The state of the suburbs

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The suburbs are in the news again. Remember this Tweet:

If you want to get a good sense of what is happening in the suburbs right now and how it influences American politics, check out Zack Stanton’s interview with historian Thomas Sugrue at Politico.

Here is a taste:

The “suburban lifestyle dream” is really different depending on who you are. There’s not one single “suburban lifestyle dream.” For immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador, it’s getting access to the plentiful service-sector jobs available in suburban places. For educated, well-to-do whites, it’s having a charming house in an older, walkable neighborhood with first-rate public schools. For middle-class whites alienated by the growing diversity of society, it’s having a place closer to open fields and farms, with brand-new housing stock and racially homogenous public schools. We have to talk about the diversity of “suburban lifestyle dreams,” and see that there’s not just one. And that’s where I think Trump has really misread the reality of today’s suburbs.

Read the entire interview here.

“The Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby”

Great GatsbyOver at The Baffler, Matt Hanson reviews Greil Marcus’s Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of The Great Gatsby.

Here is a taste:

We’re seeing now, from the ghoulish first family on down, exactly what that kind of confidence is like when mixed with political power. This counts double when money is something the well-born have never had to work for, or have ever been without. It’s pretty unlikely that the current president has read The Great Gatsby, but it’s very easy to connect the novel to the Trump administration’s blatant venality and xenophobia. Maybe one of the most unintentionally prescient examples of misreading that connection came from George Will, who called Trump “a Gatsby for our time” during his inauguration, probably thinking he was being snarky.

Marcus rebuts this by accurately pointing out that Trump was really just Tom Buchanan all along. When we first meet Tom Buchanan, the polo-playing child of privilege, he’s spouting some supremacist, pseudo-intellectual bullshit about how “if we don’t look out the white race will be . . . utterly submerged . . . we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that.” Marcus notes the scene where Gatsby naively remarks that his wealth has now made him one of the in crowd. Tom immediately sneers that he’s still “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere,” which sounds like it could be a Trump tweet. In an effort to shut Gatsby up for good, Tom says, “we were born different. It’s in our blood. There’s nothing you can do, say, steal, or dream up—” which is a very thinly veiled way of grabbing a tiki torch and marching around, shouting that new money will not replace him. What we now call Trumpism has been with us for a long time. Fitzgerald spotted it almost a century ago.

And with the antidemocratic exclusion that Fitzgerald saw, a heavy door is slammed on the American experiment and the “greatness” Americans love to claim. Marcus reminds us what a collective slap in the face Tom’s assertion of hereditary dominance really is to the way America likes to think of itself. The cruelty is felt by those who want to become Americans, many of whom suffer unimaginably in the process, and by those who already are Americans by birth but either can’t or won’t fit this narrow mold. In Tom’s world, as in ours now, you’re either in or you’re out. The very American Dream we’re all told so much about, with its promises of pursuits of happiness, recedes ever farther, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Read the entire review here.

“American Dream” and “America First”

Behold AmericaOver at Smithsonian.com, University of London humanities professor Sara Churchwell talks with Anna Diamond about the history of these two phrases.

Churchwell is the author of the forthcoming Behold America: The Entangled History of “America First” and the “American Dream.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump used the slogan “America First,” which many people traced to Charles Lindbergh in the 1940s. But you trace its origin even further back.

I found the earliest use of the phrase as a Republican slogan in the 1880s, but it didn’t enter the national discussion until 1915, when Woodrow Wilson used it in a speech arguing for neutrality in World War I. That isn’t the same as isolationism, but the phrase got taken up by isolationists.

Wilson was treading a very fine line, where there were genuine and legitimate conflicting interests. He said he thought America would be first, not in the selfish spirit, but first to be in Europe to help whichever side won. Not to take sides, but to be there to promote justice and to help rebuild after the conflict. That was what he was trying to say in 1915.

“America First” was the campaign slogan not only of Wilson in 1916, but also of his Republican opponent. They both ran on an “America First” platform. Harding [a Republican] ran on an “America First” platform in 1920. When [Republican President Calvin] Coolidge ran, one of his slogans was “America First” in 1924. These were presidential slogans, it was really prominent, and it was everywhere in the political conversation.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with Harry Stout

51RRD1lazEL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgHarry Stout is the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, American Aristocrats: A Family, a Fortune, and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2017).

