Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History
I was familiar with Kurt Andersen as the host of NPR’s Studio 360, but this was my first encounter with him as a writer/author. I was pleasantly surprised by the confident and thoughtful tenor of his writing and by the amount of historical research presented in his book. Fantasyland explores what he argues is America’s particular penchant for conspiratorial “magical thinking.” In other words, Americans’ unique hunger to believe in the fantastic, from ghosts to government conspiracies to hucksters and, ahem, hyperbolic politicians. Indeed, though Andersen’s book traces instances of such group “magical thinking” back to America’s early history, the book is interested in drawing a succession of connections leading to our latest and most prominent instance of delusional thinking, the empty bombast of one Donald Trump and the people who elected him.
Andersen moves chronologically through America’s history, with cheeky and amusing chapter titles like “The Inmates are Running the Asylum and Decide Monsters are Everywhere” and “The All-American Fan Fiction of Joseph Smith, Prophet.” I thoroughly enjoyed Andersen’s take on the various deliriums of American history and found his points and analysis to be astute and well founded overall. My only skepticism comes from the ambitious scope of the book, which aims to traverse 500 years of American history in the span of some 400 pages. I admire Andersen’s ambition, but I tend to be a bit skeptical of some of the connections and leaps made in the course of that ambitious narrative. If only because constructing a comprehensive analysis of such a wide swath of history necessarily requires sacrificing some–in fact, probably more than some–historical data in service of the book’s desired narrative. In other words, as Andersen himself concedes, selectively connecting a series of historical events always bears the danger of serving our own particular purposes. But that by no means makes this a book less worth reading. It’s an assured and fascinating romp through the bemusing landscape of America’s uniquely fantasy-loving psychology.