A Violent Regeneration

Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
by Jackson Lears, Harper, 448 pages, $27.99

History is lived forward but written backward. In October of 1929, no one knew that the Great Depression had begun and would last for over a decade. The soldiers who marched off to fight in the Civil War -- and the families and loved ones who saluted their departure -- had no idea of the carnage that would follow. Historians know better but can't let their knowledge of what came next overdetermine the story they tell. Neither can they make believe that the future of that past was an open book. It wasn't. There were options, openings, possibilities, but only one path was taken. The historian's task is to explain why it was that path and not another.

The best historians strike the right balance between the Scylla and Charybdis of inevitability and randomness. As Jackson Lears demonstrates again in his latest book, Rebirth of a Nation, he is one of the best, certainly of his (and my) generation of historians. His new book is a work of synthesis, an attempt to tell the story of "the making of modern America" in the long half century from the end of the Civil War to the end of the Great War. Although the book's subtitle indicates his narrative begins in 1877 -- the year when the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes as president supposedly marked the end of Reconstruction -- Lears ignores that arbitrary, conventional beginning point. "After the Civil War," he tells us, "the entire country was faced with the task of starting over." In the decades to come, the history of the nation and its peoples would be marked by longings for and attempts at rebirth, regeneration, and revitalization.

Lears' organizing concept of national rebirth is almost ritually simplistic and in the pen of a less accomplished historian would yield little of value. What nation doesn't, after a cataclysmic event such as war or revolution, seek to start over? The decades that followed America's revolutionary war, its 19th-century Indian wars, the 20th-century world wars, or, indeed, the recent wars in Southeast Asia and Iraq have also been marked by quests for new beginnings. Still, there was something different in the post–Civil War period. The longing for rebirth was experienced as part of a more encompassing search for a new political, economic, and social order, a revitalized manliness, a secular refocusing and redirection of the otherworldly passions and potencies of American Protestantism.

The cornerstone of Lears' history is what he identifies in his introduction as "regenerative militarism," the pursuit of regeneration -- for the nation and the individual -- through violence. There were other instruments of revitalization but none as important. One might have thought that the bloodletting of the Civil War would have cured the nation of any attraction to militarism. But the opposite appears to be the case. In the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, manly men, in search of a way to demonstrate, mostly to themselves, the manliness they could not exhibit in the workplace or the parlor, were attracted to the possibility of real and vicarious participation in violent wars. Excessive violence marked not only the wars against the Indians and the Filipino nationalists but "lynching and other forms of racial terrorism in the South, the killing of striking workers in the North and West."

The apogee of organized, excessive, unregulated violence came during the war in the Philippines. Lears does not deny that imperial war might have "created a foreign alternative to class war at home" or that it served some economic interests. But there was much more to the enthusiasm with which Americans entered and the violence with which they pursued what Secretary of State John Hay referred to as this "splendid little war." Andrew Carnegie -- the industrialist and, yes, anti-war activist -- tried, on numerous occasions, to explain to his countrymen that war in the Philippines against a people fighting for their independence violated the most sacrosanct principles on which the "triumphant democracy" had been founded. Knowing better than to appeal only to moral principles, Carnegie emphasized, in several well-researched and tautly argued articles, that there was no economic rationale for the United States to subdue the Filipino nationalists and annex the nation. There were more efficient and effective ways to extend American economic hegemony that cost fewer dollars and far fewer lives. What Carnegie and the other anti-imperialists (and most of the historians who have charted their efforts) never quite understood was that the war in the Philippines was more than a war for empire. "Behind all the economic calculations and all the lofty rhetoric about civilization and progress," Lear writes, "was a primal emotion -- a yearning to reassert control, a masculine will to power amid the drifting slack waters of the fin-de-siecle."

Excessive violence, abroad and at home, especially violence directed at people of color, was an essential ingredient in the forging of a new American people and nation. Race, after slavery, Lears argues, became more, not less, significant as a marker of difference. Americans, instructed by a generation of scientific racists, Darwinian biologists, and eugenicists, became more conscious than ever of race and of races, which were multiplying in number as the global labor market contributed millions of new, not quite "white" workers to the American mix. "The rhetoric of race," employed by the scientific racists and the nation's most accomplished novelists, including Henry James, Frank Norris, and Jack London, "merged with a broader agenda of masculine revitalization." One of the byproducts was an epidemic of lynching in the South. Lynching, as Lears explains with precision and brilliance, was both a sign of the reach of white power and "a violent reaffirmation of white community." In its brutal violence and its attempt to exorcise sexual anxieties, it doubled as "a reassertion of the link between whiteness and manliness, and a ritual regeneration of both."

The violence that was intrinsic to the new racism, the new empire building, and the new manliness was rooted in a fear for the future that historians have largely ignored. It is difficult but necessary for us to reinsert ourselves in the lost present that has become our past. Lears can do this better than most because of the depth and breadth of his reading. His strengths, as writer, interpreter, and synthesizer, are grounded in a voracious appetite for source material. Though this book relies heavily, as he concedes, on the work of other scholars, it is, like every other book, article, and review he has written, "based on a variety of sources: on mass-market as well as up-market magazines … on letters and memoirs … on fictions, sermons and speeches as well as systematic thought, on advertisements and entertainments." These sources provide him with an entrée, albeit an imperfect one, into the "foreign country" that is our recent past.

The story of regeneration, revitalization, and rebirth Lears offers us was not, he demonstrates time and again, foretold. On the contrary, the social dislocations and economic disruptions of an industrializing nation sharply divided by region, after as before the Civil War, contributed to the forging of a social, cultural, and political environment permeated by uncertainty and tinged with fear:

During the 1880s and 1890s, the shape of the social order seemed very much up for grabs. Indeed it was not even clear that there would be a social order much longer. For some among the frightened affluent, the barbarians were already at the gates. Anxious Americans cast about for idioms of control, conceptual and ethical frameworks that would provide some basis for certainty in an uncertain world. Self-made manhood and natural-law economics were available but increasingly problematic in a society convulsed by class conflict and dominated by irresponsible capital.

If the early years of the period under discussion were, as Lears indicates, defined by a psychology and economics of scarcity in which vital resources and energies had to be preserved, the later decades were characterized by a psychology and economics of abundance. Americans concentrated less on preserving what they had than on expanding and extending, on producing and consuming more. Earlier attempts to redistribute wealth were rendered obsolete by the expectation that, with the right managers, experts, and technologies, larger empires, and more efficient and disciplined work regimes, the pie could be expanded to provide heartier slices for everyone willing to enter what Lears refers to as "a hamster cage of earning and spending." Populist insurgencies were overwhelmed by the managerial consensus that came to be associated with progressivism.

This is a remarkable book, even more remarkable for the fact that it is encased in a quasi-textbook format that restrains and restricts Lears. To satisfy the format, he relies a bit too much on set pieces and elegantly rewritten, canned biographies dropped at various points into his capacious narrative. Still he manages, much more often than not, to explode the limitations of the form and produce a startling new synthesis.