy and blame its shortcomings on President Obama. The Republican challenger could also hold out the promise of a brighter economy emerging under his leadership. In this way, the American jeremiad seems to be part of the American way of life in political campaigns - and also at other times regarding political issues.