Bursting into the Modern Age

By Charles Postel
Sunday, June 28, 2009


The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920

By Jackson Lears

Harper. 418 pp. $27.99

On a September afternoon in 1915, detectives from the Kansas City police force fitted Ehrich Weiss into their strongest straitjacket and tightened the straps. A crane proceeded to hoist the bound man by his ankles. Dangling high above the street, he tossed and writhed and broke free, dropping the straitjacket into a crowd of 5,000 dazzled spectators.

To his adoring fans, Weiss, a Jewish immigrant from Budapest, was known as Harry Houdini, contortionist, muscle man and escape artist. His is one of many fascinating stories that the eminent cultural historian Jackson Lears tells in "Rebirth of a Nation," his account of the making of modern America in the half-century after the Civil War.

These were decades of system-building. Government acquired new regulatory powers. The late Victorian household enforced a tight and gendered order. And the bureaucratic and hierarchical systems of the modern corporation -- chiefly railroads and banks -- reorganized American life. As Lears explains, Houdini captured the imagination of Americans seeking rebirth and escape from "an iron cage in waiting: the State, the Family, the Firm."

The post-Civil War age of regeneration produced high flyers like Houdini and Nat Love, a former slave from Tennessee who earned the nickname Deadwood Dick as a rodeo champion in Dakota Territory. But regeneration also produced its share of victims. In Lears's masterful telling, many Americans embraced militarist fantasies of rebirth through violence, war and empire. White mobs subjected newly freed slaves to the ritual violence of lynching. In 1890, federal troops earned medals for firing Hotchkiss cannons at unarmed Indians in the massacre at Wounded Knee. And at the beginning of the century, U.S. commanders in the Philippines ordered the indiscriminate killing of civilians in a pitiless effort to suppress local resistance to U.S. imperial claims.

Perhaps more than any other American in those years, George Armstrong Custer, who met his end at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, symbolized the creed of redemption through blood. But Lears, with keen insight, refashions even our best known stories. It turns out that Custer was deeply involved in Wall Street speculations in Black Hills mining operations, and his fateful and overly ambitious military calculations at Little Big Horn were skewed by his equally ambitious desire to rid the Black Hills of Indian claims. Lears also reminds us that while poseurs such as Teddy Roosevelt exalted in the cult of Custer, professional soldiers such as President Ulysses Grant took scant notice of the events at Little Bighorn and wanted no part of the militarist mythology surrounding an overreaching cavalry officer.

Lears's history also sheds light on our recent financial meltdown. He provides a fine account of the post-Civil War cult of money and describes how Jay Gould and other financial alchemists made fortunes trading complex financial instruments that were the direct ancestors of today's derivative securities. "Seldom had the power of money to beget money been so flagrantly mystified," Lears observes. Speculative bubbles inevitably burst, and the financial titans, "who seemed the apotheosis of solidity and reliability, turned out at crucial moments to be confidence men."

"Rebirth of a Nation" is packed with historical truth-telling about America's destructive myths, delusions and fantasies. But it is also a history of dissent, of the men and women who pushed back against the prevailing culture. Some of Lears's dissenters deserve the title more than others. In counterpoint to the hardening regime of white supremacy and lynch law in the 1890s, he inexplicably recycles the tattered fable that Tom Watson of the Farmers' Alliance and Populist Party represented the unity of the white and black poor against the New South elite. In reality, the whites-only Farmers' Alliance provided key legislative support for initiating Jim Crow segregation laws; Watson and the Populists embraced white supremacy much as their New South opponents did.

Eddies of racial dissent did swirl along the edges of Populist protest and would have better served Lears's purpose. He tells the story of how, in the midst of the terrible depression of 1894, the Ohio Populist Jacob Coxey led a march of the unemployed to Washington only to be arrested for stepping on the Capitol lawn. But he might have mentioned that the black citizens of the nation's capital, suffering acute hunger and despair, noticed that Coxey had broken the color line by recruiting black marchers. The Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, perhaps the largest black church in the country, extended its support, and the Methodist Mount Pisgah Negro Chapel provided sanctuary. And while Coxey was peacefully arrested, blood flowed on Pennsylvania Avenue when mounted police charged thousands of his mainly African American well-wishers.

Lears is at his inspired best when he discusses the anti-imperialist intellectuals such as Mark Twain, Jane Addams and William James, who rejected the fantasy of civilizing the Filipinos, as Twain put it, by way of "Maxim Guns and Hymn Books." Equally intriguing is Lears's treatment of the young cultural critic Randolph Bourne. During World War I, as most progressive intellectuals were seduced by the notion of regeneration by way of the bloodbath on the Western Front, Bourne remained "a champion of ambiguity." He stuck to his belief that the war would only produce state repression and inhumanity, famously observing: "War is the health of the state."

"Rebirth of a Nation" is dazzling cultural history: smart, provocative and gripping. It is also a book for our times, historically grounded, hopeful and filled with humane, just and peaceful possibilities.

Charles Postel is the author of "The Populist Vision," which won the 2008 Bancroft Prize.

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