In the face of seemingly relentless American optimism, Eugene O’Neill's plays reveal an America many would like to ignore, a place of seething resentments, aching desires, and family tragedy, where failure and disappointment are the norm and the American dream a chimera. Though derided by critics during his lifetime, his works resonated with audiences, won him the Nobel Prize and four Pulitzer, and continue to grip theatergoers today. Now noted historian John Patrick Diggins offers a masterly biography that both traces O’Neill’s tumultuous life and explains the forceful ideas that form the heart of his unflinching works.
Diggins paints a richly detailed portrait of the playwright’s life, from his Irish roots and his early years at sea to his relationships with his troubled mother and brother. Here we see O’Neill as a young Greenwich Village radical, a ravenous autodidact who attempted to understand the disjunction between the sunny public face of American life and the rage that he knew was simmering beneath. According to Diggins, O’Neill mined this disjunction like no other American writer. His characters burn with longing for an idealized future composed of equal parts material success and individual freedom, but repeatedly they fall back to earth, pulled by the tendrils of family and the insatiability of desire. Drawing on thinkers from Emerson to Nietzsche, O’Neill viewed this endlessly frustrated desire as the problematic core of American democracy, simultaneously driving and undermining American ideals of progress, success, and individual freedom.
Melding a penetrating assessment of O’Neill’s works and thought with a sensitive re-creation of his life, Eugene O’Neill’s America offers a striking new view of America’s greatest playwright—and a new picture of American democracy itself.
The Lost Soul of American Politics is a provocative new interpretation of American political thought from the Founding Fathers to the Neo-Conservatives. Reassessing the motives and intentions of such great political thinkers as Madison, Thoreau, Lincoln, and Emerson, John P. Diggins shows how these men struggled to create an alliance between the politics of self-interest and a religious sense of moral responsibility—a tension that still troubles us today.
For much of our century, pragmatism has enjoyed a charmed life, holding the dominant point of view in American politics, law, education, and social thought in general. After suffering a brief eclipse in the post-World War II period, pragmatism has experienced a revival, especially in literary theory and such areas as poststructuralism and deconstruction. In this critique of pragmatism and neopragmatism, one of our leading intellectual historians traces the attempts of thinkers from William James to Richard Rorty to find a response to the crisis of modernism. John Patrick Diggins analyzes the limitations of pragmatism from a historical perspective and dares to ask whether America's one original contribution to the world of philosophy has actually fulfilled its promise.
"Diggins, an eminent historian of American intellectual life, has written a timely and impressive book charting the rich history of American pragmatism and placing William James, Charles Peirce, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Sidney Hook, and Richard Rorty in their times and in the light of contemporary concerns. The book also draws on an alternative set of American thinkers to explore the blind spots in the pragmatic temper."—William Connolly, New York Times Book Review
"An extraordinarily ambitious work of both analysis and synthesis. . . . Diggins's book is rewarding in its thoughtfulness and its nuanced presentation of ideas."—Daniel J. Silver, Commentary
"Diggins's superbly informed book comprises a comprehensive history of American pragmatic thought. . . . It contains expert descriptions of James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce, the first generation of American pragmatists. . . . Diggins is just as good on the revival of pragmatism that's taken place over the last 20 years in America. . . . [A] richly intelligent book."—Mark Edmundson, Washington Post Book World
Why Niebuhr Now?
John Patrick Diggins University of Chicago Press, 2011 Library of Congress BX4827.N5D54 2011 | Dewey Decimal 230.044092
Barack Obama has called him “one of my favorite philosophers.” John McCain wrote that he is “a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war.” Andrew Sullivan has said, “We need Niebuhr now more than ever.” For a theologian who died in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr is maintaining a remarkably high profile in the twenty-first century.
In Why Niebuhr Now? acclaimed historian John Patrick Diggins tackles the complicated question of why, at a time of great uncertainty about America’s proper role in the world, leading politicians and thinkers are turning to Niebuhr for answers. Diggins begins by clearly and carefully working through Niebuhr’s theology, which focuses less on God’s presence than his absence—and the ways that absence abets the all-too-human sin of pride. He then shows how that theology informed Niebuhr’s worldview, leading him to be at the same time a strong opponent of fascism and communism and a leading advocate for humility and caution in foreign policy.
Turning to the present, Diggins highlights what he argues is a misuse of Niebuhr’s legacy on both the right and the left: while neoconservatives distort Niebuhr’s arguments to support their call for an endless war on terror in the name of stopping evil, many liberal interventionists conveniently ignore Niebuhr’s fundamental doubts about power. Ultimately, Niebuhr’s greatest lesson is that, while it is our duty to struggle for good, we must at the same time be wary of hubris, remembering the limits of our understanding.
The final work from a distinguished writer who spent his entire career reflecting on America’s history and promise, Why Niebuhr Now? is a compact and perceptive book that will be the starting point for all future discussions of Niebuhr.