Friday, April 11, 2014


I read this book for the Mount TBR reading challenge 2014.

The Stammering Century – Gilbert Seldes

This popular history from the late 1920s is about American founders and advocates of 19th century fads, fanaticisms, and social or intellectual cure-alls for the plethora of life’s ills. Seldes was not a professional historian, but a journalist for the intellectual magazines of the time.

Writing for a thinking audience, he examines figures such as reformer Bronson Alcott (father to Louisa May), pacifist Adin Ballou, reformer Amelia Bloomer, the founders of spiritualism the Fox Sisters, temperance lunatic Carrie Nation, and utopian John Humphrey Noyes. This is naming but a few figures. He also covers movements such as Abolitionism (the Bolshevism of its day), the Great Awakening, Christian Science, Mesmerism, Perfectionism, Phrenology, and how Temperance, a good thing, got all mixed up with Prohibition, a very bad thing. He even cuffs Yoga around.

Unlike H. L. Mencken, Seldes treats these well-meaning visionaries, intellectuals, and crackpots with more fairness and a more sympathetic tone than we would expect. But his thesis is basically that many reformers were utterly ignorant of even rudimentary psychology or sociology and clueless when it comes to human nature. Another frequent fault was either overweening conceit or religiosity on the part of leaders. Beware leaders that believe ameliorating One Thing will solve all our problems.

I would recommend this balanced book to thinking people that are seeking examples of the belief systems that we idealistic Americans took to our bosom. And take. And ought to be wary of.

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