CIVIC WARS by Mary P. Ryan


Democracy and Public Life in the American City During the Nineteenth Century
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 Bancroft Prizewinning historian Ryan finds the roots of American democracy at its best in the public passions of New York City, New Orleans, and San Francisco, circa 182580. Ryan (Univ. of Calif., Berkeley) presents a historical response to modern complaints that our democratic institutions are being undermined by a surfeit of diversity and a dearth of civility. ``Democracy is a politics not of unity but of opposition,'' she writes. Political positions derive from social differences and cultural variations, Ryan contends, and the public contests driven by our differences are ``the kinesthetic force that keeps democracy alive and power in check.'' Further, our democracy reaches its fullest expression in our urban centers, with their critical mass of diversity, and the ideal democracy was achieved in the years 182550, when the public could be heard most clearly in cities not yet too big or too dominated by bureaucracies, both public and private. These ascendant bureaucracies value order and uniformity over heterogeneity and argument, and now, in our time, threaten to undermine completely the foundations of American democracy. All of these ideas are summarized with superb clarity in the epilogue. The rest of the book, alas, is not such easy going. Ryan supports her thesis with scrupulous documentation from such sources as letters, diaries, and newspapers. She also goes to great lengths to show the roles played by blacks and women in public life in these cities, no easy task given their absence from most of the standard historical records. The result is a work that seems at times to have the vividness, and also the fragmentary nature, of a jigsaw puzzle in the process of being assembled. A difficult book geared primarily to academicians, but well worth the effort to others who share Ryan's appreciation of America's ``democracy of difference'' and who fear, like her, for its future. (41 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-520-20441-7
Page count: 394pp
Publisher: Univ. of California
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1997