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Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now
Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now
Peter Bacon Hales
University of Chicago Press, 2014
496 pp., $40.00

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Eric Miller

"We Yearn for Something"

American adventures in self-invention.

Say "Cultural Studies" and what comes to mind is abstract, ironic analysis, heavy with the jargon of initiates. But by the time Peter Bacon Hales at the pinnacle of his brooding tale has got Jimi Hendrix atop Mount Pisgah singing "All Along the Watchtower," mere irony has been left way behind. Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now reads our past three-score-and-ten years as a spiritual journey lodged somewhere between Genesis and Revelation. It's a journey Hales recounts and recasts with a pathos not only biblical but, as he himself describes it, evangelical.

He doesn't mean "evangelical" in any theological sense. Rather, Hales, the director emeritus of the American Studies Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has in mind a distinctive mode of apprehension and engagement, that of a self thrust outward and inward at once, keyed to "immersion, tactility, sensuality" but dedicated to a deep, sweeping redemption, both personal and social. It's evangelicalism as virtue, as necessity; it's America at its best, trying to become America. And it's above all an America that has reached and over-reached and is now threatened, once more, with grand failure, stuck in its historic "dance between triumphalism and terror."

A spiritual restlessness afflicts us, then, as we gaze with Hendrix from the watchtower into the Promised Land, a portentous wind howling, sharpening our senses, reclaiming our memories, memories of a calling to embody a new way before a watching, weary world. John Winthrop hovers over the entire book; Hales at its end brings him down, into the text. "We are a culture beset by the very fears" Winthrop etched at the end of his Arbella sermon, Hales suggests, fears of exile from this "good land," the land we crossed a "vast sea to possess," as Winthrop reminded his friends and companions. And so, threatened by that sea, "we reenact the myths and menaces of our histories," says Hales. "We yearn for something."

The conclusion ...

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