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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Televison

Connecting the Millenniums

November 18, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Do you get glassy-eyed when trying to program your VCR, feel IQ-challenged when surfing the Internet or seeking to unknot the tech-tangle known as high-definition TV?

Then you'll relate to this:

"I am surrounded now by systems that make me an idiot because I do not know how they work nor do I know how to fix them nor do I even know how they made them in the first place. . . . This feeling of being made small as an adult in the face of systems that transcend your intelligence [is] a price tag for progress."

The year? 1900.

At least those are historian John M. Staudenmaier's words in a PBS documentary tonight as he speaks in the voice of Americans who he says were dazzled, even overwhelmed by the crush of newfangled gizmos that were coming into use nearly a century ago.

They included lightbulbs, phonographs, electric fans, telephones and movie projectors, a trailblazing renaissance of technology that another historian, John Milton Cooper Jr., calls unprecedented. As was, perhaps, public frustration over coping with this avalanche of breakthroughs.

The deja vu is palpable, for this is not unlike what many Americans feel today while facing not only the cosmic challenge of the Internet but also, among other things, a changing TV universe that will favor complex new stuff over the old electromagnetic waves that none of us understand either. And then there's the V-chip.

Oy!

The message, of course, is that, in ways of human nature, we're not as distant from 1900 as we might think as we approach a new century--the occasion for this flashback being tonight's season premiere of "The American Experience." What a year, what a show.

History is the story that PBS tells best, and the creamiest of its social historians is "The American Experience," whose chronicling of the United States is consistently as rich, deep and captivating as anything on television. Especially with series host David McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, doing the narration. Whatever he reads resonates with understated authority.

The occasion this time is David Grubin's "America 1900," which is dazzling--three hours of lively comments from scholars, personalized stories and amazing old footage and photos that transport you back nearly 100 years to a time in the United States when the population was 76 million, the president was William McKinley, income tax was nil and most Americans, we're assured tonight, were optimistic about the new century. That optimism would be tested.

You wonder if what this documentary says about 1900, give or take a few months, is at all close to what they'll be saying about us in the neighborhood of 100 years from now: Lots of possibilities, not all of them realized? Or will it be Lewinsky, Lewinsky, Lewinsky?

The U.S. economy in 1900 was thriving, personal income was soaring and the nation led the planet in education. Frolicking beach bathers--and notice the astonishing quality of this footage--epitomize an upbeat attitude extending coast to coast. Despite some nasty snarls abroad, what was there to worry?

"For most Americans, it must have been a great time to be alive," Cooper says. But not for all Americans.

Grubin and co-writer Judy Crichton skillfully track a number of parallel stories, some turbulent, some ultimately converging hauntingly.

In 1900, we hear, 90% of the nation's African Americans lived in the South, their gains after the Civil War mostly erased by poll taxes, literacy tests and lynchings. One of these vigilante hangings is shown so gruesomely--the victim was also torched--that you instantly share the anger and frustration that George White, the nation's only black congressman, surely felt when his attempt to make lynching a federal crime was overwhelmingly voted down. His story is poignant--and demoralizing.

Related here with suspenseful fury, meanwhile, is a hurricane that became the greatest natural disaster in the nation's history, sweeping a tidal wave over Galveston, Texas, that reduced the tourist town of 36,000 to a lumber heap and killed one-sixth of its population.

Dragging on indefinitely was a devastating strike in Pennsylvania against coal operators controlled by financier J. Pierpoint Morgan. A measure of the workers' suffering is visible in striking photos of boy miners, their eyes and teeth flashing white from coal-blackened faces.

The program's warm memoir of a family of Christian missionaries in sickly China turns grim when slamming into a rebellion by the Boxers--a fanatical sect decrying foreigners as "devils"--that prompted McKinley to send in U.S. troops.

And threading all of this are personal and political anecdotes about the president and a growing sense of unease about his safety at a time when anarchists appear to have world leaders everywhere in their cross-hairs. He won't live to see 1901.

Still comes the optimism, the buoyant spirit that seems intrinsic to the culture.

The nation "appeared to have everything," McCullough says. "The possibilities in America seemed greater than they had ever been." In 1900, he adds, newspapers and magazines predicted marvelous things to come.

And they would, but not always and not for everyone.

*

* "American 1900" airs on "The American Experience" at 8 tonight on KCET-TV.

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