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The Coast of Utopia—A Book Review by Jedediah Purdy ’01

The following book review was published in The New York Times on February 22, 2009.

The Coast of Utopia
By Jedediah Purdy ’01

BEYOND THE REVOLUTION
A History of American Thought From Paine to Pragmatism
By William H. Goetzmann

William H. Goetzmann believes America at its best embodies what he calls “cosmotopian ideals”: the United States is a global civilization where all human ideas and experiences mingle. Cosmotopia is the polestar of his strange and valuable book. “Beyond the Revolution” is scornful of regionalists, traditionalists and anyone else who would restrict the scope of American identity. It is richly populated with radicals and utopians who, with one eye on the innermost soul and the other on world history, created a tradition of open-ended experiment.

Like many books about what the country is and should be, “Beyond the Revolution” opens with a take on 1776. Tom Paine and his fellow pamphleteers are Goetzmann’s taproots. For Paine and other radicals, the colonial rebellion along the Atlantic seaboard was a flash point in a global struggle to replace tyranny and superstition with clearsighted freedom. Goetzmann, a professor emeritus of American history at the University of Texas, sees the same cosmopolitan vision in eclectic colonial polemics that drew on classical authors, English history and common law, and philosophers like Locke and Montesquieu, all to condemn British rule.

Goetzmann plays down the Revolution’s more local origins, the strand of anti­monarchical English Protestant nationalism rooted in the bloody war between king and Parliament in the 1640s. The Americans’ rhetoric came from that tradition. So did their militant anti-Catholicism and obsession with the rights of Englishmen. The rebellious colonists fought to preserve their special status in the British Empire, above Catholic Quebecers who in 1774 won the right to live under their French-derived law; Indians whose lands the king forbade them to settle after 1763; and slaves, whom English courts began to set free in 1772. This was a narrow, exclusive vision of freedom. The colonists also turned against the visionary Paine, who died mad, drunk, poor and scorned.

But Goetzmann’s side of the story is real as well, and he shows how it blossomed in the 19th century. Much of the book consists of capsule histories of cultural movements and individual innovators. Goetzmann shows how much American culture in the first decades of independence owed to Scottish “common sense” philosophy, which held that the world was easy to understand, both practically and morally, if only one looked at it clearly. Common sense reconciled the cacophonous churn of American life with the human need to make the world intelligible, basically by asserting that there was no problem between the two.

But of course there was. America was a frontier society of huge social mobility, endless religious schism and revival, a level of political democracy that was new in the world, and a bewildering shotgun marriage between radical ideas of freedom and the brutal practice of slavery. For individuals, it squarely presented the modern question: who to be. For the country it did the same.

Goetzmann portrays a series of answers that he thinks had to fail. Take Transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau and the extraordinary Margaret Fuller, who mastered German philosophy, edited the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, fought alongside Italian revolutionaries and drowned holding hands with her husband as their boat sank in a storm off Long Island. The Transcendentalists contended for radical individualism, but they held that in being true to one’s self, one also drew on universal truths animating the universe. They believed not just that the world was intelligible, but that it needed to be understood to become complete, and that in human understanding, the mind and world entered a harmonious consummation. Their path to that harmony was epiphany, the crystalline gift of a moment’s emotional clarity or perfect attention to a thing or place, like Walden Pond, in which the universe stood suddenly revealed.

Others, notably Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, denied that there was harmony to find, in the self or the world. They evoked obsession, madness and incipient chaos, all bending toward self-destruction. Goetzmann thinks that compared with the Transcendentalists, these dark-siders got it right. A journey into the black tunnel of the self would not lead to the bright light of universal insight.

He is harder on other approaches to American identity, especially the Southern cult of cavalier honor, which trapped elites and poor whites alike in a caricature of manhood: violent, passionate and haughtily indifferent to effeminate concerns like self-preservation and prudence. Manifest Destiny, the triumphant racist push across the continent, comes in for rough treatment too, though Goetzmann points out that even here Americans under­stood themselves as standard-bearers of universal freedom. He admires more marginal figures who carried on the legacy of Paine. Utopian experiments dotted 19th-century America. Some indigenous, some imported from Europe, they pressed the limits of equality, sexual freedom and self-expression, cutting tracks for the cultural superhighways of the 20th century.

The most charismatic of Goetzmann’s ­heroes are black intellectuals like Frederick Douglass, who could not be fully at home in the United States and allied themselves with international networks of abolitionists, feminists and labor spokesmen. They were deeply American in one respect — Douglass was a powerful interpreter of the Constitution — but also cosmopolitan radicals, who believed the American project could succeed only by perfecting universal principles of liberty. They, like Goetzmann, found the American seeds of their democratic cosmopolitanism in the radicalism of the Declaration and the founding generation.

In a brief, strongly written summation, Goetzmann turns to Lincoln and the pragmatists — William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Peirce and finally John Dewey. Lincoln forged from the Civil War an idea of America as a nation of universal principles: personal rights and political democracy. The pragmatists denied that there could be any final answer to individual or national identity, concentrating instead on an open-ended process of discovery, invention and revision. Cosmopolitanism and a spirit of experiment returned, enriched by a century’s travail.

Goetzmann proposes to unify his book with a theory of civilization as a dispersed information-processing system, in which every mind plays a part and intellectuals are the integrating circuits. Perhaps prudently, he does not develop the idea. Rather, it is a metaphoric clue to Goetzmann’s intellectual temper. He is basically a Hegelian, who believes that national (and world) history has an intellectual logic distributed among its disparate parts, whose unity one can see in hindsight. While not a fashionable perspective, this has distinct merits, among them that it satisfies the human appetite for an intelligible story. His book, rich in strange detail and vivid speculation, aspires to universal history. It is a fox dreaming of hedgehogs. So is the America it describes.

Indeed, this is an apt book for the opening of the Obama administration. The Declaration of Independence is Obama’s touchstone, as it was Lincoln’s, because it anchors the country to a cosmopolitan vision of openness and equality. It has never been clearer that the country’s best self is a global inheritance, its worst a parochial self-certainty. A book of 19th-century ideas that portrays America as one part Google, one part melting pot and one part utopian dream may just have found its moment at the inauguration, eight years late, of the 21st century.

Jedediah Purdy, who teaches law at Duke and Yale, is the author, most recently, of “A Tolerable Anarchy.”