Heyday by Kurt Andersen

Heyday takes place in the annus mirabilis of 1848. In fact, it is as enveloping an immersion into that time as many of us will ever get.

The 1840s are an era often neglected and misunderstood, glossed over by our history survey courses as they rush from the “Age of Federalism” to the Civil War; or, in the case of European history, that is dispensed with along with the whole nineteenth century with a couple of words about the Industrial Revolution and the creation of nation-states. What Andersen understands, and brilliantly conveys, is the depth of this pivotal, exciting, genuinely revolutionary – in several ways – point in history.

The first part of the story revolves between three places that also happen to be the great cities of the mid-nineteenth century: Paris, London and New York. This allows us to take part in the French revolutionary days of 1848, to be in New York for the Mexican War victory celebration, to cross the path of Charles Darwin and the rich merchants of Victorian London in the midst of the Chartist movement. The narrative then settles down in New York, a truly unbelievably place in those years, chaotically gathering momentum to become the greatest city in the world. Finally the story takes us on a romp across the continent of this nation-in-the-making.

The immersion into the era is effected through a multitude of everyday things. The clothes, the buildings, the food, the customs and habits… a multitude of practical details of life that help us assimilate how people understood and interacted with the world around them. We encounter all sorts of new developments and inventions, novelties that we can hardly imagine were once novelties. We witness the early days of photography, of department stores, of grand hotels, the birth of the Associated Press. We learn amazing stories, like that of the Batallón de San Patricio, a unit of the Mexican Army composed of German and Irish immigrants who had deserted the U.S. Army to fight on the Mexican side in the Mexican-American War. Heyday contains a profusion of fascinating information, things that one cannot know without reading the press, memoirs, and other documents far removed from the official narrative of our national history. For this alone it is worthy of a read.

My single favorite things about the book is Andersen’s unflinching treatment of the tough subjects like race, sexuality, ethnic identity, religion. He does not sugarcoat for our modern, tolerant, politically-correct sensibility. Instead, he gives it to us the way it was: raw, violent, contradictory – profoundly shocking for modern Americans. This makes the book is a disconcerting, sometimes uncomfortable mix – unmistakably contemporary in narrative style, yet fully immersed in the culture of the time.

It may appear from what I have said so far as if the book has no story. It does, and it is actually a pretty good one. It involves murder, revenge, an intercontinental chase, prostitution, love and idealism, and more murder. I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice it to say that it keeps the pages turning as we travel through the amazing background of the world as it was 1848. The characters lack a little depth, but they certainly have complexity. And there are nice twists of plot, some good suspense. Andersen clearly understands that a good writer is first and foremost a good storyteller.

Most people nowadays think of Kurt Andersen as the host of the Studio 360 radio program and an author on cutting edge trends in culture, technology, and society. Not only is that person the same person as the author of Heyday, but one can see how this book is part of the same agenda and mindset. Heyday is simply the application of the same insatiable energy of curiosity we hear every week on the radio to a different era, a time full of the same discontinuities and questionings that we contend with today. Andersen displays the same determination to ramble cross-wise across the garden hedges that divide disciplines from one another. We may never completely understand the ever-changing world around us, but the approach championed by Andersen is a compelling way to try.

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