JF:  What led you to write American Aristocrats?

HS:  In 2012 I was awarded a year-long fellowship to the Huntington Library. I was free to pursue any subject that I wanted that was included in their archives. On my first day there I discovered a frontier family named Anderson whose patriarch, Richard Clough Anderson was a Revolutionary War hero and subsequently the Surveyor-General for the Virginia Military District, a vast body of land in present-day Kentucky and Ohio reserved for Virginia military veterans. There are nearly 2,000 letters and papers in collections at the Huntington and elsewhere. I began reading the day of my arrival on Labor Day and did not stop until I left for home Memorial Day. In many ways they were very different from my world but I sensed a strong connection that drew me to them in very powerful ways.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Aristocrats?

HS: While this is a family history, it differs from my family histories in that its focus—and my argument—features land as the central protagonist and anxiety as the interpretive theme that drives the narrative. Anderson family members participated in the greatest middle class land grab in world history and private property surfaced as the magnet that would draw Andersons and countless other millions to American shores in pursuit of an unprecedented American dream.

JF:  Why do we need to read American Aristocrats?

HS: Many Americans correctly see political republicanism as the primary driver of independence and nation-building in American history. But for republicanism to work it also required material abundance and capital leverage to “reward” republican self-government. Many countries today are unable to establish successful republics because they lack the underlying wealth necessary to make the “dream” come true. America’s unrivaled abundance in land, sea, and minerals meant that striving American citizens would be rewarded for their experiment in democracy in unprecedented ways that made the nation compelling attractive and, at the same time, incredibly anxious over gaining and preserving their abundance.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

HS: I had always enjoyed history and in my sophomore year in college determined on a career in history. Like many historians, I was drawn to the profession by the example of compelling professors who modeled a way of life and work that I found compelling.

JF: What is your next project?

HS:  In addition to this book, I also served as General Editor of a Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia that was published within a week of American Aristocrats. Between the two of them I’m quite busy and the “next project” is still in process. One possibility is a work on World War II that features a diary of my late father that I just discovered for the first time last year. It outlines his experiences in the Battle of Okinawa and offers a compelling example of the sacrifices and sufferings that ordinary sailors experienced in that horrific war.

JF: Thanks, Harry!

 

“Corporate Evangelicalism”

Money CultI recently finished reading Chris Lehmann’s The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity,and the Unmaking of the American Dream. I have been a fan of Lehmann’s writing for some time now. A former graduate student in history at the University of Rochester where he studied under the late Christopher Lasch, Lehmann is now the editor of the The Baffler,  a journal of cultural criticism steeped in economic populism of the left-leaning variety.

I have been reading the Baffler for about fifteen years, ever since I taught Thomas Frank‘s book The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism in a senior honors seminar on the history of American consumer culture. (Frank, who many may know for his book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, founded the journal).  I also appreciated Lehmann’s review of my friend Eric Miller’s biography of Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time. So when I learned that Lehmann was writing a book about Christianity and capitalism I rushed to my nearest Barnes & Noble on the night before a vacation to Maine and bought the only copy in the store.

At some point I hope to do an extended review of The Money Cult, but I feel like I need to read it again before that happens.  It is a deeply challenging book.  Lehmann is a public intellectual who has taken the time to steep himself in the historiography of American religious history.  He clearly has an axe to grind against capitalism, and he sometimes fails to take Christianity seriously as a set of beliefs that motivate people to act in the world, but in the end he does a masterful job of showing the links between Christianity, capitalism, and the brand of Gnosticism that often disguises itself as American individualism.

I thought about Lehmann’s book as I read through Part 3 of Timothy Gloege’s series on “corporate evangelicalism” at The Anxious Bench blog.  Some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will recognize Gloege from his book Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism.  (Back in June 2015 Gloege visited The Author’s Corner to discuss it).  Lehmann’s chapter on fundamentalism does not cite Gloege, but it would be much stronger if he had. Much of Gloege’s work, both in Guaranteed Pure and his Anxious Bench series, confirms the idea that American evangelicalism has been deeply shaped by market forces.

