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Since we discovered that, in Tocqueville's words, "the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy the heart", how have we Americans made do? In this book one of the nation's premier literary scholars searchers out the symbols and stories by which Americans have reached for something beyond worldly desire. a spiritual history ranging from the first English settlements to the present day, the book is also a learned meditation on hope. Andrew Delbanco tells of the stringent god of protestant Christianity, who exerted immense force over language, institutions and customs of the culture for nearly 200 years. He describes the falling away of this god and the rise of the idea of a sacred nation-state. And, finally, he speaks of our own moment, when symbols of nationalism are decline, leaving us with nothing to satisfy the longing for transcendence one sustained by God and nation. From the Christian story that expressed the earliest puritan yearnings to the new age spirituality, apocalyptic environmentalism and multicultural search for ancestral roots that divert our own, this work evokes the tidal rhythm of American history. It shows how Americans have organized their days and ordered their lives - an ultimately created a culture - to make sense of the pain, desire, pleasure, and fear that are the stuff of human experience. In a time of cultural crisis, when the old seem to be faltering, this book offers a lesson in the painstaking of the American dream.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780674003835
ISBN-10: 0674003837
Format: Paperback
(190mm x 130mm x 8mm)
Pages: 160
Imprint: Harvard University Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Publish Date: 1-Sep-2000
Country of Publication: United States

Other Editions


US Kirkus Review » Reflections on American conceptions of happiness and hope - and of how they have grown weak. Originating in the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard, this slim volume has the characteristics of the civilization about which its author reflects: it is large with desire and disheveled in its pursuit. Delbanco, a professor in humanities at Columbia (The Death of Satan, 1995; Required Reading, 1997), writes of the function of hope in creating the Christian and national narratives of American life. And, without adequately developing the juxtaposition, he insightfully contrasts the sustaining force of hope with the melancholy that comes with its absence. He does so through a quotation-filled review of much of American history - citing everyone from John Winthrop to today's pundits. While he tries to distinguish himself from the Jeremiahs of right and left, in the end he lands about where they stand: deeply troubled by our inability to imagine a common destiny and to reattach our lives to a sense of moral progress. Confidence in such progress, he insists in his most striking assertion, nourished the pursuits of our greatest forebears, from the Puritans through Lincoln into figures of this century. But now such hopes are weak because our narrative and symbolic life, previously sustained by belief, first in God, then in nation, has become so impoverished. To have hope in ourselves alone is to have lost "the real American dream," which was to share in some public responsibility, whether it was founding the kingdom of God on earth, preserving the Union, creating true equality, or pursuing more modest programs of reform, succor, and help. Unfortunately, the book possesses the attributes of the lectures from which it originated: it can only suggest and not demonstrate. Ranging learnedly and widely, this is less a work of scholarship, on which it is deeply based, than a personal testament to the melancholy to which learning has led its author. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Author Biography - Andrew Delbanco

Andrew Delbanco is the Mendelson Family Chair of American Studies and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University.

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