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From Paine to Pragmatism to Obama

At the New York Times Book Review, it is apparently a slow week:  no book castigating neocons, George W. Bush, or Israel is reviewed.

But Jedediah Purdy’s review of William H. Goetzmann’s “Beyond the Revolution:  A History of American Thought From Paine to Pragmatism” comes close to meeting the standard.  The book — according to its book jacket — “tells the story of America’s greatest thinkers and creators, from Paine and Jefferson to Melville and William James, showing how they built upon and battled one another’s ideas in the critical years between 1776 and 1900.”

Purdy’s review concludes it 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.

Purdy scores a Times reviewer trifecta:  he manages to (1) include Obama and Lincoln in the same sentence; (2) associate Obama with the country’s “best-self” and “global inheritance” (not its “parochial self-certainty”); and (3) treat the 21st century as starting in 2009, with Obama’s inauguration — all in a review of a book on 18th and 19th century intellectual history.  Nice work.



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