The 'pursuit of vitality' will strike few as an obvious framework for U.S. history. But it is the perfect quarry for Lears, who has spent his distinguished academic career excavating the spiritual and psychic substrate of American modernity ... For Lears, familiar milestones — wars, economic booms and busts, social movements — are just one way of plotting the American past. There is also what lurks beneath, a roiling struggle between the human quest for mastery and control and the siren song of the wild and spontaneous ... Lears does not hide his own preference for a world that admits animal spirits. Nor does he downplay its dangers. The worship of vitality powered eugenics, political manipulation and military adventures ... Animal Spirits strains to fit certain pieces of American history into its frame, such as Cold War culture and Reagan’s foreign policy. But there is brilliance in its improbable yet utterly persuasive leaps ... Even those unwilling to grant the presence of animal spirits in the dance hall crazes of the past or the corporate mindfulness programs of the present will be edified by this eloquent book. As Lears charts centuries of faith in the possibility of transcending visible, material, and calculable reality, what he ultimately exposes are the disappointments of our version of modernity — and, particularly, its inability to sustain a humane and creative culture genuinely open to the unknown. That conclusion haunts this master class in American cultural and intellectual history.
In his fifth book, this note of longing at last finds full voice ... Abundant detail ... The huge-and-elusive-ness of Mr. Lears’s subject arrives before you even open the book ... It’s all very rich and complex, but this is only a fraction of what Mr. Lears has attempted in this book.
Based on Jackson Lears’s new book, Animal Spirits, two things about the author are clear: he’s a master of both the arcane and the segue ... The second enables him to pirouette so gracefully from one reference to another that it’s almost as if they all add up to a coherent whole, even though they don’t ... it can mean nearly anything and the opposite. So what do all the sightings that Lears assembles add up? The answer is unclear. Not that he’s lazy or unenergetic. Quite the contrary, Lears takes us on a vigorous tour ... But what does it all have to do with animal spirits? Again, no one knows. Animal Spirits does marshal an argument of sorts, but it’s exceedingly muddy ... Instead of dancing from one obscure animal-spirits reference to another, Lears would be better off focusing on the specific philosophical and political issues that his survey raises but fails to adequately address.