Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies Ahead


This lively, anecdotal volume examines the continuous thread that runs through the tapestry of the American experience, focusing on the history that has shaped our culture, and envisioning the future that will revolutionize our lives. Just as the Puritan vision of a city on a hill was supplanted by the Founding Fathers' vision of individuality, just as the expansive vision of a government-led Great Society was eclipsed by the New Economy in the 1990s, so too will the New Economy be replaced in our near future by ...
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This lively, anecdotal volume examines the continuous thread that runs through the tapestry of the American experience, focusing on the history that has shaped our culture, and envisioning the future that will revolutionize our lives. Just as the Puritan vision of a city on a hill was supplanted by the Founding Fathers' vision of individuality, just as the expansive vision of a government-led Great Society was eclipsed by the New Economy in the 1990s, so too will the New Economy be replaced in our near future by a period when community and spirituality occupy center stage. A Visionary Nation enlightens, engages, entertains, and prepares us for the next phase of our nation's growth.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"The magical fusion of the Web, the computer, and the stock market is a unique product of our cultural moment; the presence of visionaries who believe that they are fundamentally transforming culture is not," writes Zachary Karabell (The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election) in A Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies Ahead. He traces the visionary drive behind U.S. evolution from the Puritans' city on a hillto westward expansion and Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth"; governmental growth precipitated by Teddy Roosevelt and realized under the New Deal; and the 1990s New Economy. Lastly, Karabell predicts three possible global scenarios: more people will make more money until "the rewards will be diffused throughout society"; the stock market will collapse, with all the attendant losses; or "the New Economy doesn't collapse but also doesn't fulfill its incredible promise" (see scenario one). Perceptive, edgy and articulate, Karabell embodies the voice and perspective (tempered by considerable historical research) of millions of 20- and 30-something intellectuals and professionals. ( July) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Karabell's (The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election) newest book focuses on the visions and visionaries that have shaped U.S. society and culture throughout history. He notes six visions or stages, beginning with the Puritan idea of a religious utopia through the New Economy's vision of the "perfect market." Each stage begins with great promise and enthusiasm, but disillusionment rapidly sets in when the promised utopia falls short of expectations and people begin looking for something better. What remains constant is the conviction that a better society is possible. Karabell concludes by making the case that Americans are becoming disillusioned with society's materialistic focus and are seeking a vision that includes family, intimacy, spirituality, and a sense of connectedness with the world and other people. He gives us examples of the proliferation of New Age and religious web sites and the popularity of Oprah. Karabell's summary of American history and culture is written in an enjoyable, narrative style sprinkled with familiar stories and quotations. However, it offers little that is new or surprising. Recommended for popular history collections only. Robert Flatley, Frostburg State Univ., MD Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An overview of six utopian dreams that have defined American society, beginning with the first European settlers and concluding with the present-day New Economy and our Internet-obsessed culture. Karabell (The Last Campaign, 2000) argues that Americans are convinced that the construction of an ideal society meeting every need is possible; we need only, we believe, find the right vision. As each American dream is supplanted by another, decades of accumulated wisdom are cast aside in our rush to embrace the new guiding paradigm. Puritans striving to create an Edenic City on a Hill were eclipsed by colonists promoting the principles of liberty, freedom, and independence. The colonial vision of individualism was surpassed by the image of national unity, commerce, and industry. After the Civil War, the paradigm of unity gave way to one of territorial expansion, which in turn led to the apex of governmental activism. Distrust of big government then prefaced the present New Economy. Karabell sets a difficult task for himself in describing four centuries of utopian thought: the chapter regarding the rise of government gets especially short shrift, meriting only 32 pages and covering roughly 150 years. (The 1950s, for example, are summed up in a single paragraph.) Conversely, the New Economy and Internet sections take up nearly half the work. The author believes that the New Economy will collapse because it does not offer spiritual fulfillment; this will lead to a seventh stage of "techgnosis" (a blending of science and spirituality). Unfortunately, too many facts and not enough depth hamper the author's intriguing premise: the dot-coms, for example, collapsed not because they lacked aspiritual component but because the market had to correct the abnormal dominance of speculative ventures. Additionally, there is no mention of the growing fundamentalist Christian population within the information-technology community. Some compelling insights, combined with sketchy details, make for an uneasy historical mix. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060084424
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/18/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,054,497
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of The Last Campaign: How Truman Won the 1948 Election. He received his Ph.D. in American history from Harvard University and has taught at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Dartmouth College. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and on He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