Here is a taste of Part 3 of Gloege’s “The Crisis of Corporate Evangelicalism”:

Imagine a world where families operate like corporations. Parents are management, but efficiency and profitably determine all aspects of family life. Children are both assets and employees; gloege-guaranteed-pureresources are allocated according to potential. And if things don’t work out with a troublesome teen or toddler? Well, you can send them packing, no harm, no foul. Children too can move to another family or negotiate with their parents for bedroom upgrades, extended curfews, and increased
allowance.

That disconcerted feeling you have right now? It’s probably similar to what an antebellum Protestant would experience encountering corporate evangelicalism. Never mind whether market-driven families are good or bad, it simply feels unnatural, right? Yet most evangelicals don’t think twice about “church shopping” based on programs, amenities, and “personal fit,” or devoting substantial portions of church budgets to the praise and worship industrial complex, or farming out the development of Vacation Bible School curriculum to an unknown corporation, or discarding a denominational affiliation like last year’s skinny jeans. It’s just what you do.

There is nothing intrinsically natural or unnatural about corporate evangelicalism. Religion is no less immune to business influence than family is to science, or business itself is to family. But such borrowings are not inevitable either. Some stick, others never take. They are, in other words, historically contingent, and as such they beg for an explanation.

Read the rest here.

 

The New "Books and Culture" is Here

I just got my copy in the mail today.  I immediately read the following two reviews:

Eric Miller’s review of Peter Hales’s Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now.  Miller writes:

However [John] Winthrop may hover over Hales’ story, his own vision and hope are most decisively inspired by the classic Emersonian ideals: the spontaneous discovery of an inward connection to a greater reality; a harmonic convergence of self and society; above all, a religious confidence that The Self Knows, and that our true enemy is the enemy of the self.  Will these ideals be enough to save us from the mighty surges of history Hales with such acuity uncovers?  Many of us, still poised at that watchtower, listening to that howling wind, find ourselves looking for rescue from another direction.  Still: Read this book

Todd Ream and Drew Moser’s review of Randall Balmer’s Redeemer; The Life of Jimmy Carter. Ream and Moser write:

Redeemer is a biography of Jimmy Carter that has little to do with Jimmy Carter in critical places. As the story advances, it reads at times more like an account of the rise of the Moral Majority in evangelical America, with Carter cast as an almost accidental antagonist.  The book’s epigraph sketches its narrative and theological arc and its fundamentally ironic perspective: He came unto his own, and his own received him not, John 1:11 (King James Version).”  But Balmer’s irony isn’t calculated to elicit cheap sneers; it grows out of the tangle of American history.  And if his book isn’t entirely satisfying as a biography, he does succeed–in contrast to previous biographers–in rightly portraying Jimmy Carter’s Christianity as the driving force behind his political and personal life

We did an interview with Balmer last week about this book.

I am sure these reviews will appear soon on the B&C website.  Stay tuned.

I should also add that there is an ad on page 18 for the 29th Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History to be held on September 25-27 at Pepperdine University.  Learn more about the conference here.  Though the ad does not provide details, and the conference program has not been released, I can spill some of the beans and let you know that the following historians/authors/friends of this blog will be speaking in various capacities over the course of the weekend: Charles Marsh, Daniel Williams, Lendol Calder, Allen Guelzo, John Wigger, Jim LaGrand, Colleen McDannel, Thomas Albert Howard, Margaret Bendroth, Beth Barton Schweiger, Jay Case, Eric Miller, Chris Gehrz, Jonathan Den Hartog, Timothy Hall, Christopher Shannon, Darren Dochuk, Mark Noll, Molly Worthen, David Bebbington, Shirley Mullen, Jana Riess, Mike Kugler, Randall Stephens, Ed Blum, Randall Balmer, Jonathan Yeager, Bill Trollinger, Tracy McKenzie, Brad Gundlach, Warren Throckmorton, Paul Contino, John Wilson, Don Yerxa, and Wilfred McClay.

See you in Malibu.

The St. Louis Hegelians

Forget about Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. Well before the University of Wisconsin history professor suggested that the key to American identity was the settlement of the frontier, a group of Georg Hegel disciples were arguing that history had a direction, and it was all pointing to St. Louis.

