Man, what a crappy socialist utopia. Americans would figure out how to make a socialist utopia as saccharine and colorless and authoritarian as possib...moreMan, what a crappy socialist utopia. Americans would figure out how to make a socialist utopia as saccharine and colorless and authoritarian as possible, wouldn't we?
So, I read this out of historical interest, because it was a landmark work in American leftism, sold millions of copies in the 1890's, etc. I kinda wanted to know what got early American leftists excited. Evidently, it was very-thinly-novelized half-informed hectoring about proto-Marxist political economy. He sketched just barely enough of his utopian future to force the medicine down. For a supposed seminal work of scifi futurism, there's just no imagination at all... he even goes so far as to kinda just give up and make his year 2000 Boston look almost exactly like his 1887 Boston, just with less squalor and more monumental architecture. There are a few futurist stabs at what the society and technology of tomorrow would look like, but they're all ancillary and don't seem to have much at all to do with his political and economic vision. I don't know how anyone could have possibly read this for entertainment.
And what he does sketch out is not very appealing. He had a big hardon for organizing things on a military footing, and his utopia is awfully authoritarian. The results he posits seem pretty ok, but the means of getting to them are either implausible or would likely preclude those results. And everything is annoyingly, Socratically just-so.
And then to top it all off he has the temerity to throw in a totally cloying, shallow, and implausible romance, topped off with a gratuitous double-twist ending, just to mess with us.
Ok, ok, I shouldn't be so hard on him. This guy was essentially an amateur, trying to find the best way he could to expound his political ideas to a large audience. And obviously, it worked. I just can't believe this had such broad appeal. Americans must have been absolutely starving for good socialist agitprop back in the populist era. I had hoped it would be interesting on its own terms, but it's really only worth reading as a curiosity of historical and political interest, and barely at that.(less)
Ugh. So whiny & snobbish & entitled & reactionary. There are fragments of a good travelogue peeking out through all the gloom, but mostly...moreUgh. So whiny & snobbish & entitled & reactionary. There are fragments of a good travelogue peeking out through all the gloom, but mostly this reads like the crappy blog entries I wrote to vent my frustration at trying to find my way around Europe alone after college. All of the stress and whining and disorientation and disappointed expectations, and little of the good stuff that ultimately made the trip worthwhile. It's a lot easier to write snark(and lord, does he go for the easy snark) than wonder, and it's a lot easier to write with the frame you bring in than to figure out how the trip has changed or surprised you. I know Bryson was a lot younger when he wrote this, but I still had a hard time believing it was him for much of the book. Especially disappointing because this is always spoken so well of, and now I just don't get where that comes from at all.(less)
Man, I was so excited for this, which makes it doubly disappointing that it didn't quite pan out. It looks really great on the surface and totally up...moreMan, I was so excited for this, which makes it doubly disappointing that it didn't quite pan out. It looks really great on the surface and totally up my alley; an authoritative but accessible survey of utopian and communal communities in North America since the Colonial era. And it does cover most of that ground and impart lots of interesting and useful information, but unfortunately the good is mostly overwhelmed by how distractingly bad the prose and organizational structure are. We're talking undergrad research paper bad, at least in places.
They do completely puzzling things like diving in and spending the first 2-3 pages of a chapter about a given group on minutia and details as if we already know the whole story about them, and only then backing up and doing the basic introduction on who they were, what their ideals and situation were, and all of the pertinent information you would need to understand the stuff in the first few pages. Everything is all haphazard and out of order and at times it devolves almost into non-sequiturs. And the prose is clunky and awkward in general, and was constantly tearing me out of the narrative and distracting me from what I was supposed to be learning. The analysis also verges on new-agey nonsense at times, and I could have done without the dimestore philosophizing about how consumer society sucks and thus we need utopias, etc. A lot of that is at undergrad level as well.
It's shame, because there's a lot of interesting stuff in here, and the research seems generally good and original, if a bit spotty in places. I would have preferred a more on the fringe-ier utopian strains that devolved into cultish or worse behavior, like Koreshanity, Jonestown, and the 90's era with the Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate, and the communitarian parts of the Christianist/militia movement, as those are on the continuum and need to be included in an accounting of utopian history in America.
