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

Karabell, Zachary

Published by Harper, 2001
ISBN 10: 0380978571 / ISBN 13: 9780380978571
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America is a nation based on an idea. For nearly four centuries, Americans have shared the conviction that a perfect world is within reach. Running through our history is the presumption that we can have it all.

In A Visionary Nation, Zachary Karabell shows how this utopian impulse forms a continuous thread in the tapestry of the American experience and represents who we really are. In this penetrating volume, he brings the core of American history to life by examining its successive stages, each promising utopia and none delivering it. Karabell reveals that during every stage, there have been men and women who strove to transform the world. These are the visionaries who have defined American culture. Part history, part essay, part prediction, this profoundly original work tells the stories of visionaries past and present, from Anne Hutchinson to FDR, Alexander Hamilton to Bill Gates. It shows that if our history has proven one thing, it is that no era lasts forever. In striving for the ideal, we have achieved much, but never have realized our dreams of spiritual fulfillment and material prosperity. And so we are chronically plagued by disappointment that we have not achieved everything.

Along with this distinctive view of American history, Karabell offers his own vision of where our nation is heading. Just as the Puritan vision of a City on a Hill was supplanted by the Founding Fathers' vision of individuality, and just as the expansive vision of a government-led Great Society was eclipsed by the New Economy in the 1990s, so too will the New Economy be replaced in our near future by a period when community and spirituality will occupy center stage. Provocative, intelligent, and deeply engaging, A Visionary Nation provides a framework for understanding America's past while preparing us for the next phase of the nation's growth.

Review: 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

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Title: A Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of ...
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: 2001
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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