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Reviewed by Albert Keith Whitaker


The Great American Hustle

The first volume of an ambitious new history of America highlights the engine of "worldly ideals"—and the role of evangelical religion in creating a distinctive American identity.

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On April 1, 1857, Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade appeared. Though its ending intimates a sequel, it was the last novel he would publish, and the reviews, though not all damning, partly explain why. Fitz-James O'Brien, writing in Putnam's, said it belonged to "the metaphysical and Rabelaistical class of Mr. Melville's works," and entreated the author thus: "Give up metaphysics." Later in the same month, O'Brien added, "Mr. Melville's Confidence Man is almost as ambiguous an apparition as his Pierre, who was altogether an impossible and ununderstandable creature." The Leader slammed the book, divining that a reader looking for "stirring fiction … will be tolerably sure to lay it down ere long with an uncomfortable sensation of dizziness in the head." The Leader went on, "A novel it is not, unless a novel means forty-five conversations held on board a steamer, conducted by personages who might pass for the errata of creation." Mrs. Stephens' New Monthly warned that, with such a book, "Mr. Melville seems to be bent upon obliterating his early successes." And even Melville's brother-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, Jr., apparently summed up much public opinion in this judgment from a private letter: "It belongs to that horribly uninteresting class of nonsensical books he is given to writing."

Walter McDougall published Freedom Just Around the Corner 147 years later, almost to the day, and he begins this new history (the first of a promised three volumes) with a summary and discussion of Melville's Confidence-Man. Later in the volume, while discussing the first popular American novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, McDougall observes that every book about America, whether fictional or historical, narrates a drama: perhaps a comedy (in which, after reverses, everything turns out right in the end), or a tragedy, or some mixture of the two. It is the ambiguous Confidence-Man rather than Cooper's redemptive tales that animate McDougall's book. Thankfully, his reviews seem much more promising than Melville's.

Some of those reviews, it must be added, have complained about McDougall's thesis—that the history of America is a history of "hustling," in both the good and the bad sense of that word—and have treated it as an extraneous bit of metaphysics that ill-dresses an otherwise solid history. But though at times it does appear ornamental, this thesis transforms McDougall's book from a well-written collection of information into an arresting reflection on what America is and what it is worth.

Religion plays a large role in McDougall's story. Following Samuel Huntington—"America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope"—McDougall explains hustling's energies this way: "Only free people can disappoint and be disappointed by the discovery that worldly ideals cannot be advanced except by worldly means." In the rest of the book, McDougall emphasizes American freedom and the great expectations that wide-open spaces excite. But though a hustler may stare acquisitively at a continent, space alone doesn't create the hustling attitude. The key resides in the hope, in what Max Weber called "worldly ideals," among which freedom finds its place, a goal rather than a condition.

The trick to understanding hustling thus lies in understanding the American fascination with "worldly ideals." Why did the early Americans turn to such ideals—and away from the "other-worldly"? Why do their descendants, from Ben Franklin and Jay Gatsby to the present, continue to pursue them, even after generations of disappointment? What's lost and what's gained in worshiping the world?

McDougall surveys a variety of answers through a vast field of times and trials. He observes James Herrington's early defense of revolution on the basis of "virtue and property." He relates the struggle between "Old" and "New Lights" in 18th-century Congregationalism. He particularly emphasizes the role of George Whitefield in energizing the first Great Awakening by appealing to his listeners' sense of free will: "Liberty under God and before men." Whitefield's listeners, McDougall claims, "were, if only subconsciously, thrusting their clutches skyward to pull down heaven itself—down to America. You can't help but do well and feel good about it, in heaven."

This account of terrestrializing the ideal also decidedly influences McDougall's treatment of the American Revolution. As if to prove his case, he picks what some would see as an unlikely Gospel, Tom Paine's Common Sense. And McDougall's careful reading of the book's conflicts yields surprising results:

Paine's remarkable pamphlet cemented the alliance between the Awakened and the Enlightened, summoned them to a just war, and promised a kind of heaven on earth if they won. That is why some historians miss the point when they denigrate the role of religion in the American rebellion. … The American cause was profoundly religious for Protestants and Deists alike because both identified America's future with a Providential design and both entertained millenarian hopes.
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