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COUNTRY OF EXILES by William Leach

COUNTRY OF EXILES

The Destruction of Place in American Life

By William Leach

Pub Date: April 30th, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-44219-7
Publisher: Pantheon

A well-intentioned but not groundbreaking essay in cultural history, with a transparent title and an equally transparent argument. Repeating a common complaint of environmentalists and paleoconservatives alike, Leach (Land of Desire: Merchants, Money, and the Rise of a New American Culture, 1993) observes that most Americans lack a sense of place: a sense of belonging, that is, to a given plot of land, a city block, or a suburban neighborhood. His notion of place is something of an abstraction, but Leach means by it not only mere occupancy, but also shared construction: a place is made by a community of people who share ideals, working hours, goals, and habits. Such communities, Leach observes, are more common to rural and stay-at-home societies than to urban and cosmopolitan ones, and Americans have always been both somewhat rootless and disinclined to band together strictly on the basis of ethnic heritage or even class. At the dawn of the present century, Leach writes, the rising mass-market economy served to divorce Americans further from shared communities. “American business,” he argues, “did more than strive to inspire a desire for goods and to create a new institutional landscape to sustain it; it also changed the way Americans looked at and understood place. . . . Intrinsic to it was the cult of the new, the need to overturn the past and begin again, and to disregard all kinds of attachments in the interest of getting the ‘new and improved,’ whether goods, jobs, entertainment, or places.” The result, Leach maintains, is a continued splintering of American society into smaller and smaller groups, into a nation of self-interested individuals perfectly served by a global capitalism that looks pretty much the same all over the world. These are all valid arguments and well made, but they—re not new: many American social critics from Lewis Mumford to J.B. Jackson, Jane Jacobs, and Tony Hiss have made them before, and Leach doesn—t do much to bring them onto new ground.