The great harm done by the promiscuous misuse of superlatives in American literary life is that when a truly superlative piece of work comes along, all the words that might seem appropriate have long since been worn out. A reviewer is left groping for ways to explain, without resorting to clichés, how and why the truly outstanding stands out.
As befits a book that pays tribute to the American tradition of plain speaking, let me try a straightforward approach: Rebirth of a Nation is without doubt the finest contribution to U.S. history that I have encountered in recent memory. It may well be the best book on the subject I have ever read, the limits of memory notwithstanding—“best” here incorporating such qualities as breadth, originality, insight, humanity, wit, moral seriousness, and gracefulness of expression.
Jackson Lears is professor of history at Rutgers, where he also edits the quarterly journal Raritan. Neither he nor his approach to his discipline is easy to classify. Lears has much in common with the late Christopher Lasch, once a frequent contributor to Commonweal. A party of one in an age during which conformity to fashion became an esteemed value, Lasch was a clear-eyed, acerbic critic of sham, quackery, and pretension in whatever form they appeared. Suspicious of elites and their promises of peace, progress, and harmony just beyond the horizon, he empathized with plain folk, both rural and urban, who found themselves at the mercy of the market and of distant authorities always concocting some great crusade to put things right. Lasch also evinced a deep respect for the way ordinary Americans turned to religion and traditional culture to cope with the pressures and detritus of modernity. This, unless I misread him, describes the vantage point to which Lears adheres as well.
The present book applies this perspective to the several decades between the end of Reconstruction and Woodrow Wilson’s failure to induce the Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty. From this period of profound and wrenching transformation modern America emerged. It was a tumultuous time of horrendous economic instability, vast industrial conglomerates, Gilded Age excess, savagely violent labor disputes, the rise of Jim Crow accompanied by pernicious concepts like scientific racism and “Anglo-Saxonism,” reform impulses that produced populism and progressivism, the outward thrust of imperial expansion, the invention of movies and advertising, and the waging of war to make the world safe for democracy. With subtlety and a keen appreciation for irony and paradox, Lears weaves these and other seemingly disparate themes into an account that enables the reader to see the period whole. This is his great achievement: all the dots connect.
The axis around which his interpretation turns is the concept of “regeneration.” Whiplashed by a maelstrom of change—above all by the effects of corporate capitalism—Americans during this period yearned for spiritual, moral, and physical rebirth that would restore stability, control, and a sense of meaning to their lives. This yearning for rebirth, writes Lears, penetrated every aspect of public life, “inspiring the movements and policies that formed the foundation for American society in the twentieth century.” I would go further: the forces unleashed during this era triggered a response that continues to define American politics, broadly construed, even today. Unfulfilled, the yearning for rebirth persists.
The quest for regeneration not only justified but even required the shedding of blood in copious quantities, seen in many quarters as a prerequisite of redemption. Whether directed against freed blacks, immigrants of undesirable stock, the hidden powers who controlled the money supply and therefore the lives of farmers and laborers, or the uncivilized occupants of distant lands who stood in the way of progress, violence promised to cleanse, purify, revitalize, and renew. For those like Theodore Roosevelt who feared that the emerging culture of ease and abundance threatened to make Americans soft, violence—whether targeting wild game in Africa or wild-eyed insurgents in the Philippines—offered a way to preserve and nurture ancient and manly virtues. Not least among the author’s contributions, he traces the unseemly correlation between public morality, manliness, and militarism.
The ultimate expression of this belief in redemptive violence came with Wilson’s decision in early 1917 to intervene in the European conflict then called the Great War. In dispatching an army of doughboys to fight on the Western Front, writes Lears, Wilson sought “the regeneration not merely of the individual and the nation, but of the world.”
Much as with neoconservatives at the beginning of the present decade, the prospect of sending others to fight on distant battlefields in order to redeem both America and all of humankind met with considerable favor among the ostensible representatives of enlightened opinion. Then as now, Lears notes, “the loudest yelps for blood often come from those farthest from the battlefield.” Then as now, violence redeemed nothing. Wilson’s great crusade failed abysmally, exacting a great cost.
Rebirth of a Nation includes a wonderful comment by William James: “It is good to rid ourselves of cant and humbug, and know the truth about ourselves.” Jackson Lears cuts through the cant and the humbug to offer his readers truths that are as essential as they are disturbing.
But don’t take my word for it. Read this remarkable book yourself.
Related: Historian, Critic, Prophet: Christopher Lasch
& the American Predicament, by Casey Nelson Blake