A Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies Ahead

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In this penetrating volume, Zachary Karabell examines the continuous thread that runs through the tapestry of the American experience -- the belief that we can create a perfect society -- and envisions what the next great era will be. Just as the Puritan vision of a city on a hill was supplanted by the Founding Fathers' vision of individuality, just as the expansive vision of a government-led Great Society was eclipsed by the New Economy of the 1990s, so too is the New Economy being replaced by what Karabell contends will be a period when community and spirituality occupy center stage.

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By writing A Visionary Nation, Zachary Karabell has moved from the modestly narrow to the breathtakingly broad. His previous book, The Last Campaign, focused on the 1948 presidential election; this new one offers a grand, unified theory of all American history. Karabell proposes that the United States has experienced five complete historical cycles, all of them linked by varying forms of utopian dreaming. "Running through the currents of our history is a presumption that it is possible to have it all. And not just that a few people can have it all, but that all of us can have it all." The current manifestation of this pattern--the sixth cycle--is the New Economy of technological transformation, and it won't last forever. It will pass away like all the other cycles before it, from the Puritan vision for a City on a Hill (the first cycle) to the New Deal and Great Society eras of government activism in the 20th century (the fifth cycle). "Heady images of a perfect future quickly turn to dark pictures of a society going down the drain," writes Karabell. "A new stage forms, and the pattern begins again."

This is, to say the least, an ambitious thesis--and yet Karabell is a good enough writer to make it worthwhile for history buffs intrigued by his notion, even if they are not ready to endorse it. (In many ways, A Visionary Nation is a competent history of what America thinks of itself.) The book takes an interesting turn toward speculation when Karabell proposes his own vision for what the inevitably forthcoming seventh cycle will hold: "The utopian vision of connectedness will dream of a society in which people focus on their own emotional growth with the same fervor, sophistication, and intensity that they now focus on enhancing the New Economy." In fundamental ways, the spirituality and communitarianism Karabell foresees in the seventh stage will be a direct response to the materialism he sees in the sixth one. If this all sounds zany, don't bother with A Visionary Nation. But readers attracted to this idea--plus fans of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s The Cycles of American History and William Strauss and Neil Howe's Generations--ought to find it fascinating. --John Miller

About the Author:

Zachary Karabell is the author of The Last Campaign: How Truman Won the 1948 Election. He received his Ph.D. in American history from Harvard University and has taught at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Dartmouth College. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and on salon.com. He lives in New York City.

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