Animal Spirits: The American Pursuit of Vitality from Camp Meeting to Wall Street
“[A] master class in American cultural and intellectual history.” —Sarah E. Igo, The New York Times Book Review
“Jackson Lears is the preeminent cultural historian of the American empire. This book is another masterpiece in his magisterial corpus.” —Cornel West
One of Wired's best books of 2023
A master historian’s retrieval of the spiritual visions and vitalisms that animate American life and the possibilities they offer today.
In Animal Spirits, the distinguished historian Jackson Lears explores an alternative American cultural history by tracking the thinkers who championed the individual’s spontaneous energies and the idea of a living universe against the strictures of conventional religion, business, and politics. From Puritan times to today, Lears traces ideas and fads such as hypnosis and faith healing from the pulpit and stock exchange to the streets and the betting table. We meet the great prophets of American vitality, from Walt Whitman and William James to Andrew Jackson Davis (the “Poughkeepsie Seer”) and the “New Thought” pioneer Helen Wilmans, who spoke of the “god within—rendering us diseaseless incarnations of the great I Am."
Well before John Maynard Keynes stressed the reliance of capitalism on investors’ “animal spirits,” these vernacular vitalists established an American religion of embodied mind that also suited the needs of the marketplace. In the twentieth century, the vitalist impulse would be enlisted in projects of violent and racially charged national regeneration by Theodore Roosevelt and his legatees, even as African American writers confronted the paradoxes of primitivism and the 1960s counterculture imagined new ways of inspiriting the universe. Today, scientists are rediscovering the best features of the vitalist tradition—permitting us to reclaim the role of chance and spontaneity in the conduct of our lives and our understanding of the cosmos.
Includes 8 pages of black-and-white images
Praise for Animal Spirits: The American Pursuit of Vitality from Camp Meeting to Wall Street
"[Lears] has spent his distinguished academic career excavating the spiritual and psychic substrate of American modernity. His prior forays [. . .] converge in this wide-ranging account of precisely how, when and why Americans contemplated an animated world . . . There is brilliance in its improbable yet utterly persuasive leaps . . . Eloquent . . . [A] master class in American cultural and intellectual history." —Sarah E. Igo, The New York Times Book Review
"In his fifth book, [Lears's] note of longing at last finds full voice . . . Lears floats and darts and swoops—from indigenous wisdom to Romantic poetry, from “Tristram Shandy” to Bergson vs. Benda, from the Iraq war to neo-Lamarckian genetics and beyond . . . Surprising, fascinating . . . Lears has been so diligent in excavating the irrational and the enchanted in our lives that when you look around after reading his book, you think: What’s not strange?" —Jeremy McCarter, The Wall Street Journal
"Thrilling . . . [Animal Spirits] makes a strong case for the enduring power of counter-Enlightenment thinking . . . Lears’s efforts to document centuries of resistance to dominant ways of thinking are [. . .] illuminating." —Sean T. Byrnes, The New Republic
"As Lears memorably demonstrates, the belief in the significance of pulsing flows of energy that move through minds and objects has played a profound, if not often well-acknowledged, role in American philosophy and lived experience . . . A notable strength of the book is the richness of the author’s commentary on the context in which vitalist ideas emerged . . . Well-informed [and] engrossing." —Kirkus Reviews
"Jackson Lears is the preeminent cultural historian of the American empire. This book is another masterpiece in his magisterial corpus. His grand narrative of animal spirits and popular vitalism takes us from the heights of William James, John Maynard Keynes, Norman Mailer, and Jane Bennett to the depths of grassroots spiritualism and countercultural activism. His ecological vision and radical democratic politics speak directly to our moment of spiritual decay and market idolatry!’’ —Cornel West
"Jackson Lears has once again, brilliantly, found a keynote for our culture, this time in our vitalist passions and wildness. With vast learning and literary grace, he plunges deep into the American phrenzy, centuries of it, finding it sometimes bewildering, sometimes loony, but redeemed in the end by a pulsating openness to the universe." —Sean Wilentz, author of No Property in Man and The Rise of American Democracy
"Is modernity about progress beyond animistic and vitalistic superstition? On the contrary, America’s leading cultural historian proves in this absorbing, delightful, and unexpected book. Not only did advances—including in our best economic theory—lean on insights into the enduring limits of reason. Even now, Jackson Lears shows, our national future will depend on continuing exploration of the creative enigma of being alive." —Samuel Moyn, author of Humane
"With Animal Spirits, Jackson Lears gives us yet another tour de force of Anglo-American cultural history. The energy of his ideas and the hum and roar of his prose should convince even the most skeptical reader of the 'miraculous aliveness of the world.' It’s as if vitalism itself chose Lears to author its biography." —Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, author of American Nietzsche
"Animal Spirits is several important books in one: a revisionist history revealing the invincible strain of vitalism running through modern social thought and culture; a fresh portrait of key thinkers, notably William James and John Maynard Keynes, casting them in the light of this persistent wild type; and a powerful plea for the vitalist principle that the world and all its meanings are made of the aliveness of living things. The loveliness of Jackson Lears’s language doesn’t just convey but also exemplifies his message about the beauty and meaning inherent in a living world." —Jessica Riskin, author of The Restless Clock
“Good history-writing offers up unexpected material on the way to surprising conclusions. In Animal Spirits, Jackson Lears ransacks five centuries of Anglo-American popular and high culture to demonstrate the persistence of vitalism, the heterodox conviction that the world is not divided into living spirit and dead matter but rather that agency and spontaneity are ubiquitous. As he puts it, startingly: ‘the universe is alive.’ Astonishingly, men and women in every age and walk of life have believed this: businessmen, preachers, farmers, confidence men, sexual revolutionaries, John Donne, Adam Smith, William James, Keynes. Lears’s industry and imagination have brought something important to light.” —George Scialabba, author of How to Be Depressed and Slouching Toward Utopia
"Once again Jackson Lears demonstrates his skill in turning a neglected wild card of post-Enlightenment intellectual history—in this case, vitalism—into the hidden ace it is. In exposing the medieval Western notion of an animated universe as a surprisingly persistent undercurrent running through four centuries of American politics, religion, economic theory, and popular culture, Animal Spirits will transform our perspective of the cultural matrix we inhabit." —Victoria Nelson, author of The Secret Life of Puppets