The best books on the ideals, aspirations, and unfulfilled promises in American civilization

Alex Krieger Author Of City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present
By Alex Krieger

The Books I Picked & Why

People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization

By Michael Kammen

Book cover of People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization

Why this book?

For starters an absolutely brilliant book title: beautifully capturing the complexities of American culture, at once compelled by soaring social aspirations while tending to act out of pure individualism often with disdain for social impact. The narrative abounds in identifying seemingly contradictory national impulses – imported vs. Indigenous traditions, socialism vs. libertarianism, utopian vs. prosaic undertakings, the welcoming of and resisting of others – with the author arguing that through the interaction of such opposite impulses over time the particular genius of American society evolved. Kammen delights in reminding Americans of our “unstable pluralism,” and supports William James’ conclusion that “Americanism” continues to be a “volatile mixture of hopeful good and curable bad.”  Overall impressive scholarship and a delightful read.   


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To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders

By Bernard Bailyn

Book cover of To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders

Why this book?

Enormous insight from one of the great scholars of America’s Revolutionary Era, especially as to the complex ruminations and motivations of the nation’s founders as they set out to invent a new society. At the core of their inspiration, ironically resulting from their very provincialism, being separated from European society by an ocean, was their ability to combine a deep sense of pragmatic realism with “a pervasive air of utopian idealism.” From this was formed a nation consistently looking to a better future. A sensibility perhaps best expressed by Thomas Jefferson: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” 


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Behold, America: The Entangled History of America First and the American Dream

By Sarah Churchwell

Book cover of Behold, America: The Entangled History of America First and the American Dream

Why this book?

The book explores the complicated historic interaction among what for many are understood to be opposing tendencies of American life. On the one hand, the promise of the ‘American Dream,’ long held as an ethos of America and associated with expectations of liberty, equality, and access to opportunity. While the phrase ‘America First’ is more often associated with isolationist and nativist campaigns, intolerance of others, and even supremacist ideology. 

Yet, as Churchwell reveals, during times of economic, social, or international crisis the appeal of demagoguery would enable the twisting of the meaning of these two phrases for particular and sometimes less noble purposes.   


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Caste

By Isabel Wilkerson

Book cover of Caste

Why this book?

We tend to associate the idea of caste with faraway or traditional cultures such as that of India, or more hideously as during the Nazi era in Germany. Wilkerson reveals the presence and persistence of caste across American society, and poignantly distinguishes it from racism, though both fueled by intolerance. For Wilkerson, caste is “in the bones” of a society, less visible but intrinsic, while race is reflected in things like the color of skin, at once superficial but supportive of the unseen yet intrinsic nature of caste. So, the lesson, as the book makes it clear, is that it is insufficient to say “I am color-blind to race and so cannot be a racist” while remaining blind to Wilkerson’s Eight Pillars of Caste, as they persist in societies, including our own.


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The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States

By Walter Johnson

Book cover of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States

Why this book?

Beginning with the uprising in Ferguson over the police shooting of Michel Brown, which helped catalyze the national Black Lives Matter movement, a long and disheartening narrative unfolds of redlining and urban renewal, persistent racism, support of slavery, Indian removal, and other exploitive acts in support of “manifest destiny.” Not an easy or uplifting read, but an essential one: a reminder of a city’s parallel history, a city also justifiably proud of its 19th-century growth and prosperity, as a haven for immigrants, progressive labor movements, the fulcrum of Mississippi River trade, and as the gateway to the settlement of the West.  


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