In the spring of 1583, the half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh set off from Plymouth, England, intending to settle the east coast of Maine, near the inlet of the Penobscot River. Sir Humphrey Gilbert hoped to tap the rich fishing waters that lay between Newfoundland and the northern peninsula of North America, and on the voyage across the Atlantic, he often sat in his cabin with a book, reading to pass the time. According to most accounts, the book he was reading just before he died in a blustery September storm in 1584 was Utopia, by Sir Thomas More.

More depicted an ideal society, an island which he called "utopia," a Greek neologism meaning "not a real place." More's utopia quickly became synonymous in Western Europe for a world only dreamt of, a society that forever lay on the distant horizons of human potential. Though More depicted his utopia as a land of religious tolerance and democratic equality, he ran afoul of England's Henry VIII and was executed for high treason in 1535 and later canonized by the Catholic church.

Most of the men and women who fled England for the shores of the New World had little time for religious tolerance or for democracy, but like More, they envisioned a utopia. They had to. Every aspect of moving to the New World was fraught with danger. If you wanted to undertake the journey, you had to board a tiny, rickety ship that might or might not get across the ocean. The journey took long weeks, and when you arrived, you arrived nowhere. The New World may not have been total wilderness, but thepresence of Native American tribes was a mixed blessing. They might help you find food or they might kill you. True, in the early seventeenth century, life was nowhere easy, and the prospect of a new beginning was worth the very real possibility of premature death. The Spanish and Portuguese had settled in South America with a far less coherent vision than those who created the colonies of New England, and the choices in early modern Europe were never without risk. Still, emigration posed a formidable challenge and for that reason, those who made the journey tended to be those who saw in the New World the possibility of an ideal world.

Not everyone who emigrated shared that hope, and along with the Puritans, the Pilgrims, and the Quakers came thousands of hangers-on, fortune seekers, military men, and servants. Whether or not they, too, were propelled to construct a society unlike any other we will never know. Their voices are silent, though judging from the writings and sermons that the leaders of the various settlements left, these fortune seekers and military men were likely to pass their time getting drunk in a tavern, speaking lewdly, scheming for ways to accrue wealth, and laughing at the sanctimony of the clergy. But the culture wasn't determined by the opportunists or the servants, especially not in New England, where the Puritans controlled not only the pulpit but the law. The culture was a Puritan culture, and the energy and vision of these early Puritans is woven in the heart of American society.

The settlers emerged from an England that was in a slow burn caused by a combustible tension between Anglicans and Puritans that would soon erupt into civil war. In truth, the first English settlers weren't Puritan at all, nor did they arrive in New England. The men who founded Jamestown in Virginia in 1607 were Anglican, and they were looking for precious metals. Within a few years, they realized that no gold or silver was to be had in the swamps of Virginia, and they slowly turned their attention to a lucrative new crop called tobacco. But though they had commerce uppermost in their minds, an English life in these years was a life suffused with God and faith. Even Captain John Smith, the mercenary, hard-bitten hero of the colony's early years, attributed the survival of Jamestown not to the efforts of men but to the will of God. Explaining how rescue ships from England arrived just in time to save the colony, during the "starving times" of the winter of 1609-1610, Smith wrote that "the God that heard Jonah crying in the belly of hell, he pitied the distress of his servants.... This was not Ariadne's thread, but the direct line of God's providence." Virginia may have been a chartered company created to bring profit to its shareholders, but its settlers nonetheless viewed reality through the prism of seventeenth-century Anglicanism.

Smith himself was a rugged soldier who was very much out for financial reward, as were most of those who gravitated to Jamestown. But the era was suffused with religious mores, and even the most venal inhabitants of the colony would have agreed that their fate was in God's hands and that they could and should thank God for their success. And if the colony thrived and made them and the shareholders wealthy, that would be a sign that they had pleased God. Still, Jamestown did not attract religious firebrands, nor was the settlement a welcome place for Anglican separatists. The religious utopians gravitated to the north.