Mostly, I just wish it had been better written and organized. You should still read it if you're really interested in utopian and intentional communities, but be prepared for a bit of a slog.(less)
An incredibly thorough look at the British literary and cultural experience of the Great War, and how this shaped modernism and the rest of our cultur...moreAn incredibly thorough look at the British literary and cultural experience of the Great War, and how this shaped modernism and the rest of our culture ever since. Reading some excellent weblog retrospectives on WWI around Armistice Day turned me on to this one.(less)
A rollicking, farcical road tale set in Russia in the first half of the 19th Century. Follows Chichikov, a petty bourgeois con man… a man who is “not...moreA rollicking, farcical road tale set in Russia in the first half of the 19th Century. Follows Chichikov, a petty bourgeois con man… a man who is “not too fat, and not too thin” in the words of the author, on a trip around the country to buy up “dead souls,” which are peasants who have died but are still counted as living until the next census happens. Chichikov hopes to make his fortune by charming lots of landowners into giving them away for nothing, and then mortaging them under new regulations that allow Russian landowners to mortage their estates to the treasury at roubles-to-the-soul. Gogol uses the misadventures of our antihero to paint a humorous and loving picture of Russian life in the first half of the 1800s. Kind of reminds me of Tristram Shandy.(less)
I really enjoyed his “Birth of the Modern” book, about world history 1815-1830, and how that time and the personalities who made it were pivotal in th...moreI really enjoyed his “Birth of the Modern” book, about world history 1815-1830, and how that time and the personalities who made it were pivotal in the the birth of the modern world as we know it, so I thought I would check out his take on US history. I knew from the previous book that he was conservative, and had his biases(pro free-market, pro religion, pro-individual) but that was fine with me… I liked that he was opinionated and I liked getting a good devil’s advocate argument for the other side from what seemed to be a pretty honest broker.
And that held up for most of this book. He made a great case for why those values were integral in making America a great nation, and he told the story up to about FDR with balance and verve.
Post New-Deal though, it just turns into a bitter screed, and loses all sense of balance. FDR and Kennedy were corrupt charlatans(sure, they definitely had their major flaws, but that is all he looked at), Vietnam would have worked if only we had been willing to wage total war(probably would have, but that doesn’t make that a good idea), Nixon got a raw deal and Watergate was nothing but a witch-hunt, as was Iran Contra. Political correctness and affirmative action were creeping authoritarianism as opposed to well-meaning and ultimately pretty insignificant efforts to continue down the road of the civil rights movement that went a bit overboard. Moral equivocation of the anti-abortion movement with the anti-slavery movement. Praise for The Bell Curve, and breezy dismissal of the likes of C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, etc. And so on.
I realize he doesn’t like a lot of the postwar trends in the US and Europe, but he also makes no effort to engage the historical forces that caused and shaped them, or the good that came out of them(he spends very little time on the civil rights movement, for example.) He does things like applauding the US for engaging the world and taking its rightful place as a superpower postwar, and then turning around and criticizing the inevitable expansion of the bureaucracy that resulted from that, without connecting the one to the other. Or like saying that things like the EPA and the Clean Air act were probably necessary and desireable, even though they slowed the economy, but then praising Reagan’s economic genius in rolling them back. Feh. He just fails to engage the complexities and ambiguities and compromises that are a necessary feature of the postmodern, globalized world. He’s very good at writing history about the times when WASPS ruled the earth, before everything got complicated by race, gender, sexual orientation, colonialism, and on down the line. He acts like these are invented abstractions, as opposed to social and political realities and changes that were being grappled with in very nasty and difficult ways throughout the latter 2/3rds of the 20th century.
So, disappointing in the end. But, if you want a good lively, opinionated, sympathetic history of the US up to about 1929, you can’t go wrong with reading the first 3/4 of this. Even better, read it together with A People’s History of the United States, and compare/contrast. You should get most of the story between the two of them.(less)