In introducing an earlier reprint edition of The Stammering Century, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. placed the critic and editor Gilbert Seldes among the gifted amateurs (non-academics) of the 1920s—Bernard de Voto, Constance Rourke, Lewis Mumford and others—who brought a fresh temper and spirit to the writing of American history. This 1928 work, newly issued by New York Review of Books, offers 21st-century readers many episodes of mordant amusement. Seldes (1893-1970), younger brother of the famed journalist George Seldes, did not set out to write the conventional story of the American march through the 19th century. Taking his title from a phrase coined by Horace Greeley to characterize the incoherence of the age, he asserts early that this is an account of the underside or backside of history, the religious fevers, utopian colonies, paths to perfection, inspired by “sour fanatics, crackbrained enthusiasts, monomaniacs, epileptics, and mountebanks.” Some of the names are remembered today—the Alcotts, Mary Baker Eddy, the Beechers among them—but who remembers the murderous Robert Matthews (“Matthias”), P. P. Quimby, or Lorenzo Dow? Had he been given the opportunity, H. L. Mencken might have used this crowd as fodder for a mighty polemic. But Seldes lets them speak in their own words, be they fools or sages. Greil Marcus concludes in his introduction that the work “remains a bible, a grand genealogy of American dreaming in action.”

 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.