The author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby unpacks the rhetorical history of two phrases—the "American dream" and "America First"—that once embodied opposing visions for America that resonate in complicated ways with the present.
Her tale will probably upend what we thought we knew about America and offers history’s traditional consolation of nothing new under the sun. The past, indeed, turns out to be not only similar in many ways, but sometimes much worse and more disquieting ... It’s a ripping yarn ('a genealogy of national conversations,' says Churchwell), which puts Trump and Trumpism in a category that is perhaps less sinister than we might have feared and more intelligible than we might have imagined ... Behold, America is an enthralling book, almost a primer for the ferocious dialectic of U.S. politics, inspired by the events of 2015/16. It will no doubt take an influential place on a teeming shelf of Trump-lit. Much of its force derives from the echoes of the present it finds in the thunderous caverns of the past, blurred by the distortions of history. Passionate, well-researched and comprehensive, it is both a document of our times and a thrilling survey of a half-forgotten and neglected dimension of the American story—a tale full of sound and fury currently being narrated by an idiot.
This is a timely book. It’s also a provocative one ... Churchwell has a tendency to corral the unruliness of her material by overstating her case. Still, she’s an elegant writer, and when 'America First' and 'the American dream' come head-to-head in her book during the run-up to World War II, the unexpected (and alarming) historical coincidences begin to resonate like demented wind chimes ... Churchwell strenuously resists any implication 'that the American dream was invented as a fig leaf to protect white privilege, to obscure the racist foundations of the capitalist system in institutional slavery.' But the phrase didn’t have to be 'invented' for that purpose in order to serve as such. Her entire book argues against categorical defenses like hers. Behold, America illuminates how much history takes place in the gap between what people say and what they do.
Ms. Churchwell delivers more than an exercise in literary archaeology. In crisp prose driven by impressive research in period newspapers, speeches and correspondence, she shows Americans wrestling over the very meaning of their nation ... [Churchwell's] enlightening account is a valuable contribution to the never-ending debate over fundamental American values and a provocative reminder that troubling impulses may lurk beneath seemingly anodyne sloganeering and inspiring rhetoric.