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A Nation of Agents: The American Path to a Modern Self and Society
James E. Block.
Cambridge, MA & London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.
$45.00, £29.95, xi-658 pages, ISBN 0-674-00883-9 (hardback).

Lincoln Geraghty
University of Nottingham

 

James Block’s A Nation of Agents is a supremely detailed and sinuous piece of academic inquiry. Intensely researched and painstakingly brought to life through an interwoven and complex historical narrative, A Nation of Agents offers the reader a new thesis for defining the American character: Agency. Block manages to trace the theme of American agency from its roots in sixteenth-century Puritan England, through past its introduction to the shores of the New World and its inception as the real force behind the Declaration of Independence, finally describing how it became the most important factor in the creation of an American identity. Historically, agency not only characterises the American way of life but it unites two of the most recognised characteristics of modern American society: Individualism and community. A Nation of Agents is a seminal piece of intellectual history that should become part of the academic canon.

Block believes that the narrative of liberty, the pursuit of freedom that is at the heart of America’s national identity, is becoming lost in a modern age characterised by a “made-for-TV public culture” (1). This loss of the national narrative of human liberty has driven Block’s project and he sets out some fundamental questions in the opening chapter “The American Narrative in Crisis” to help frame his attempt at offering a new historical narrative with which Americans can identify: “Is it possible to recover the national narrative from the cul-de-sac of contemporary discourse? In a way which acknowledges both historical cohesion and postindustrial dislocations?” (4). Block uses the idea of agency to provide an answer to these questions, since agency binds together the two national symbols of the American self: The individual and the community. Block states:

The thesis of this book is that, while not recognized until much later, [the] fundamental shift of the human role in relation to authority was effectuated as a new human character type: individuals shifted from being servants of God and society carrying out rigidly defined duties on behalf of distantly formulated but fully designated ends. They became agents, that is, individuals participating actively in shaping the worldly means to be employed for realizing divine and collective purposes. (22)

In simple terms, Americans learned to be masters of their own destiny rather than relying on the crown or deferring to their so-called betters. The communities that were originally founded as bastions of British social order gave birth to individuals who wanted to create a new order within and under a new authority. Agents were released from traditional forms of hierarchy but worked within a common framework that offered its own form of authority (23).

By seeing agency as the driving force behind America’s creation, rather than the pursuit of liberty first from imperial Britain and then for the rest of the world, Block returns to the work of Alexis de Tocqueville and the paradox of the individual living as part of a social community. Block believes that Tocqueville never quite achieved an understanding of agency because it was not part of the national vocabulary, it operated “beneath the level of awareness” (25). But he was heading in the right direction and Block returns to his work as a starting point for his thesis. The book takes a detailed route through particular historical events such as the Great Awakening and the American Revolution and it also concentrates on distinctive political and religious philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jonathan Edwards, and John Dewey.

Perhaps the most intriguing point that could be made about A Nation of Agents is its timing. Being published in 2003, just as America is beginning to heal as a nation recovering from catastrophic terrorist attacks and military action in the Middle East, this book facilitates an understanding of the current American psyche. America is looking for heroes, people to whom it can look for guidance in times of turmoil, and it is also trying to pull itself together as a community—most evident immediately after the events of 9/11. Block’s work can at the same time give a scholar of these trials the historical context with which they can hypothesise about the nation’s response and provide the scholar of the American colonial experience with a new way of thinking about the past. A Nation of Agents has managed to change the historical impact of the Revolution and create a new model through which students and academics can comprehend the intellectual and cultural mechanisms of modern American society.

As well as being a very erudite and meticulous piece of work, A Nation of Agents is quite a personal piece of academic investigation. I believe Block had spent at least eight years researching the material and writing the manuscript. Block describes how he had visited the Terra Museum in Chicago and encountered the George Caleb Bingham painting The Jolly Flatboatmen (1877-1878)—the picture that adorns the front cover of the jacket sleeve of A Nation of Agents. To Block this painting epitomised the feeling of freedom, frontier expansion, and the spirit of individualism that had so far characterised his project—no doubt he had experienced long periods of isolation as the author of such a large tome. But Block describes how he had to switch to ‘book’ mode as he realised how contradictory the painting really was. Instead of symbolising freedom and boundless liberation the picture championed order and constraint, the paradox that Block was trying to tackle in his work. Through this story the reader can get an immediate and clear ‘picture’ of what A Nation of Agents is about and how it provides an appropriate theory for the recurrent debate between liberation and limitation:

I was quickly brought back from my reverie to the subtle, nearly invisible tie-lines of order in the painting, an order so intrinsic to the experience of release as to fade within it. The midwestern frontier, we know as did Bingham in 1877, was nearly settled; the river was no undemarcated field but a very clearly defined path of settlement and commerce; the music evoked not simply antinomian release but also the powerful quest for popular order, enabling the boatmen to play and dance to their own melodies, but in time, together, with more or less fixed notes and steps. (ix)

With this picture in mind throughout reading the book, one can begin to understand the powerful connections between America’s love of liberty and order. That the two should come together in such a painting and in such a work as Block’s testifies to the uniqueness of the American foundational experience. A Nation of Agents proposes that the American self is an agent of society, where the individual is both unique and part of a community of people with the same progressive aims—America had become a nation of agents. Ironically in the twenty-first century, with such natural abundance and the willingness to advertise its new found freedom around the world, it continues to prosper as the last ‘heroic’ superpower within a global community.



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