A woolly, meandering analysis of commercial, rootless America in the Age of Jackson. Perry (History/Vanderbilt University) has homed in on narrower, more easily defined turf here than in his Intellectual Life in America (1984)—but hasn't produced a vigorously argued work. In tracing ``the origin of enduring tensions in what Americans hoped and believed about themselves and their society,'' he endeavors to show that our era's sense of change and loss is nothing new: For many Americans in the postrevolutionary period dominated by Andrew Jackson in politics and Ralph Waldo Emerson in literature, the past had become another country. But Perry records impressions of seismic shock unleashed by the entrepreneurial, ever-transforming nation, and doesn't record the change itself. Overhanging his account, and never answered satisfactorily, are several questions: Since American society from its beginnings was in constant ferment, what made the Jacksonian era so different? Exactly which conditions left observers so stunned at the rapidity of change? And why has Perry limited his analysis to foreign visitors (e.g., Alexis de Tocqueville and Frederika Bremer) and mostly northeastern intellectuals (Olmsted, Emerson, Thoreau, and abolitionist Theodore Parker)? There are a number of fascinating observations here—for instance, on the populist Jackson's desire to be considered a gentleman; on Tocqueville's brilliance of argument but lack of specificity about what he saw; and on the transient culture of peddlers, showmen, preachers, and gamblers. But Perry fails both to weave these points into a coherent framework and to draw compelling portraits of what Emerson might have called ``representative men'' of this turbulent time. During the 40-year period depicted here, the US declared its cultural independence from Britain and became a strapping giant of a nation that nearly destroyed itself over slavery. But one would never understand the sources of these creative and destructive tensions from Perry's history, presented without flair or logical unity.
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