The Eagle Has No Head

The Americans: A New History of the People of the United States

by Oscar Handlin
Little, Brown, 434 pp., $6.95

This is still another attempt at an answer to Crèvecoeur’s question: “Who then is the American, this new man?” Earlier efforts in this vein customarily bristled with claims about American purpose. American destiny, and similar conceits. Not only historians who wrote the superior virtues of Anglo-Saxonism but even men like George Bancroft were given to see Americans as a Chosen People illustrating in their history (in Bancroft’s phrase) “the principle of freedom.” In more recent years a number of historians, from Louis Hartz to Daniel Boorstin, offered their “exceptionalist” interpretations of America as the country embodying an ideal liberalism, thus contributing their bit to the then flourishing American Celebration. Now Handlin’s book heralds a new turn. Perhaps because the current social and political scene suggests to the thoughtful intelligence a sense of masterless confusion, Handlin interprets the American past in terms of largely uncontrolled drift rather than of self-conscious mastery.

This New History of the People of the United States reflects and emphasizes the current mood of sobriety and doubt. Less than a decade ago, Boorstin praised “the marvelous success and vitality of (American) institutions.” For Handlin, all these muscular certainties have gone flabby. He believes, one senses, that Freud may after all have been right when he exclaimed: “America—a miscarriage.” Handlin permits himself only the small consolation that the full story is not yet in. “The outcome,” (he says in conclusion) “was still open.”

For Handlin, the process of settling a continent was the central experience of the American people. It created a new man, shaped by the environment in the very act of transforming it. But once this process was completed, once the Americans had dissolved the ties which bound them to European tradition and achieved a measure of self-consciousness, the world began to close in on them. The reliance on freedom and individualism, the faith in success and acquisitiveness that had sustained them, were now shaken. The frozen world of the Cold War and the insidious threats of mass culture and mass society undermined the traditional values of American man. These were new perils with which his previous experience had hardly prepared him to cope. Hence his current disorientation, his lack of a sense of identity.

While most earlier interpretations focused on the conscious designs of historical actors, Handlin’s treatment centers upon the environmental determinants of behavior and upon the unanticipated consequences of human actions, rather than on willful design and purposeful direction. There is little here on the ideas and ideals of, say, the Puritan oligarchy, but much on the way in which settlement on the rough New England soil deflected the Puritans from their original intention to build a New Jerusalem. By the second generation, Handlin claims, the Puritans had already neglected the pursuit of collective sainthood and focused instead on the pursuit of individual wealth and power. The high ideals of New England transcendentalism are, again, treated only in passing. While the pressures of an expanding industrial economy on previously genteel modes of social…

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