Rebirth of a Nation
The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920
HarperCollins, $27.99, 432 pp.
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...