I finally got to Morris Berman’s latest book, Why America Failed (WAF), and uncharacteristically polished it off in about a week. Since I had been a regular reader and sometimes commentator at Prof. Berman’s blog, Dark Ages America, my familiarity with his themes and evidence meant I didn’t have to slow or stop to contemplate ideas as I usually do with nonfiction. WAF had been on my reading list since it appeared in November 2011 but was behind other reading projects, including several of the books cited prominently in WAF.
WAF is the third book in Prof. Berman’s so-called American trilogy, which includes The Twilight of American Culture (2001) and Dark Ages America (2007). Of the three, WAF is easily the least original, which is to say, most derivative. For example, in the space of a mere two pages (pp. 92-93), chosen by simply flipping the book open, Berman cites on the page and in the footnotes Lewis Mumford, Jimmy Carter, Carroll Pursell, Kelvin Willoughby, Robert Redfield, Marshall McLuhan, and Herbert Marcuse. That referential density stays constant throughout the book. Berman weaves together his voluminous evidence with exceptionally clarity, which makes his synthesis valuable as a summation of arguments from a variety of historians and cultural critics. Yet at 228 pp. including notes, it felt like reading an expanded review of research portion of a doctoral dissertation that never really goes on to develop an original thesis or report new research. Further, Berman’s tone, though usually sober and academic, veers at times toward the populist, colloquial, and even sarcastic. For instance, in his discussion of Americans’ debt spending to support lifestyle, he writes that Americans “spent their eyeballs out.”