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Luck in America

by Jackson Lears

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-670-03173-9
Publisher: Viking

Cultural historian Lears (Fables of Abundance, 1994, etc.) thoughtfully reviews the American reverence for grace, fortune, and luck all the way from primeval casting of lots down to last week’s bingo in the church basement.

The Polynesians called the embodiment of nature’s forces in a human being “mana,” a word the author appropriates to describe the beneficent impact of luck. His report covers just how Native Americans engaged in sortilege and how that numbers game produced dream books. Lears (History/Rutgers Univ.) retells tales of famed gamblers and recaptures the frisson of encounters with African-American tricksters from a strange world. He delineates the American history of magic, religion, folkways, and more. Literature, philosophy, psychology, cosmology, film, and fable are conflated in a learned stew. De Tocqueville appears for a few comments, and the author checks out the art of George Caleb Bingham. Diamond Jim Brady stands cheek by jowl with Anthony Comstock. Darwin and Rockefeller, Huck Finn and Dr. Faust, Walter Benjamin and such household names as Tristan Tzara and Miguel de Unamuno all make appearances. Nick the Greek, Damon Runyon, and a host of colorful folk with their voodoo bags and sacred bundles contribute to the collected signs, portents, mojo, and grisgris. Finally, Lears considers Manichean politicos and postmodern tricksters like architect Frank Gehry. Fresh from the dust of antique books and obscure magazines, our author has clearly done a great deal more than adequate research in an apparent attempt to encompass all of our national civilization under one mysterious rubric.

Likely to put the casual reader in fear of a pop quiz: well written, but too much of a good thing.