When Americans first yearned to transform themselves and save the world
By Patricia O’Toole
June 1, 2009
Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 by Jackson Lears, Harper, 432 pp., $27.99
Whether he meant to or not, Jackson Lears has become the historian of American yearning. Rebirth of a Nation is his fourth venture into that territory and the second focused on the tumults of the years between the end of Reconstruction and the end of World War I. The first, No Place of Grace (1981), is an elegant, perceptive account of the aesthetes and intellectuals who shuddered at the voraciousness of the Industrial Age and longed for the passion and authenticity they ascribed to life in the Middle Ages, the Orient, and cultures unsullied by modernization. Fables of Abundance (1994) chronicles the rise of the advertising business, which prospered by inventing “needs” and inflaming desires for happiness of every description. And Something for Nothing (2002) presents three centuries’ worth of Americans handing themselves over to chance and praying for deliverance from the Protestant work ethic.
Rebirth of a Nation features an enormous and variegated cast of characters, all of them longing for regeneration—of mind, of body, of national will. Their yearnings arose from myriad anxieties: about the ruination lurking in every bottle of rum, the political aspirations of women and freed slaves, socialism and pacifism, assaults on Anglo-Saxon civilization, bodies going soft amid the comforts of modern life. While conceding that private desires do not always influence public affairs, Lears argues that this was a time when personal fears and regenerative dreams had profound, far-reaching effects: they transformed the politics and culture of the United States, and they were instrumental in launching modern America’s delusional (and apparently endless) crusade to save the world.
“This cauldron of emotions created an atmosphere of recurrent crisis,” Lears writes. And out of the cauldron spilled Prohibitionists, white supremacists, imperialists, champions of civil rights and women’s suffrage, union organizers, muckrakers, reformers, the robber baron reborn as philanthropist, the expert, the social theorist, the bodybuilder, and the YMCA, which promised spiritual as well as physical abs. All of them used “an evangelical idiom of corruption and regeneration,” Lears writes. “It was the coin of the political realm, fluid and adaptable to an endless variety of circumstances.”
The evangelizing voice that could be heard above all others belonged to Theodore Roosevelt, who summoned his countrymen to the strenuous life and muscular citizenship. “Over-sentimentality, over softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of the age and of this people,” he wrote soon after roughriding his way through Cuba. “Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.” The virtuous barbarian was stoic and knew neither fear nor fatigue.
Ferocious as Roosevelt sounds now, he was a lamb next to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (whom he would one day appoint to the Supreme Court). Holmes, wounded three times in the Civil War, loathed what he called “the revolt against pain in all its forms,” which in his mind included everything from socialism to societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. He told Harvard’s graduating class of 1895 that “the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.”
For Rebirth of a Nation, Lears has absorbed the works of figures as familiar as Holmes and Roosevelt and as obscure as Nat Love, born a slave in Tennessee in 1854. Love spent his first years on a plantation owned by a master who fought for the Confederacy, came home, and neglected to tell his slaves about their emancipation. When Love’s father found out, he set himself up as a farmer (on 20 acres rented from his old master) but died young. After a desperately hard childhood, Nat lit out for the West, was reborn as a cowboy, and for 15 years enjoyed a measure of fame as Deadwood Dick, rodeo champion. “The life of Nat Love was not as idiosyncratic as it seems,” Lears writes. Westward migration was one way for Southern blacks to lighten the load of injustice as white supremacist “Redeemers” recaptured Southern state governments and used their power to disenfranchise blacks and write segregation into the law. Love’s decision to head West was also quintessentially American. As Frederick Jackson Turner pointed out in 1893, the frontier had offered the opportunity for rebirth since the arrival of the first English settlers.
To one degree or another, Rebirth of a Nation traces the big developments of the age, from the rise of the corporation and modern finance to the immigrant flood to the panoply of reformist desires that coalesced in the Progressive movement to the emergence of a regenerative psychology promising liberation from fear and access to hidden energies.
Rebirth of a Nation devotes considerable attention to the foreign policy of the era, and contemporary Americans concerned about the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan will find Lears’s treatment of the subject instructive. Theodore Roosevelt and many other expansionists subscribed to the Protestant rhetoric of regeneration. The rhetoric had become pervasive by the time of the Spanish-American War, in 1898, and the religious nature of the rhetoric concealed the militarism, racism, and imperialism at the heart of the governing elite’s ambitions for the United States. The idea of regeneration was used to enlarge American power, enrich the country by turning all the world into a market for American goods, perpetuate the Anglo-Saxon version of civilization, and justify military intervention. Military intervention abroad—almost always in lands belonging to darker-skinned peoples—has been the American way since the overthrow of Hawaii’s monarchy in 1893.
The largest U.S. intervention of the era drafted four million soldiers in 1917 and sent two million of them to fight in World War I. Lears believes that the 110,000 Americans who died in the war died in vain and sees this war to end all wars, this war to make the world safe for democracy, as the disastrous climax of 40 years of regeneration palaver. President Woodrow Wilson believed that if the United States did not go to war, he would have no say in the peace. But the weight of the evidence is on Wilson’s side. As many historians have pointed out, the president made several offers to serve as mediator before the United States entered the war. All were declined. The pope tried, too, without success. There is little reason to think that the leader of any neutral nation would be asked to arbitrate once the war was over. No matter how the war turned out, the victors would want to punish the vanquished.
Longings for regeneration did not disappear from American public life after World War I, Lears writes, “but seldom if ever would they again animate such a wide variety of political crusades, with such ambitious goals.”
Jackson Lears excels at the miniature portrait, and his richly associative imagination enables him to make telling use of the Cecil B. De Mille–sized cast he assembled for Rebirth of a Nation. But the sheer number of characters and vignettes sometimes crowds the larger patterns out of the picture. It feels almost churlish to complain about an author so generous with his findings and his insights, but the reading is occasionally strenuous. Still, there is much more to admire than criticize in the Lears quartet on American yearning. Much more. And the admiration touches off a longing for his next book.
Patricia O’Toole is a contributing editor of The American Scholar and a professor in the School of the Arts at Columbia University. The author of The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends and When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House, she is now at work on a book about Woodrow Wilson.
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