Fantasyland | Kurt Andersen

Summary of: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History
By: Kurt Andersen


Embark on a whirlwind journey through America’s history of unbridled fantasy in this engrossing summary of ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History’ by Kurt Andersen. Unravel the tale of America’s obsession with gold, fueled by European explorations and expeditions. Discover how the Book of Mormon shaped American religious beliefs and the fantasies that led to the rise of extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Peer into the lives of 1960s and 1970s American youth, lost in drug-induced fantasies, and the resulting obsession with mystical beliefs. Understand how adults embraced a never-ending childhood with activities and habits carried on from their younger years. Finally, uncover the dangerous fantasies around guns and the irrational need for personal protection in today’s America.

The Gold-Fueled American Expeditions

In 1492, Christopher Columbus unintentionally discovered the Americas during his quest for a superior shipping route between Europe and Asia. This “New World” rapidly piqued the interest of European powers, notably Spain and England, who sought to exploit its vast wealth. Spanish explorers came across the Aztec and Inca empires, plundering their substantial gold reserves and bolstering Spain’s transatlantic empire. England, envious of this newfound wealth, commissioned Sir Walter Raleigh to convince Queen Elizabeth I of abundant gold in North America. Despite the lack of evidence, Elizabeth launched multiple English expeditions in search of gold, all ending in tragic failure. The persistence of King James led to the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia, where colonists ultimately found prosperity in tobacco, not gold.

Unveiling the Book of Mormon

In the early 1800s, a New Yorker named Joseph Smith claimed to have discovered the Book of Mormon through divine intervention, ultimately garnering a significant following. The book, which echoes a fanciful connection between ancient Jerusalem and America, established Mormonism as a religious force in the United States. This phenomenon demonstrated the willingness of Americans to embrace fantastical ideas, particularly ones resonating with their sense of national exceptionalism.

Emerging in 1830, the Book of Mormon has had a considerable impact on American religious landscape. Joseph Smith, a young man from New York, asserted that an angel had guided him to gold plates containing previously unknown biblical texts. Transcribing these plates, Smith introduced a fascinating tale of Israelites sailing from Jerusalem to America in the 6th century BC, resulting in a thriving civilization visited by Jesus Christ himself.

This imaginative narrative struck a chord with Americans, who were fascinated by the prospect of their homeland having biblical significance akin to Jerusalem. Within a decade, nearly 20,000 people embraced Smith’s Mormon Church, showcasing the American appetite for wondrous and unique stories. The Mormon population continued to grow and eventually, in the mid-19th century, its members ventured westward, establishing the state of Utah as their religious haven.

Delusions of Slavery and Supremacy

Even three decades after the abolition of slavery, there were those who fantasized that slavery was a time of joy and prosperity for African-Americans. Nate Salsbury, for instance, created a theme park in Brooklyn in 1895 that falsely portrayed the blissful lives of slaves working on Southern plantations, even receiving praise from The New York Times. Furthermore, as the African-American community began moving into white neighborhoods in the early twentieth century, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) gained momentum, promoting their twisted version of white supremacy. By the early 1920s, 5% of white males in the US were part of the KKK, and their hateful propaganda even reached the White House through the film The Birth of a Nation.

Despite the horrific reality of slavery, some Americans chose to believe in a distorted, happy version of the cruel institution. One such individual was Nate Salsbury who, thirty years after the Civil War, recreated a grotesque theme park romanticizing slavery. The park displayed an embellished interpretation of slaves’ lives on Southern plantations, with African-American actors living in cabins and picking cotton.

This cruel spectacle gained popularity and validation as The New York Times lauded the depiction of the “happy, careless” lives of Southern slaves. Salsbury subsequently took his show on the road, touring the American Northeast.

On the other hand, as African-Americans began settling into formerly all-white neighborhoods in the early twentieth century, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) experienced a surge in membership. Between 1910 and 1925, the KKK’s power expanded drastically, fueled by their invented beliefs of black inferiority and a need to preserve white supremacy.

These bigoted fantasies not only manifested in the KKK’s absurd costumes and titles, but also in popular culture. The 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, offered a twisted portrayal of the KKK as heroes and was even showcased as the first film to be screened at the White House.

The American Psychedelic Revolution

The 1960s and 1970s marked a period of significant cultural change in the United States as the “hippie” movement and the sexual revolution emerged. College attendance surged, and cannabis use skyrocketed, with daily consumption becoming commonplace among one-third of students. Recreational drug use extended to professors as well, with LSD gaining popularity among Americans – nearly 32 million people have reportedly tried these psychedelics. This widespread drug use brought about a mingling of fantasies and reality, leading to a rise in beliefs around magic, mysticism, and anti-rationalism among college students, as observed by the New York Times Magazine, which reported on the growing interest in séances, UFOs, witchcraft, and tarot cards.

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