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American Dreamers
Cover of American Dreamers
American Dreamers
How the Left Changed a Nation
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ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: NEWSWEEK/THE DAILY BEAST, THE NEW REPUBLIC, THE PROGRESSIVE
The definitive history of the reformers, radicals, and idealists who fought for a different America, from the abolitionists to Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky.

While the history of the left is a long story of idealism and determination, it has also been a story of movements that failed to gain support from mainstream America. In American Dreamers, Michael Kazin—one of the most respected historians of the American left working today—tells a new history of the movements that, while not fully succeeding on their own terms, nonetheless made lasting contributions to American society. Among these culture shaping events are the fight for equal opportunity for women, racial minorities, and homosexuals; the celebration of sexual pleasure; the inclusion of multiculturalism in the media and school curricula; and the creation of books and films with altruistic and anti-authoritarian messages. Deeply informed, judicious and impassioned, and superbly written, this is an essential book for our times and for anyone seeking to understand our political history and the people who made it.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: NEWSWEEK/THE DAILY BEAST, THE NEW REPUBLIC, THE PROGRESSIVE
The definitive history of the reformers, radicals, and idealists who fought for a different America, from the abolitionists to Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky.

While the history of the left is a long story of idealism and determination, it has also been a story of movements that failed to gain support from mainstream America. In American Dreamers, Michael Kazin—one of the most respected historians of the American left working today—tells a new history of the movements that, while not fully succeeding on their own terms, nonetheless made lasting contributions to American society. Among these culture shaping events are the fight for equal opportunity for women, racial minorities, and homosexuals; the celebration of sexual pleasure; the inclusion of multiculturalism in the media and school curricula; and the creation of books and films with altruistic and anti-authoritarian messages. Deeply informed, judicious and impassioned, and superbly written, this is an essential book for our times and for anyone seeking to understand our political history and the people who made it.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book Excerpted from the Introduction
     
     
    What Difference Did It Make?
     

     
    The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
    —Marx and Engels
     
    You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than one to which you wake up every morning.
    —Richard Rorty
     
    In dreams begin responsibility.
    —William Butler Yeats
     

     
    This book was inspired by Dr. Seuss. Around the time the Supreme Court helped elect George W. Bush in 2000, I took refuge from political despair by thinking about the books my mother had read to me in the 1950s, several of which I also read to my children forty years later. Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel and who had neither an M.D. nor a PhD, got his start in the cartoon business illustrating ads for an insecticide company, but he soon turned his talent to political purposes. Although he never seems to have joined a left organization, Seuss was a man of the Popular Front, that broad left vessel anchored by the Communist Party. For two years in the early 1940s, he was a regular cartoonist for the left-wing New York City daily PM, contributing hundreds of drawings that skewered such figures as Charles Lindbergh for warming up to Hitler and flagrant racists like Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia.
     
    After the war, Seuss began to produce children’s books that used witty rhymes and fluid, fanciful drawings to convey the best principles and some of the fondest aspirations of the left. He kept this up until his death in 1989. The books, which have sold millions of copies, include The Sneetches, a brief for racial equality; Yertle the Turtle, a satire of fascist tyranny; The Lorax, a plea to save nature from corporate greed; The Butter Battle Book, a fable in support of nuclear disarmament; and Horton Hears a Who!, a parable about the need to act against genocide. His most famous book, The Cat in the Hat, while less overtly political, introduced a sublimely destructive feline who did his bit to inspire the counterculture of the 1960s.
     
    Seuss made great children’s literature out of the essential critique and vision of the left. He married the ideal of social equality to the principle of personal freedom. As the journalist E. J. Kahn Jr. put it: “In his books, might never makes right, the meek inherit the earth, and pride frequently goeth before a fall, usually a pratfall.” Seuss crafted “messages” with more wit, hipness, and color than any movement activist I have ever known. But he rarely took part in protests or campaigns, and few of his readers appreciated that he was illustrating a coherent and quite political worldview.3
     
    Seuss’s work was an underappreciated accomplishment in the long, if often difficult, history of the American left. Radicals in the U.S. have seldom mounted a serious challenge to those who held power in either the government or the economy. But they have done far better at helping to transform the moral culture, the “common sense” of society—how Americans understand what is just and what is unjust in the conduct of public affairs. And that is no small thing. “The most enduring aspects of a social movement,” writes the historian J. F. C. Harrison, “are not always its institutions but the mental attitudes which inspire it and which are in turn generated by it.”
     
