THE REAL AMERICAN DREAM

A Meditation on Hope

By Andrew Delbanco

Harvard Univ. 143 pp. $19.95

BUILDING A BRIDGE TO THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

How the Past Can Improve Our Future

By Neil Postman

Knopf. 213 pp. $24

From the moment the first Puritans landed in Massachusetts--"before the soil of Old England was off their boots," writes Andrew Delbanco in "The Real American Dream"--narratives of decline, American jeremiads, were spun. The preacher John Cotton waxed nostalgic for the hospitality, neighborliness and "valiant acts" of "former times" and concluded that there were "no such now a dayes." A century before liberals grimaced at Reagan and conservatives at Clinton, Henry Adams complained that "the progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin."

Jeremiads seize our attention because they address themselves to the basic human question: What story can make sense of our past and sustain in us a faith in the future? But they should be approached with skepticism, too. As Delbanco observes dryly, the break point between the worthy past and the unworthy present typically "depends on when the Jeremiah himself was young."

That skepticism turns quickly to suspicion in Neil Postman's "Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century," as he declares himself an "enemy" of the 20th century: "Is it not obvious that this century has been an almost unrelieved horror?" he asks, and proceeds to finger not Hitler or Stalin but Bill Gates and Jacques Derrida. The twin villains of Postman's tale are electronic media and deconstructionism, which beset the culture and the academy after his youth. He longs for the Age of Enlightenment, when the only invention that mattered was Gutenberg's. In this time, Postman believes, we can "find ideas that offer a humane direction to the future."

Some of these ideas--that knowledge should take precedence over information, that schools should teach thinking rather than sets of facts--are worthy enough, though they do not seem to advance Postman's earlier work. In fact, at least 12 passages in this book, ranging from several paragraphs to six pages, have been taken verbatim from previous ones. One 330-word passage, lifted directly from "Amusing Ourselves to Death," changes only "records" to "CDs" and "television" to "television and the Internet." (This reviewer does not claim to have determined the full extent of Postman's unacknowledged self-quoting.)

A worse problem is Postman's simplistic and often clumsily rendered portrait of history. How are we to reconcile the American founders' zeal for freedom with their contribution to human slavery? How can we square Jean Jacques Rousseau's writings on the "childhood virtues of spontaneity, purity, strength, and joy" with the fact that he abandoned his own children to orphanages? Ignoring these contradictions, Postman says he wishes to adopt the "principles, not the details" of the 18th century. But he makes free use of details to criticize modern times--and so juxtaposes a glossy highlight reel of the 18th century with grainy shots of modern gutters.

Delbanco's offering is a more satisfying history of American culture--used here to mean "the stories and symbols by which we try to hold back the melancholy suspicion that we live in a world without meaning." What Mark Twain called the "fantods" and Herman Melville the "hypos"-- what we today call depression--has slithered through American literature at least since Michael Wigglesworth wrote of feeling "distressed" and "sapless" in 1650.

Melancholy is, of course, a very personal experience. But its expression and ideas for its "treatment" have varied over time. The Puritan map of the soul held grace as the elusive goal, one that could not be achieved but only found. The sign of grace ("the cure") was a dissolution of pride, often expressed through service to others--what William James later described as the "elation and freedom" that come only "when the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down."

This Christian story held sway for nearly 200 years until it found expression in another form of "grace"--the sacred role of the citizen. Abraham Lincoln, for whom the Union, in the words of Alexander Stephens, rose "to the sublimity of religious mysticism," embodies this civic faith, and also the way that devotion to a cause larger than the self can ameliorate a quite private melancholy.

What, then, are we left with today? With the repudiation of the public sector in favor of "market forces"--and the shift in national symbol from bald eagle to Nike swoosh--Delbanco believes that "hope has narrowed to the vanishing point of the self alone." Omnipresent advertising preaches that consumption and acquisition can ease our spiritual longings, but we are left with an "unslaked craving for transcendence." We can still see the causes that might satisfy a shared sense of purpose, but only if we squint through the glare of marketed self-absorption.

Delbanco freely acknowledges the complications in his tripartite history. Draft riots in the Civil War, for example, belie a simple picture of civic pride in that era; the harshness of Puritan theology may well have harmed many of that era's vulnerable souls more than it helped. One wishes that Delbanco had had more space to develop the nuances he plays like a cellist using vibrato. His rich psychological portrait of Puritan theology would have been complemented by a spiritual view of modern psychology. Also, given that rates of depression and suicide have bulged in our age of the self, a discussion of how "cultural" and private melancholy intersect could have enriched his story.

But this is an essay, not a tome. Delbanco, among the most astute and original scholars of history and literature, wisely and convincingly develops the point made by de Tocqueville: "Faith is the only permanent state of mankind." By plumbing the faith of our fathers and mothers--its wrinkles and rosy cheeks--we can begin to rededicate ourselves to a new story of transcendence.