Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 by Jackson Learsd
Lears describes his bookas a “synthetic reinterpretation” of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, an effort to dislodge classics like Richard Hofstadter’s “Age of Reform”(1955) and Robert Wiebe’s “Search for Order, 1877-1920”(1967). It’s an ambitious project; both books, despite legions of critics, have shown remarkable staying power. Fortunately, Lears is well qualified for the task. One of the deans of American cultural history (as well as a professor at Rutgers University), Lears has spent decades writing about turn-of-the-20th-century debates over consumerism, modernity, religion and market capitalism. With “Rebirth of a Nation,” he expands his vision to include politics, war and the presidency as well. The book’s title — a play on D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” — suggests two of Lears’s greatest revisionist concerns: the lasting influence of Civil War violence and “the rising significance of race.” Beginning in the 1870s, he argues, Americans attempted to stitch their country back together around a “militarist fantasy” of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Yet rather than bringing the hoped-for personal and national redemption, their efforts produced tragedy. According to Lears, the same cultural logic that justified lynching in the American South and the conquest of American Indians in the West eventually led to war in Cuba, the Philippines and Europe — and, a century later, to our own mess in Iraq. Lears is hardly the first scholar to address these themes. But he is among the most far-reaching, seeking to redefine an era known for its reformist energies as a time when militarism and racismall too often triumphed over more pacific, democratic ideals. Like any good synthesis, “Rebirth of a Nation”dutifully covers the major trends of the age: the rise of industrial capitalism, the expansion of American empire, the tightening chokehold of Jim Crow. What brings new life to this material is the book’s emphasis on how Americans’ “inner lives” came to shape their outer worlds. Events that appear to be struggles for conquest and plunder turn out, in Lears’s view, to be animated by a personal search for meaning. “The rise of total war between the Civil War and World War I was rooted in longings for release from bourgeois normality into a realm of heroic struggle,” he writes. “This was the desperate anxiety, the yearning for rebirth, that lay behind official ideologies of romantic nationalism, imperial progress and civilizing mission — and that led to the trenches of the Western Front This approach can exaggerate the impact of culture (great-power diplomacy, too, led to the trenches). But “Rebirth of a Nation” captures something undeniably powerful about the nation’s psychic crisis as it recovered from the wounds of civil war. The late 19th century brought vast change at nearly every level of culture and society, from the growth of white-collar employment to the dislocations of mass immigration and urbanization. This crisis was particularly acute for white men, who found their traditional sources of power and identity challenged at every turn. In response, Lears writes, they turned to solutions ranging from the muscular Christianity of the Y.M.C.A. to the Populist struggle for self-determination to bloody conflicts on the battlefield. Lears’s “poster boy” for this aggressive new masculinity is Teddy Roosevelt, whose blend of boosterism, progressivism and unabashed imperialism captured both its high ideals and serious dangers. Like so many reformers, Roosevelt sought to remake American society along more equitable and democratic lines. At the same time, he believed that Anglo-Saxon men possessed a God-given right to dominate the world. In both cases, Lears suggests, Roosevelt’s politics were the product of a profound internal struggle. “There must be control,” Roosevelt wrote in the 1890s. “There must be mastery, somewhere, and if there is no self-control and self-mastery, the control and the mastery will ultimately be imposed from without.” He was writing to Rudyard Kipling about the problem of governing “dark-hued” peoples, but he might as well have been writing about his own psyche. While Roosevelt serves as the book’s protagonist, its pages are filled with lively portraits of other period figures, from the escape artist Harry Houdini to the settlement house worker and peace activist Jane Addams. Lears uses these men and women as exemplars of broad cultural trends: Houdini transformed magic “from spiritualism to strenuousness”; Addams represented “an alternative to militarism for romantic young professionals.” “Rebirth of a Nation” also includes glimpses of humbler Americans eking out lives at the margins of the era’s great conflicts. In one moving section, Lears recounts the story of Emily French, a “hard-worked woman,” in her words, whose abandonment by her husband left her nearly destitute (and who happened to keep a detailed diary of her struggles). At times, it’s not quite clear how these disparate figures all fit into the theme of “rebirth,” a concept at once highly specific and conveniently broad. In addition, Lears never satisfyingly explains why the brutality of the Civil War spawned dreams of heroics, while World War I produced a consensus that American soldiers were “dying in vain.” But these are minor quibbles. “Rebirth of a Nation”is a major work by a leading historian at the top of his game — at once engaging and tightly argued. Like the best histories, it is also a book that speaks to our own time. In his conclusion, Lears explicitly identifies Roosevelt as George W. Bush’s true “ideological ancestor,” a rebuttal to those who would place the universalist Woodrow Wilson first in the Iraq war’s genealogy. Still, it’s on the subject of economic culture — long a staple of Lears’s work — that “Rebirth of a Nation”delivers its most pointed critique. Lears completed his manuscript before the current financial crisis, and before the Obama administration came to power advertising its own message of “rebirth.” His descriptions of budding American consumerism nonetheless resonate strongly with present-day concerns. In his chapter on “The Mysterious Power of Money,” Lears quotes Mark Twain satirizing the excesses of the first Gilded Age: “Beautiful credit! The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises?” The reality, Lears reminds us, was far less glamorous. “A great deal of waste, fraud and corruption went into the making of the modern American economy,” he writes in a description that might be transferred wholesale to our own Gilded Age, “and much of it was concentrated on Wall Street.” Sep 25, 2015 11:55 pm Status Not Started Grade Scale Points (max 100.0) Instructions History 313 Paper One Describe and evaluate Jackson Lears’ theme of “rebirth” in Rebirth of a Nation. In his argument, how did ideas about regeneration shape American culture and life in this period? Is his thematic organization convincing? Be sure to address all of the book’s major themes. Use Lears, and any other class materials (primary sources, etc) as desired. Papers should be about 4 pages in length, double-spaced. Margins should be no more than 1.25” all around. Papers must be carefully edited, use appropriate written English (not slang), and have a descriptive title and page numbers. Cite all information, format citations consistently (use Chicago, Turabian, or MLA style), and supply a works-cited section or bibliography.