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The Stammering Century
This book is not a record of the major events in American history during the nineteenth century. It is concerned with minor movements, with the cults and manias of that period. Its personages are fanatics, and radicals, and mountebanks. Its intention is to connect these secondary movements and figures with the primary forces of the century, and to supply a background in Am ...more
Paperback, 414 pages
Published November 6th 2012 by NYRB Classics
(first published January 1st 2012)
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Never let anyone tell you that the United States became a qualitatively different place after 1968 than it had been before. The changes that the sixties and seventies ushered in were real enough, but merely quantitative, and Seldes’ book proves it. First published in 1928, The Stammering Century is a history of the religious fads, radical philosophies, and communist experiments of the 1800s which, according to Seldes’ thesis, took root in the ferment of Puritanical Calvinism’s slow decay after ...more
Fascinating though frequently frustrating account of America's history of (Protestant) religious weirdness, written in 1927 and focusing mostly on the 19th century. Traces it all back to the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards in the early days and up to the then-current New Thought movement (and first flowerings in the USA of yoga). While a period piece in some ways, the book shows admirably that nearly 100 years on, America is still very much in the grip of these strains of mystical, spiritual, fund ...more
A fascinating history of America during the the C19th, really a series of profiles of the leaders of religious movements, communities, and fads that follow after Jonathan Edwards and bookended, at least in Seldes's mind writing in 1928, by the passing of Prohibition. It's a pretty funny book. At one level, as Seldes says in his prologue, he is less trying to answer the question of why (though he does some strange psychological exploration, while at the same time denying a benefit of this), and m ...more
Tons of fun! A history of the19th century's fanatical religious movements, pseudoscientific dogmas, cranks, humbugs, and general lunatics, written in the early 20th century. (Sidenote: there anything more fun than reading a history book written in an earlier era? It's like getting two books for the price of one, because you get the added delight of trying to figure out how the prejudices of the writer's age reflect his opinion on the period in discussion, as well as the opportunity to question y ...more
We can see a little more clearly into the matter if we substitute other words for the sense of sin, and banish from our minds all association with the seventh commandment and the denunciations of moralists. If for the Protestant sense of guilt, we substitute the Hellenic feeling of life as a magnificent contest between man and fate in which man may fight gloriously, but is certain to be defeated; or if we substitute the feeling which many noble and healthy men have had that life is largely made ...more
The book itself, as an artifact, is almost as interesting as the content. Grail Marcus certainly liked this more than I did, but as he points out in his intro, when the subjects are given room to espouse their beliefs in their own words, the book moves to another level of fascination. The historical prose is riveting, if for no other reason than as a representation of a mastery of the language long since departed. It doesn't always make for casual reading, though. The chapter on phrenology, for ...more
Important work. American history is so rich and seems to gloss over the religious aspects that influence our society. Likewise the 19th century is typically not explored other than the Civil War and the movement from rural to industrial society. Written in the late 1920's and very much under the influence of the new science of psychoanalysis Seldes views the cults, misfits and dreamers that sought utopia if only for a short while. Extremely interesting subject matter, and also as a way to explor ...more
I should ammend that to "sort of read" meaning I skimmed. I had a copy that was published in the 1920's and it was Huge. I also had it on a very limited loan therefor I didn't get nearly enough time with this book. My heart fell when I saw it. SO scholarly. So out of my league. But it wasn't. The opening was surprisingly accessible and surprisingly amusing. Even skimming, I garnered more information for my store of useless knowledge than I would have expected.
Wow. Really good, maybe too long, but an amazing, almost Borges-like roundup of charlatans, nuts, religionists, spiritualists, revivalists and so forth that is basically an alternative history of America in the 19th century. Great read and I learned a lot.
That this book is two stars instead of three is due to disappointment. Fascinating subject matter is bogged down by a pedantic and meandering writing and overreliance on long block quotes. I would be interested in reading a treatment of this material by a writer with more focus and an editor.