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“Animal Spirits: The American Pursuit of Vitality from Camp Meetings to Wall Street” with Jackson Lears & Graham Burnett

September 28, 2023 · 12:00 pm · Labyrinth Books

Jackson Lears, Graham Burnett

Join us for a discussion of Jackson Lears’s new book, in which he retrieves the spiritual visions and vitalisms that animate American life and the possibilities they offer today.

Animal Spirits 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.

“Jackson Lears is the preeminent cultural historian of the American empire. This book is another masterpiece in his magisterial corpus.’’ —Cornel West

J. Jackson Lears is Professor of History at Rutgers University and the author of many acclaimed books, including Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920and Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America.D. Graham Burnett is a Professor of History at Princeton University who works at the intersection of historical inquiry and artistic practice with a particular interest in the history of attention. His books include Trying Leviathan: the 19th century NY Court Case that Put the Whale on Tiral and Challenged the Order of Nature and, most recently, the work of speculative historiography In Search of the Third Bird.

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