American Thinkers

Quick question for you all reading. I’m trying to think of current, living, vital writers, thinkers, public figures, artists, entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, etc., who are uncommonly sensitive to the deep zeitgeist of American life, able to communicate easily and powerfully to wide audiences, and particularly able to capture the richness and zest of American society and history in its ambiguity and uncertainties without being polemical. I’m looking for people who have their finger on the pulse of American society. Sense of humor and ability to not take oneself overly seriously is helpful but not necessary.

To give you some examples, some people I thought fit the bill, more or less, were:

Larry McMurtry
Garry Wills
Jon Stewart
Stephen King

Suggestions? I’ll settle also for independent, contrarian thinkers who arguably could have that kind of sharply observed perspective on American social and political life, even if they largely write about other things, like George Packer.

Update: Gary Farber and Patrick Nielsen Hayden correct my spelling. And I reveal something of what I had in mind in asking this question, all below in the comments. Plus many cool suggestions, some of whom were on my own long list, some of whom were not.

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61 Responses to American Thinkers

  1. Timothy Burke says:

    Great suggestion on Rodriguez. Didion’s on my own personal list already, but I’m kicking myself for not having added Rodriguez.

    Lapham, maybe, though, geezus, he’s fucking predictable lately. I could write his Harper’s pieces for him, anybody could.

    Cowell’s kind of an interesting choice. He’s had some very interesting, sharp-tongued (naturally) things to say about the American character.

  2. CMarko says:

    Chris Rock. He has a knack for speaking the truth and making people laugh with it–a talent he shares with Jon Stewart. He does take himself seriously, though.
    I wonder if there might be a place on your list for religious or motivational gurus? Rick Warren in particular is clearly tapping into something in current American culture.

  3. Ben P says:

    Mike Davis – best leftwing intellectual in the world, and a great, great historian. Def. polemic, although “Magical Urbanism” is the best short summary of the contemporary Latino experience in America.

    David Brooks – his editorial writing is frequently dishonest, but his books, I think, are very good

    Tom Wolfe – “A Man in Full” is a hugely underrated novel.

    Godfrey Hodgson – a British journalist who has written several brilliant and canonical (for grad students) works about American since 1945

  4. Ben P says:

    BTW, Stephen King!!! WTF!

  5. texter says:

    Is everyone sure that R. Rodriguez is a democrat!? (I thought that would be a prerequisite for restructuring the democratic party! :))
    (note: his works have moved me tremendously)

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Naw, I think the Dems need to hear from people who have deep insight into the US and who aren’t committed partisans on the right. Rodriguez fits the bill.

    I love City of Quartz but I’ve found Davis’ later books to be increasingly strained in many respects.

    I think King is a very good writer in many respects, and I definitely think that when he’s in his groove, he has some insights into the American zeitgeist that are pretty distinctive.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Also I like the suggestion of Chris Rock. Also Warren is an interesting choice. I’d like to think of other spiritual or religious leaders who fit the bill.

  8. Western Dave says:

    On the little known but should be breaking out bigtime list:

    Jennifer Price author of Flight Maps. Nobody does the human-nature intersection better. Her essays inlcude things like “Looking for nature at the mall” and “A Natural History of the Plastic Pink Flamingo” She is the American contradiction. She is an environmental writer who loves L.A., (and what real American doesn’t)?

    Craig Werner: The man for politcal – cultural intersections. His blog at Holler if ya hear me is fantastic. His books are amazing.

    Pete Daniels: He might single-handedly bring the South back to the democrats. He gets NASCAR. ’nuff siad.

    Better known people who haven’t been mentioned yet:

    Jish Gen.
    Richard White (although he knows he is the smartest guy in the room, so that’s a problem)

    Laura at 11D
    Russel Arben Fox

    Votes for
    Gary Wills
    Anna Quindlin
    Joss Wheedon

    Votes against
    Mike Davis (polemical and clearly out of touch with US people)
    T.J. Jackson Lears (He’s okay but certainly not the best historian in the US right now, not even on my top 10 list and not exactly accessible).

  9. DougLathrop says:

    J. Michael Straczynski.

  10. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    Richard Rodriguez and Gish Jen (not Jish Gen) are great suggestions!

    If the agenda is to figure out who Democrats need to listen to about America then the answer is a lot of different people, and they need to listen to them in different ways. For example, I agree that Ehrenreich is pretty polemical, and that a lot of her recent work might not add that much to the discussion (most Democrats already know about injustice in America, one of the problems is to find a way to talk about it that doesn’t threaten or exclude or dash the hopes of the “middle class”). But _Fear of Falling_ and the discussions of the cultural meaning of success that grow out of it are key analytical perspectives on who Americans are and how they think. Which is why I think some Democrats should be reading and understanding Ortner too, and where I think Jackson Lears comes in: not so much for the work on advertising per se, but for the early work on the anxieties around identity in a world where one must win freinds and influence people, and for his recent work on luck: how does our imagination of the American public change if we take seriously the fact that it likes slot machines? Other useful analyses include those of Julie Lindquist (_A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working-Class Bar_) and the work of John Hartigan on whiteness. Joel Garreau is another interesting thinker–I haven’t read the most recent book, but _Edge Cities_ is good because it recognizes that sprawl happens because there are reasons people like it. Another book that I suspect would be good to throw into the mix (if challenging to apply politically in a direct way would be _Home Rules_ by Denis Wood & Robert Beck: rules for living in the Wood house, elicited from the Wood children: (150. “Don’t take the shade off and use it as a space helmet” 151. “The lamp can be moved but you have to put it back where it goes”.)

    The challenge, obviously, is turning all this into a politics, but I think some of the understandings referenced above are places we need to start.

  11. cynthia lugo says:

    how about john updike? and another one from the new yorker crew would be adam gopnik, who has very interesting ideas about national character in general. (he’s a wonderful speaker as well.)
    another great writer to include would be george saunders, whose recent “in persuasion nation” hits on a peculiarly american form of absurdity in just the right way.

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