Here is a taste of Kerry Howley’s article at The Daily:

In 1856, a Prussian immigrant named Henry Conrad Brokmeyer retreated deep into the Missouri woods with a gun, a dog and a copy of “Science of Logic,” a philosophical text by Georg Hegel. Alone with Hegel’s thoughts over the next two years, Brokmeyer became convinced that this abstruse work by a German 25 years dead could save the nation from the very divisions about to lead it into civil war. It didn’t, of course, and Missouri, a border state, would not escape a gruesome guerrilla war. But a decade later, Brokmeyer and a friend named William Torrey Harris convinced the elite of St. Louis that Hegel’s work was central to the recovery of their country, their city and their own lives. The Civil War, Brokmeyer said, was part of a dialectical process. In what turned out to be one of the oddest episodes in the history of American thought, a group of men known as the St. Louis Hegelians declared that the direction of history led to eastern Missouri.

Brokmeyer sold a warped Hegelianism just flattering enough to believe: History had a direction. That direction was west, from Europe to the United States. History would unfold in the direction of a world-historical city, culminating in a flowering of freedom under a rational state. While Hegel had assumed Europe to be the place to which all of history pointed — when he said “west,” he meant from Asia to Europe — Brokmeyer said history would keep on rolling across the Atlantic, toward the biggest American city west of the Mississippi: St. Louis.  

Read the rest here.

The Lonely Crowd Turns 60



In October 1950 David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney published The Lonely Crowd, a sociological analysis of the “American character.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education has a short piece, authored by Rupert Wilkinson, on the significance of this landmark work in sociology and American studies.  Here is a taste:

The book spoke to middle-class concerns about conformity and softness in the new, standardized suburbs of postwar America. For all its moralistic rigidities, the inner-directed type looked more individualistic, hence more attractive to many Americans, though Riesman insisted that in other-direction he did not depict more conformity but rather a change in “modes of conformity”—the way people were induced to conform…

…It was the first book to stress a change in modern society from a culture of production and scarcity to one of consumption as a social act—from making things to relating to people, from “the hardness of the material,” as the authors put it, to the softer touch of consumer-focused sales and services. In politics Riesman coined one of his many engaging labels, the “inside-dopester,” to describe a person drawn to political life as a consumer, eager to be in the know rather than to make policy. (At the time of writing the book, Riesman and Glazer were much concerned about voter “apathy,” which they connected to a passive, consumer view of politics.)

Read Wilkinson’s full and insightful analysis here.

The Levittown of the Jersey Shore

I am blogging today from an ocean front cottage at the Jersey shore town of Ocean Beach. It is a bit cloudy and windy, but the temperature is in the 60s and the roar of the Atlantic is keeping me company.

I am guessing that most of my readers–even those who grew up vacationing at the Jersey shore–have never heard of Ocean Beach. It is a small beach community on the Barnegat Peninsula near Lavallette. (Lavallette is between Point Pleasant and Seaside Heights). My family has been coming here for half a century and I try to continue the tradition by spending a few days here each October during the college’s fall break.

Ocean Beach was founded in the 1950s by two developers who wanted to provide affordable beach houses for working-class families. Many of the earlier purchasers were World War II veterans who wanted their piece of the American Dream. They could buy a cottage at Ocean Beach for about $2000. When the Garden State Parkway was completed in 1955 sales took off. Ocean Beach is a stark contrast, for example, to the Barnegat peninsula mansions of Bay Head (a favorite spot for the Princeton crowd) and Mantoloking (where I believe Elizabeth Taylor used to own a house, but I could be wrong).

If you strike up a conversation with a homeowner or renter here you will find that everyone has a story about this place. Everyone takes pride in connecting themselves–either through relatives or friends–to the post-war development of the community. I have always thought about writing a history of Ocean Beach. The opportunities for oral history are phenomenal.

If I ever did write that book, I would describe Ocean Beach as the Levittown of the Jersey shore. The houses were affordable, they were built on the same basic plan, they continue to be extremely close to one another, and they offered a post-war generation the opportunity to have a house at the beach.

OK–enough blogging. The sun is starting to come out!