cover image Animal Spirits: The American Pursuit of Vitality from Camp Meeting to Wall Street

Animal Spirits: The American Pursuit of Vitality from Camp Meeting to Wall Street

Jackson Lears. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $32 (464p) ISBN 978-0-374-29022-1

Historian Lears (Rebirth of a Nation) attempts to explain in this sprawling study “how animistic thinking survived in the modern Anglo-American world.” Characterizing animal spirits as both “a loosely defined outlook acknowledging the centrality of spontaneous energy in human experience and a metaphysical worldview,” Lears ranges from the emergence of credit-based capitalism in 18th-century England (he notes that Daniel Defoe thought “credit was to the body economic as animal spirits were to the individual body: a mysterious but essential vital force, an evanescent liquid evaporating into thin air”); to the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, where “enthusiasm for the sheer vitality—the animal spirits—unleashed by war won out over the fear of unreasoning animal instincts”; and the “varieties of black vitality” captured by the writers, musicians, and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Lears draws captivating profiles of Americans who embodied “animistic thinking,” including mesmeric healer Andrew Jackson Davis, Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, and inventor Thomas Edison, and his extensive research touches on many fascinating historical eras. However, the concept of animal spirits remains amorphous (somehow, it’s everything from “vernacular dance crazes to theoretical innovations in physics and psychology”), making it difficult to draw any firm conclusions about what it means to American history. The result is an entertaining but exhausting survey. (June)