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Almost Chosen People

Almost Chosen People: Oblique Biographies in the American Grain

Michael Zuckerman
Copyright Date: 1993
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  • Book Info
    Almost Chosen People
    Book Description:

    Few historians are bold enough to go after America's sacred cows in their very own pastures. But Michael Zuckerman is no ordinary historian, and this collection of his essays is no ordinary book. In his effort to remake the meaning of the American tradition, Zuckerman takes the entire sweep of American history for his province. The essays in this collection, including two never before published and a new autobiographical introduction, range from early New England settlements to the hallowed corridors of modern Washington. Among his subjects are Puritans and Southern gentry, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Spock, P. T. Barnum and Ronald Reagan. Collecting scammers and scoundrels, racists and rebels, as well as the purest genius, he writes to capture the unadorned American character. Recognized for his energy, eloquence, and iconoclasm, Zuckerman is known for provoking—and sometimes almost seducing—historians into rethinking their most cherished assumptions about the American past. Now his many fans, and readers of every persuasion, can newly appreciate the distinctive talents of one of America's most powerful social critics.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-90928-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    Maybe it was bound to turn out as it did. Maybe I only fasten on Frances as an emblem. Maybe I still see the world more than I would wish through my mother's eyes.

    Certainly my mother did her gentle best to shield me from Frances. The woman affronted every aspiration by which my mother lived and wished the rest of her brood to live—every aspiration but one. My mother cherished family as much as she treasured respectability and refinement. And Frances was as much my father’s sister as Aunt Elsie and Aunt Fritzi were.

    My mother was a...

  4. ONE The Fabrication of Identity in Early America
    (pp. 21-54)

    In the study of the American character there have been two primary positions. One has emphasized the ascendancy of individualism, with its values of self-interest and self-reliance. The other has stressed the sway of the community, with its corollaries of sociability, conformism, and endemic insecurity of self. Exponents of each have been indisposed to take seriously the claims of the other, and advocates of the only significant alternative have taken them both too seriously by setting those static characterizations in historical sequence.

    Consider, for instance, the recent historiography of the New England town. Almost every examination of the subject that...

  5. TWO The Social Context of Democracy in Massachusetts
    (pp. 55-76)

    For more than a generation now, scholars have debated the extent of democracy in the old New England town. The debate began, of course, with Robert E. Brown, and it did not begin badly: Brown’s work was a breath of fresh air in a stale discussion, substituting statistics for cynicism and adding figures to filiopietism. But what began decently degenerated, and findings that should have provoked larger questions only produced quibbles and counterquibbles over methodology and quantification. The discussion has not been entirely futile—few would now maintain the old claim that the franchise was very closely confined in provincial...

  6. THREE Pilgrims in the Wilderness: Community, Modernity, and the Maypole at Merry Mount
    (pp. 77-96)

    On the face of it, the tale of the Maypole at Merry Mount seems almost too trivial to take seriously. In all Plymouth Colony, where it begins, there were only about two hundred people at the time. At Thomas Morton’s trading post there were seven. Morton eventually left Massachusetts without leaving a lasting trace, and Plymouth never amounted to much either. A generation later it still had but a thousand inhabitants, scuffling for a living on a stubborn shore. A generation after that, it faded from formal political existence altogether, in the imperial embrace of Massachusetts Bay.

    On the face...

  7. FOUR The Family Life of William Byrd
    (pp. 97-144)

    William Byrd was not a callous man, nor an impassive one. He was certainly not crazy. Yet, in the spring of 1710, as his little boy lay dying, he displayed an indifference that is baffling if not bizarre.

    For more than three weeks, while his son’s fate hung in perilous suspension, Byrd scarcely troubled to try to turn the course of the fatal fever. He hardly bothered to treat the child himself, though he diagnosed and dosed friends and veritable strangers on half a dozen occasions during the same days. He did not call in another local medical expert for...

  8. FIVE The Selling of the Self: From Franklin to Barnum
    (pp. 145-174)

    Each of them straddled his century like a colossus. Each was born near its beginning— one in 1706, the other in 1801—and each lived almost to its end—one to 1790, the other to 1891. Each of them began in obscurity, each had half a century of celebrity, and each died acclaimed as the representative American of his age.

    Benjamin Franklin was the embodiment of the Enlightenment. David Hume pronounced him “the first philosopher and indeed the first great man of letters for whom we are beholden to America.” The Parisians lionized him while he lived among them and...

  9. SIX The Power of Blackness: Thomas Jefferson and the Revolution in St. Domingue
    (pp. 175-218)

    Victorious rebels rarely maintain their revolutionary fervor after they secure their own ascendancy. So the Americans were hardly remarkable in their departure, after the Peace of Paris, from the principles for which they had battled the British.

    From the northern frontier of New England to the southern seaport of Charleston, newly ensconced officials of the states and of the nation crushed uprisings premised on the political ideals of’76. Aspirations to liberty were subordinated to demands for order, local inclinations were overmastered by central imperatives, and legitimate suspicion of power gave way to an insistence upon its prerogatives. Emergent elites proceeded...

  10. SEVEN The Nursery Tales or Horatio Alger
    (pp. 219-238)

    D. H. Lawrence taught us long ago how to approach American literature. “Never trust the artist,” he warned. “Trust the tale.”¹

    But Lawrence never extended his edict or his analysis to our popular culture, and subsequent students of the subject have often been at such pains to be condescending that they could not be bothered comprehending. Accordingly, we have hardly conceived that the very pressures of propriety that made our major writers such darlings of duplicity must have been even more intense for authors with still broader audiences. We have been inclined to discount all possibility of depth and disingenuousness...

  11. EIGHT Faith, Hope, Not Much Charity: The Optimistic Epistemology of Lewis Mumford
    (pp. 239-259)

    The myth of Mumford is that the polymath of power faltered in his last large books. According to this conventional commentary, his prose grew self-indulgent and overheated, his exposition polemical and undersubstantiated. His best arguments were already ingredient in his own earlier work, and now they were tainted by a sour pessimism he had held at bay before:The City in Historyis, on this orthodox account, a darker endeavor thanThe Culture of Cities,andThe Myth of the Machine a bleaker,more bilious one thanTechnics and Civilization.¹

    Some of the reviews were savage. “There is little here...

  12. NINE DR. Spock: The Confidence Man
    (pp. 260-287)

    In one sense, there is nothing unusual at ail in the modern American obsession with child-rearing. Americans have been ill at case about the younger generation, and preoccupied with it, for centuries.

    But in another sense there is something odd indeed about this extravagant anxiety. Few parents anywhere have ever put themselves as hugely and hopefully in the hands of child-care counselors as American parents of the aspiring classes have in the twentieth century. And few parents anywhere have ever had so hard a time raising their children.

    These difficulties imply the plausibility of an exploration of the very advice...

  13. TEN Ronald Reagan, Charles Beard, and the Constitution: The Uses of Enchantment
    (pp. 288-315)

    When the lurid headlines that heralded Gary Hart’sliaisons dangereuseswith Donna Rice first appeared, the excitement that they stirred was hard to fathom. When the pictures of the young woman went from furtive telephotos to provocative pinups on the front pages of the tabloids, the significance of that stir was still not easy to see. For several days, debate turned primarily on a simple question: Did he or didn’t he? And even if he did, it was difficult to believe that the American public would care in any consequential way.

    In a country in which the divorce rate had...