STANDING AT ARMAGEDDON

The United States, 1877-1919

By Nell Irvin Painter

Norton. 402 pp. $25

AMERICAN HISTORY isn't what it used to be. Since the 1960s, young scholars, inspired by a New Left faith in participatory democracy, have reversed the traditional emphasis on the men who directed the nation to affluence and world power. Instead, they focus on the factory floor, the sharecropper's shack and the tenement household to understand the lives of Americans who had little reason to celebrate the dominant order.

Most of these studies assume that truth resides in local miniatures. Books about black factory hands in Milwaukee early in this century and white farmers in the Georgia upcountry after the Civil War illuminate richly textured cultures that often resisted the sway of courts, legislatures and corporations. Within their boundaries of place and time, the results are often persuasive. But they frustrate our desire to understand how the nation changed. Chopped up into glistening fragments with labels like "middle-class women," "black workers" and "Irish immigrants," American history badly needs someone to fuse the new scholarship with the old tales of power and wealth.

Nell Irvin Painter makes a mighty effort. The period she chooses is a natural one for a left-wing historian. The four decades wrapped around 1900 saw both the triumph of corporate capitalism and the most serious resistance ever mounted against it. The prodigious growth of heavy industry and military victory against Spain and Imperial Germany signaled that America had become a world power, albeit one whose imperial ambitions were less blatant than those of her European counterparts. At the same time, populists and socialists won millions of votes; radical and reform unions courted throngs of low-paid, ill-housed workers; and the federal government implemented such measures as the graduated income tax and woman suffrage, in part, to contain the discontent.

PAINTER, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, connects the two aspects of the era by emphasizing the threat from below. "Plain, stark fear lay at the core of much clamor for reform on the part of the middle and upper classes," she writes. "Fear of revolution appeared repeatedly in explanations of why this or that social evil needed to be eliminated." She frames her account with artful narratives of three mass strike waves -- in 1877, 1886 and 1919 -- that obliged politicians, businessmen and newspaper editors to woo the working classes. Meanwhile, they condemned the words and endorsed the prosecution of radicals who had stoked the flames.

There is little room in this perspective for the charismatic, reform-minded presidents and technological wizards whose exploits fill the pages of older textbooks. Thomas Edison briefly appears as "an entrepreneur" who was "his own best press agent." Theodore Roosevelt acts the jingo in Latin America and prescribes universal military training as the best way to turn immigrants into real Americans. Woodrow Wilson segregates the civil service, bungles several attempts to control the Mexican Revolution and, after World War I, pressures the victorious allies to grant a degree of self-government to small nations mostly in order to counter the rising appeal of Bolshevism. Almost every leading politician, according to Painter, held the racist conceit that "white nations" should teach the rest of the worl how to live. And the prosperity that accompanied empire inclined most Americans to agree.

The author finds only one prominent figure who sincerely and consistently aligned himself with the "ideals of democracy and equity" that organized labor, blacks and feminists upheld. That is William Jennings Bryan, populist sympathizer and anti-imperialist statesman whose tireless eloquence during three underfinanced campaigns for president make him a symbol of great losing causes that should have been won. The author downplays Bryan's anti-Darwinian crusading, implying that it was advancing age that turned "the Great Commoner" into "an agent of ignorance, a seedy old man in a white suit carrying a cheap fan."

Throughout the book, Painter shows a knack for recognizing such details, and she draws on recent scholarship in social history without letting its complexity mar the enthralling story she tells.

However, this is not the grand synthesis we need. Working-class protest did force elites to change, ushering in regulatory laws and a deference to "public opinion" that remain with us today. But it was those changes that dominated the period and insured that most Americans would defend and, when asked, fight to preserve the system. Depicting chief executives as prisoners of prejudice and opportunism does not explain why they triumphed, while Bryan and his followers fell back on a moralistic creed whose rural, Protestant base was eroding.

Historians who emerged from the New Left have written much about defeated historical alternatives, turning points that did not turn. As veterans of a movement that helped stop a war, build support for minority and women's rights, yet failed to survive the Nixon administration, they have an understandable fondness for prophets without honor. Painter may be right to depict as heroes and heroines the losers in turn-of-century conflicts over the fruits of industry and empire. But she neglects to give the victors their due.

Michael Kazin teaches at American University. He is the author of "Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era."