Title: Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
Author: Jackson Lears
Categories: Progressive Era, Cultural History, Religion, Race, Imperialism, Reform, Manhood,
Place: United States
Time Period: 1877-1920
Lears traces the period between Reconstruction and World War I through the culture of a Protestant yearning for regeneration and rebirth. He stresses the importance of the Civil War, as the generation after it recast it as a melodrama that cleansed the nation and looked back on nostalgia for its reinvigorating attributes. In the years leading up to the 1890s, he paints a portrait similar to Robert Wiebe's - one in which capital is firmly in control and sweeping changes are breeding anxious responses, and particularly those of the antimonopolists such as the Greenbackers, Readjusters, and Populists. In this environment, the fluidity of race immediately after the war begins to harden and white manhood becomes a refuge for people disturbed by the changes around them (ex. lynching becomes a form of public cleansing and reassertion of white manhood). The turn towards militarism was one form, but Lears also points more optimistically towards a less muscular yearning in reformers and intellectuals like Jane Addams, William James, and Mark Twain.
By the turn of the century, laissez-faire capitalism was giving way to managerial corporate order, and with the "winning" of Protestant bourgeoise values, the middle and upper classes began to react against their sterile, managed environment (ex. neurasthenia). These people were torn between a desire for energy, force, and vitality (often taking the form of begrudging acknowledgment of the vitality of primitive peoples), and the need for social stability through restraints. This reaction took the form of a dual yearning for regeneration that was both political and personal (which separated Progressives from earlier Populists). On the personal side, many yearned to experience 'real life' and reclaim ideals of manliness and heroism (ex. body-building, football, muscular Christianity) and on the public side it veered towards Anglo-Saxon racist supremacy and imperialism abroad. Teddy Roosevelt becomes Lears's container for this impulse, and he is scathing in denouncing Roosevelt's militarist bent. Another major theme for Lears is the rise of consumption as a way towards national identity, where things like patent medicine merged personal and political regeneration. He is more sympathetic towards Progressivism as a whole, painting them largely as well-intentioned but misguided - a characterization that crystallizes in the form of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's reluctant entrance into WWI draws the era of militarist regeneration impulse to a close through the crushing brutality of war and the failure of the League of Nations and its Progressive ideals.
Although Lears takes a revisionist approach in his emphasis on Protestant culture as the defining characteristic of the period, he doesn't alter the basic framework set up by Wiebe and others. Instead he argues that the explanation for the period rests in white Protestantism, leaving him open to critiques about the fact that, for instance, women, non-whites, and non-Protestants are largely absent from his narrative.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Vitalism - importance of militarism, turn towards violence (lynching, football),
- Protestantism as cultural driving force of the period, especially "muscular Christianity" and yearning for rebirth
- Regeneration/Rebirth - both political and personal
- White manhood as stable refuge - hardening racial lines
- Energy vs. Restraint - yearning for vitality (consumerism, "Strenuous Life") balanced with trying to maintain order and stability (ex. scientific management)
- Civil War legacy - seen as a glorious reinvigorating contest
- Critical of this kind of cultural Protestantism: racism and militarism
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License