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Best Of Tnr 2008: American Adam

John B. Judis, writing in March, just as Obama was beginning to take control of the Democratic primary, explained just what it is about our times that made Obama's rise possible:

In his Studies in Classic American Literature, which appeared in 1923, D.H. Lawrence identified the celebration of the new and the rejection of the old as "the true myth of America." According to this myth, Lawrence wrote, America "starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth." The myth of America as Adam runs through our country's literature--from Walt Whitman's self-description as a "chanter of Adamic songs / Through the new garden the West," to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby to Ralph Ellison's invisible man. And it reemerges periodically in American politics--usually during times of upheaval or discontent.

In the early 1960s, after three recessions in a decade and the apparent loss of America's lead in space, President John F. Kennedy sounded the tocsin of change: "Change is the law of life," he said. "And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." Later, amid the growing unrest created by the Vietnam war, an Adamic culture took root among the revolutionaries of the New Left, who imagined revolution to be imminent. "The foundation of civilization is growing here," declared a spokesman for the Diggers, a San Francisco communal organization, adding, "Hope is ... the foundation of it."

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