Kirkus Reviews QR Code


A Meditation on Hope

by Andrew Delbanco

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-674-74925-1
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Reflections on American conceptions of happiness and hope—and of how they have grown weak. Originating in the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard, this slim volume has the characteristics of the civilization about which its author reflects: it is large with desire and disheveled in its pursuit. Delbanco, a professor in humanities at Columbia (The Death of Satan, 1995; Required Reading, 1997), writes of the function of hope in creating the Christian and national narratives of American life. And, without adequately developing the juxtaposition, he insightfully contrasts the sustaining force of hope with the melancholy that comes with its absence. He does so through a quotation-filled review of much of American history—citing everyone from John Winthrop to today’s pundits. While he tries to distinguish himself from the Jeremiahs of right and left, in the end he lands about where they stand: deeply troubled by our inability to imagine a common destiny and to reattach our lives to a sense of moral progress. Confidence in such progress, he insists in his most striking assertion, nourished the pursuits of our greatest forebears, from the Puritans through Lincoln into figures of this century. But now such hopes are weak because our narrative and symbolic life, previously sustained by belief, first in God, then in nation, has become so impoverished. To have hope in ourselves alone is to have lost “the real American dream,” which was to share in some public responsibility, whether it was founding the kingdom of God on earth, preserving the Union, creating true equality, or pursuing more modest programs of reform, succor, and help. Unfortunately, the book possesses the attributes of the lectures from which it originated: it can only suggest and not demonstrate. Ranging learnedly and widely, this is less a work of scholarship, on which it is deeply based, than a personal testament to the melancholy to which learning has led its author.