    ...
About the Author-
  • Michael Kazin is professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the author of five books about American history including America Divided, The Populist Persuasion, and Barons of Labor. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, and The American Prospect, among other publications. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and twice from the Fulbright Scholar Program, he lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 28, 2011
    Feminists, labor militants, civil rights stalwarts, and socialists have captured America’s heart—though rarely its votes—according to this perceptive history of the radical left. Kazin (The Populist Persuasion), editor of Dissent magazine, surveys visionaries, organizers, and rabble-rousers, including abolitionists and free-love communards of the 1830s, Gilded Age utopian novelists and temperance crusaders, feisty Wobblies and avant-garde bohemians, patriotic Popular Front Communists and ’60s firebrands. From this tumult of movements and personalities—everyone from John Brown to Naomi Klein, Dr. Seuss to Noam Chomsky—Kazin discerns continuities: radicals, he contends, succeed by influencing liberals rather than winning power, and by championing individual freedom and self-fulfillment; they fail when they attack religion and nationalism, advocate economic leveling, or advance sectarian purity and Marxist dogmas. Kazin’s argument that the socialist economic program was always "stillborn" while the Left’s cultural project—social equality, identity politics, artistic freedom, sexual liberation, and antiauthoritarianism—has triumphed is not new, and it lends the book a tone more of eulogy than of celebration; still this is a lively and lucid synthesis of a vital political tradition. Photos.

  • Kirkus

    June 1, 2011

    A spirited defense of the positive role played by left-wing radicals in shaping American society.

    Beginning with an analysis of the anti-slavery movement of the 1820s, Kazin (History/Georgetown Univ.; A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, 2006, etc.) suggests that the effectiveness of radical social protests should not be judged by their failure to achieve significant political power but by their ability to catalyze mass movements that affect mainstream politics. The author writes that reformers in the centers of power depend upon the existence of a radical movement from below. In his view, the actions of "radical social gospelers" such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Luther King Jr. far outweighed the influence of socialists and communists. Kazin describes the International Workers of the World, founded in 1905, as "an organizer of beautiful losers." Their agitation for "One Big Union" that would include all working people and "run the economy for the benefit of all" inspired broad-based popular support but no lasting victories, at least in contrast to the more narrowly defined trade-union objectives of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, formed during the same period. Both, however, played a part in laying the groundwork for the emergence of the CIO in the 1930s, as well as other significant movements in the following decades.

    A coherent, wide-ranging analysis of a century of political and social activism in America.

    (COPYRIGHT (2011) KIRKUS REVIEWS/NIELSEN BUSINESS MEDIA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

  • Booklist

    July 1, 2011
    The most enduring impact of the radical Left can be found not as much in American politics as in American culture, Kazin says. He traces leftist reform in movements from abolitionism to feminism, the labor movement, and socialism, looking at issues from racial and sexual equality to sexual pleasure outside of marriage as he documents the Left's influence on the American sense of altruism. He begins by examining the abolitionist movement and its effect on the later civil rights movement. Later, he focuses on labor issues and socialism, communism and the anti-Communist movement, and how the Old Left morphed into the New Left. Profiling major figures, he recounts the socialist sensibilities of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Horace Greeley. He makes no claim that this is a comprehensive examination of the Left in the U.S. but affords a fascinating inspection of the convergence of ideals of individual freedom and communal responsibilityideals often in conflict in American politicsand how that convergence has influenced American politics and culture for generations.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2011, American Library Association.)

  • Jim Newton, Los Angeles Times

    "Lively and illuminating . . . Kazin's book [is] a pleasure, but it is also a work of honest rigor. Kazin understands the limitations of the left, its self-destructive divisions, its difficulty in establishing an American presence within an international movement . . . It is, to say the least, timely."

  • Jacob Heilbrunn, The Washington Monthly "Compendious and erudite . . . Kazin's is no rosy account of the continual march of progress; rather, it is a careful and nuanced view of the saga of the American left . . . For the political junkie as well as those simply curious about the saga of the left, his book is helpfully crammed with numerous informative portraits of famous as well as more neglected figures."
  • Kirkus Reviews "A spirited defense of the positive role played by left-wing radicals in shaping American society. . . . A coherent, wide-ranging analysis of a century of political and social activism in America."
  • Publishers Weekly "[A] perceptive history of the radical left . . . a lively and lucid synthesis of a vital political tradition."
  • Eric Alterman, author of Why We're Liberals "With American Dreamers, Michael Kazin assumes his place in the tradition of Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger, and Christopher Lasch as an invaluable interpreter of the American past as it applies to its present. This book is a tour de force of solid scholarship, stolid good sense, and remarkably precise and fluid prose. Simultaneously sympathetic and critical, it will be a pleasure for anyone interested in the left to read and a necessary challenge for its partisans to ponder."
  • Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties

    "Michael Kazin has distilled years of his deeply informed thinking into a eminently readable book full of astute judgments, bringing generations of radicals and reformers out of the shadows, restoring them to the honored place they deserve in the history of an America that serves 'the better angels of our nature.'"
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