Kurt Andersen's Heyday is more a feat of research than it is the Great American Novel, but it's no mere feat of research. Set between 1848 and 1850—when revolution swept across Europe and the U.S. grappled with manifest destiny—Heyday gambols from Paris to London to New York and points west, taking in the seismic changes. The book's main protagonist is Ben, a British aristocrat-turned-socialist who immigrates to America to be part of the great democratic experiment. There, he befriends siblings Duff and Polly, the former a fireman (and part-time arsonist), the latter an actress (and part-time prostitute). The whole bunch is quasi-mentored by Scaggs, an erstwhile scribe and cynic, who makes sure they're aware of what lies beneath their idealism, even as he loves them all for being dreamers.
Andersen places these likeable leads in a self-consciously Dickensian world, full of coincidental meetings and sordid streets of shame; there may be too much contrast between Heyday's frothy plot and its detailed, often gamy recreation of the mid-19th century. But the characters and story are really just lenses through which to view history, and as a history book, Heyday is terrific. When Ben or Scaggs walk through New York, Andersen indulges himself with long, flavorful descriptions of dandified thugs, the smell of hot roasted corn, the mania for panoramas, and the sound of revelers reciting the Declaration Of Independence in celebration of July 4.
One of Andersen's major premises is that Americans in 1848 were uniquely aware of their nation's magnificence and the rapid remaking of the world in the wake of the U.S. constitution, just 60 years earlier. Much of Heyday's dialogue consists of people marveling to each other about telegraphy, railway travel, and the rise in enlightened spiritualism. Andersen's heroes meet and chat with the likes of Charles Darwin, Walt Whitman, Steven Foster, Frederick Engels, and Edgar Allen Poe, and Andersen makes them seem like our contemporaries, modern in their thinking and disposition. Heyday is ostensibly about the evolution of culture, and how America transformed from Europe's gangly cousin to its worldly boyhood chum (who never calls any more). But the unspoken question—the one that hangs over Heyday like a morning fog—is, if America is the evolved version of Europe, what distant nation is waiting in the wings to supersede us?