Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Review: Waking Giant

David Reynolds' Waking Giant aptly demonstrates the innumerable revolutions that transformed America between 1815-1848.

A quick read, David Reynolds' Waking Giant is an excellent primer in early-to-mid-19th century American political, cultural and social history. First, from an "interesting things to say at a cocktail party" aspect, the book is filled with numerous "a-ha" moments. For example, ever wonder where the expression "O.K." came from? Well, wonder no more: it came from Martin Van Buren's 1840 reelection campaign against Whig William Henry Harrison. Known as Old Kinderhook, the Democratic convention campaign used those initials and included them in the slogan "Down with the Whigs, boys, O.K."

Another example - ironically also from that 1840 campaign - is "keep the ball rolling". Harrison supporters would push large leather balls from town to town for each campaign rally - an activity that became an American expression shortly thereafter. I know, I know, 'who the hell pushes a ball from town-to-town'? This is what you did when there was no TV or porn to occupy your time, folks.

Yet another example is "the peanut gallery". During this era, the rise of theaters in America led to a democratization of "the play". There were three separate seating arrangements in theaters. Upper class patrons were in the box seats, middle class folk were in the wooden benches in front of the stage, while the working class (not to mention the prostitutes) were in the cheaper seats known as the "gallery". Those seated in the gallery smoked, drank booze, and chewed peanuts, disposing of the shells on the floor, leading to the phrase "the peanut gallery".

Reynolds argues - persuasively - that the Age of Jackson gave rise not only to democracy in politics, but to a wide range of cultural, social and religious revolutions from 1815-1848. The era of "isms" included abolitionism, transcendentalism, spiritualism, among others and they all made the era one of dizzying changes. Every aspect of American life underwent fundamental change. Sex, religion, politics, even cultural activities all expanded and changed so that a person awaking from a 30-year sleep in 1848 would find American unrecognizable from the world he left in 1818. Few eras in American history - our own perhaps being one of them - can claim to have had that much transpire in such a short period of time.

Reynolds looks at literature, the arts, music, dance and other aspects of social history with the same crisp and concise analysis he gives to politics. Children from the "Summer of Love" in 1967 would be shocked to learn that such sexual liberation had transpired 130 years earlier in Jacksonian America. A "free love" movement during the era challenged Puritan sexual mores. Women's rights and abolition began to expand upon who, exactly, "We, the people" really were.
The sexual revolution of the era - granted on a smaller scale than the "fuckfest" that was the 1960s and 1970s - led to other revolutions in the culture. For one thing, the number of abortions performed in the United States increased dramatically. The number of abortions went from 1-in-25 live births in 1830 to 1-in-5 live births a short 20 years later in 1850. Indeed, it was only after the Civil War that what we would recognize as a true antiabortion movement first took hold in the country.

I think my favorite aspect of the book, though, are those "a-ha" moments I mentioned earlier. Whether it's "O.K", "keep the ball rolling", "the peanut gallery", or the even fact that the word "homosexual" did not even appear in the English language until 1892, Reynolds laces his narrative with interesting facts that link the bygone era of mid-19th-century America to our world today. Now, the next time someone says, "we don't need any comments from the peanut gallery," you'll know where the expression came from. Chicks dig that, guys.

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