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'Rebirth of a Nation' by Jackson Lears

A cultural exploration of America's rise from the rubble of the Civil War and its transformation into a modern nation in the early 20th century.

June 12, 2009|Tim Rutten

Jackson Lears is a formidable, compellingly original cultural and intellectual historian.

In "No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920," Lears skillfully delineated the role of aesthetic radicals -- notably Englishmen John Ruskin and William Morris and their American disciples -- in staking out humane alternatives to consumerism that gradually shifted from social justice to ideals of therapeutic personal fulfillment. In "Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America," he explored the exploitation of that hunger for "authenticity" that resulted from the earlier process.

"Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920" is Lears' most ambitious work, and it builds brilliantly on those earlier projects. The Rutgers University professor makes a convincing case that the transformations the U.S. underwent in the half-century's journey from the "long shadow of Appomattox" into the terrible flare-lit night of the European trenches remain fundamental to our understanding of ourselves -- and to the conduct of our affairs.

What Lears makes of that is clear from the quote he takes from Herman Melville at the book's outset: "Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come." To summarize the author's sense of the transformation almost to the point of oversimplification: An earlier 19th century notion of "manliness" gave way to an amoral militarism that fused with a muscular new Protestantism and evolving theories of racial supremacy; these conjoined with a new economic order in which capital made way for capitalism. All could meld because each began in the post-Civil War hunger for "regeneration." The result was an assertive, aggressive, frequently intolerant national identity.

What make "Rebirth of a Nation" so readable -- beyond the author's writerly facility -- and save it from a descent into didacticism are Lears' skillful mining of cultural references and his strikingly drawn portraits. This is particularly true of figures a reader already imagines knowing -- Oliver Wendell Holmes or William Jennings Bryan, for example -- and, especially, the great financiers. The concise portrait of the dominant Wall Street figure of the age, J.P. Morgan, is extremely well-rendered, as is the encapsulation of his all-transforming financial system, "Morganization," which essentially was the shift of a company's equity from interest-paying bonds to stocks that depend on earnings. (Unlike credit default swaps, it was a financial innovation that worked.)

Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were two money magicians who migrated from a mastery of insider trading -- the foundation of the era's great market-based fortunes -- to the invention of systematic philanthropy, though not, as is so often assumed, to assuage troubled consciences. As Lears puts it, "Despite vast differences in personal style, Carnegie and Rockefeller had much in common. Eventually both migrated to systematic philanthropy, contributing to the common good even as they disregarded it in their business practices. Both shared a tendency to conflate their own interests with those of society . . . as well as a talent for self-deception that dissolved moral ambivalence in a warm bath of ideological certitude. In this they were no different from captains of commerce in their time and ours."

Lears has the natural breadth of interests and grasp of multiple genres that mark a truly accomplished cultural historian. He's particularly good at drawing together details that reveal the complexities and contradictions of political and economic turmoil. Edward House, for example, one of Woodrow Wilson's closest advisors, was a phony Texas colonel who wrote a dystopian futuristic novel in which Philip Dru, a young West Point graduate, takes military command of the Progressive forces in a second civil war against the monopoly capitalists. After Dru and his Progressives crush the monopolists in an apocalyptic battle, he "appoints himself dictator to oversee the return to a constitutional and efficiently administered democracy, subdues 'the revolu- tionaries and bandits' in Mexico, extends the United States throughout North America from the equator to the pole" before abdicating and sailing away with the heroine.

Similarly, Lears is bracingly insistent on the contingent nature of many of this era's processes -- ones whose conclusions many of us treat as preordained. "It is important to see the post-Reconstruction history of African-Americans not as a swift and inevitable descent to a nadir but as a period when freed people struggled, sometimes successfully, to sustain the meaning of black emancipation against the relentless reassertion of white supremacy."

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