An examination of America’s shifting moral values, conducted through the lens of cultural analysis and autobiography.
Somer opens his encyclopedic analysis of American cultural priorities with two stark stories about the deaths of his son and wife, and he skillfully broadens the impact of these tragedies by then shifting his narrative back to his boyhood in the 1940s rural Midwest. His childhood memories evoke pleasures of simpler times—family dinners around a communal table or sitting on a front porch. He contrasts these reminiscences with the often frenetic pace of life and change that has gripped the country ever since (“it was as though the future was thrusting itself upon people so quickly,” he writes, “that they had to discard past pleasures to experience pleasures they had never anticipated, like air conditioning”). He diagnoses a fundamental shift in the values that characterized the America of his youth, and like many a writer before him, he locates that shift in the 1950s and early ’60s, when a new materialism swept the country and a youth-mania was born out of the virtual creation—and commercialization—of a new kind of consumer: the teenager. Seminal figures—Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley and James Dean—are inspected for the new ideas they seemed to embody, and transformative literary works, such as On The Road, are given detailed and sympathetic new readings. Somer studies the existentialism of Kierkegaard with the same energy he devotes to the religious beliefs of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and although this intellectual latitude can at times be too diffuse for its own good, the opinions are never dull. Ultimately, it’s Somer’s optimism that pulls together the disparate threads of his study; “After all,” he writes, “America’s hope, even though it was compromised the moment it was inaugurated, seems to continue to be the world’s best hope.”
A slightly jumbled but moving call for a fresh American philosophy, one with “music in our parlors and love in our hearts.”