How the Left Changed a Nation
Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307266286, 352pp.
Publication Date: August 23, 2011
A panoramic yet intimate history of the American left—of the reformers, radicals, and idealists who have fought for a more just and humane society, from the abolitionists to Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky—that gives us a revelatory new way of looking at two centuries of American politics and culture.
Michael Kazin—one of the most respected historians of the American left working today—takes us from abolitionism and early feminism to the labor struggles of the industrial age, through the emergence of anarchists, socialists, and communists, right up to the New Left in the 1960s and ’70s. While the history of the left is a long story of idealism and determination, it has also been, in the traditional view, a story of movements that failed to gain support from mainstream America. In American Dreamers, Kazin tells a new history: one in which many of these movements, although they did not fully succeed on their own terms, nonetheless made lasting contributions to American society that led to equal opportunity for women, racial minorities, and homosexuals; the celebration of sexual pleasure; multiculturalism in the media and the schools; and the popularity of books and films with altruistic and antiauthoritarian messages.
Deeply informed, at once judicious and impassioned, and superbly written, American Dreamers is an essential book for our times and for anyone seeking to understand our political history and the people who made it.
Michael Kazin is professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, The Populist Persuasion, and Barons of Labor and coauthor of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. He is coeditor of Dissent, a frequent contributor to numerous publications, including The New York Times, and The Nation, and 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 outside Washington, D.C.
“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.”
—Jim Newton, Los Angeles Times
“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.” —Jacob Heilbrunn, The Washington Monthly
“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.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[A] perceptive history of the radical left . . . a lively and lucid synthesis of a vital political tradition.” —Publishers Weekly
“Young progressives owe themselves the pleasure of reading American Dreamers to understand the tradition in which they’re engaged and how the historical successes and failures of the American Left shape the choices they face now. Kazin has shown through the years that asking questions relevant to current struggles does not distort history. On the contrary, in the hands of a relentlessly honest historian, this approach sheds new light on the past and unearths truths that eluded others. Kazin will be read many years from now as one the most productive, graceful, provocative and intelligent historians of our era, and American Dreams is his masterwork.”
—E. J. Dionne, author of Why Americans Hate Politics and Souled Out
“Michael Kazin writes about politics at its most romantic and reckless, with a rare empathy for history’s protagonists, great and humble. American Dreamers will stir those who share the left’s dreams and fascinate those who do not.”
—Christopher Caldwell, senior editor, The Weekly Standard
“Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers could not be more timely. At a moment when “the left” is a term of glib dismissal, Kazin resurrects a vital American radical tradition—everyone from Frederick Douglass and Emma Goldman to Betty Friedan and Doctor Seuss. With deft biographical portraits and telling historical detail, he shows how abolitionists, feminists, socialists, and even anarchists challenged Americans to embrace a larger life. Inspiring and engaging but also judiciously critical, American Dreamers reminds us that visions of utopia—whatever their flaws—remain an essential resource for creating a more humane society.”
—Jackson Lears, Board of Governors Professor of History, Rutgers University
“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.”
—Eric Alterman, author of Why We’re Liberals
“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.’”
—Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties