U.S. History From a Professor’s ‘Remythologized’ Viewpoint



Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders

By Jacob Needleman

Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam

372 pages, $25.95


The writing of American history flourished ever more strongly as the 20th century unfolded. American historians, building on the work of their often illustrious predecessors, looked at the story of this country with ever-increasing sophistication and depth.

So it is startling to encounter a book whose author says he wants to “remythologize” the story of America, to rebuild its “mythic meaning.” Joseph Needleman, the writer and popular professor of philosophy at San Francisco State, has in “The American Soul” served up a messy soup of vague religion, patriotism and questionable readings of the American past.

Needleman asserts that the founding basis of this country was “not land or tribe, but the call for people to assemble together and work together for the Good.” This call, which he implies had a religious basis, has been lost, he says.


Exactly why it has been lost, Needleman does not say. He implies, though, that this “loss” had something to do with the Vietnam War, and says bluntly that “the war [in which he did not serve] destroyed the meaning of America for millions of the rest of us.”

What, in fact, is the “meaning of America” that was destroyed? Needleman does not say, directly. Instead, he gives long quotations from Walt Whitman’s essay “Democratic Vistas,” in which Whitman waxes lyrical about the potential individual improvement of men and women, “bearing golden fruit.”

From Whitman’s prose he proceeds to his own:

“The teachings of wisdom bring us,” Needleman intones, “to the idea that it is through [the] inner power of intelligence and conscience that the Good can enter the world of man and, through humanity, the world of the earth. Wisdom teaches us that the world has become what it has become, human life has become what it has become because man has lost contact with this consciousness and power of understanding within himself.

“What is sometimes called God, so the teachings tell us, acts in the world to help the world--yes, but not as some fairy-tale father figure with a white beard moving the chess pieces of history, but through the authentic consciousness of man.

“It is that consciousness--morally asleep in us though it be--through which the helping powers operate. Through us, and into the earth, and from the earth back to the Source as man’s genuine help for the creator. The Founders of America were passionately oriented to teachings that in some distinct and significant measure reflected those ideas.”

So that’s it? “The meaning of America” somehow, perhaps, reflects some Divine Plan? Throughout “The American Soul” Needleman hints at such a meaning, but he is never explicit. (Just what are those “helping powers,” anyway?) Needleman’s prose brings urgently to mind Mark Twain’s 12th rule of writing in his 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”: The author shall “say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.”


Needleman addresses slavery, by focusing on Frederick Douglass, and the American Indian, through tales and legends. Both are gripping subjects, but Needleman diminishes both by his exaggerations. “ ... America was built,” he writes, “on the destruction of its native peoples and on the institution of slavery....To a great extent, the material success of America rests on these crimes and others like them.”

Economic historians would differ. Slavery did not advance but retarded the economic growth of the slave states. The lamentable destruction of the Indian way of life was not a cause but a consequence of the spreading flood of white settlers across the continent. And what those other crimes were, Needleman does not say.

More often a bull session than reasoned discourse, far more emotional than analytical, “The American Soul” obscures its subject by a verbal blizzard in which both writer and reader lose their way.