The first wave to embark for New England was an innocuous group of separatists who set sail from Leyden in the Netherlands, where they had fled from England in 1608. Believing that they would face increasing persecution at the hands of the Anglican clerical authorities who answered to James I, these separatists wanted only to find a place where they could celebrate God and work toward their own salvation in peace. But while Leyden was hospitable, the group feared that their children would be absorbed into Dutch society and lose their sense of identity and mission. So the Leyden separatists set forth once again, across the sea to the new colonies. Intending to migrate to Virginia...

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
A Visionary Nation 1
Part 1 The Past
1 Religion 13
2 Individualism 31
3 Unity 48
4 Expansion 67
5 Government 84
Part 2 The Present
6 The Market 119
7 The Internet 158
Part 3 The Future?
8 Connectedness 193
Notes 217
Index 237
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Reading Group Guide

In this groundbreaking survey of American history, Karabell takes us through the values and cultural transitions that have marked distinct periods in American history, have brought us to where we are as a society today, and will possibly determine where we are headed in the future. Karabell traces the stages of our history beginning with the Puritans and their vision of a City on a Hill, through the ideals of individualism and freedom espoused by the American Revolutionaries, to the desire of national unity manifested in the writing of the Constitution and the fighting of the Civil War. He then describes the territorial and economic expansion of the late nineteenth century, the rise of the influence of government during the eras of the New Deal and the Great Society, and finally, the New Economy of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, as well as what may follow. Through all of these stages, Karabell finds a cyclical pattern of great vision followed by disappointment. He describes an underlying belief in American culture that we can have it all, that a perfect society is within reach, and that we as a society are always striving to be better. Leading the way to this better world is a handful of visionaries who emerge in each era with promises of a new way of living that will bring about utopia. Ultimately, however, reality rarely meets the expectations that have been formed, and the existing paradigm crumbles and gives way to a new one. According to Karabell, we are currently in a highly charged era, and a fairly successful one, at least by material standards. The New Economy, with its focus on the stock market and the internethas revolutionized the lives of many Americans. However, the current paradigm, like those that have preceded it, does not fulfill all of our needs as a society, thus it too is in peril of being replaced by yet another stage. Karabell even goes so far as to predict what will most likely distinguish the imminent seventh stage -- the need for community and spirituality. The challenge however, according to Karabell, is not to simply replace one cultural framework with another, but to draw on what the visionaries of the past have aspired to, and try to combine past visions with current ones. Otherwise the patterns of vision and hope giving way to disappointment will only continue. Questions for Discussion
  • Karabell divides our nation's visionary history into six stages but acknowledges that these are not rigid, objective divides. Would you have "cut the historical pie" (p. 6) differently? How?
  • Is the shared American belief that everyone can have it all a foolish notion or a noble and attainable ideal? Discuss the ways that this is a uniquely American viewpoint.
  • Is there a particular stage of American history that best matches your own vision of what comprises the American dream?
  • Throughout our history cultural frameworks have been fashioned by a handful of individuals with a specific vision. Is a cultural paradigm legitimate if it is upheld only by a small percentage of the population?
  • Karabell offers three possible scenarios for the way the sixth stage will give way to the seventh:
    a) that wealth will be generated beyond our imaginations;
    b) that the stock market will collapse or;
    c) that the upper tier will continue to thrive and the gap between rich and poor will widen (p. 195-96).
    Which of these scenarios do you think will actually occur? Why? Do you envision another scenario?
  • What elements of the past stages do you think should be combined with the present to create the perfect society of the future? Is this perfect society attainable given human nature? Even if it is theoretically possible, is it viable in practice?
  • Karabell believes that spirituality, intimate relationships, and community will be the watchwords of the seventh stage (p. 208). In what ways do you see the yearning for these things already?
  • Who are some of the visionaries alive in the United States today? Can you pinpoint ideas that are being discussed today that will revolutionize the future?
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