U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Rebirth of a Nation: Reflections, Ruminations, and Reactions

What follows are points of praise and criticism of Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920. I refuse to call this a review because that implies a smooth narrative of reflection. Creating that narrative requires more time than I have today. Plus, that kind of piece isn’t needed. This book has been positively reviewed, in narrative form, in a multitude of prominent, top-notch newspapers and magazines. In addition the end pages of Lears’ book are littered with quotes of praise from superstars in the history profession: Richard White, Andrew Bacevich, Michael Kazin, Todd Gitlin, and Edward L. Ayers. Finally, as noted on the cover of my paperback copy, Rebirth of a Nation was declared “Best Book of the Year” (2009) by The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Although we have discussed Lears and his works at USIH on several occasions, none of us have prominently posted anything on Rebirth of a Nation (it did come up in the comments of one discussion).

So what’s left to say? I don’t know in an absolute sense. I haven’t read all the reviews noted above, but only skimmed them (I loved the last line of Summers’ write-up). All I know is what I feel compelled to pass along–to reflect upon. Here’s what I have, in bullet point form:

– I love the synthetic nature of the book. Lears blends primary texts with the best analysis from secondary sources accumulated over the past forty to fifty years. Through the latter you see how the progressive building of medium-sized ideas about the era (e.g. force, heroism, manliness, rebirth) come together to, in Richard White’s words, change the metaphor. If White is right, neither Wiebe’s Search for Order nor Hofstadter’s Age of Reform contain the dominant heuristic thought tools for the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. It’s now the capacious idea of rebirth (or regeneration), which has subsumed order and reform in it. Because of this I predict that Rebirth of a Nation will now be required reading in any upper-level undergraduate or graduate course dealing with the post-Reconstruction to World War I era. And if those students attend to to Lears’ notes, the book is worth at least half of a graduate education in the fields of social, cultural, and intellectual history. You could add political history to that list if that subfield weren’t so neglected. In any case, this book should be on the shelf of every single historian who proclaims to study or teach post-Civil War history. It will reward reference thumbing or close reading.

– If you’re in a bad mood, the alliteration and belletristic nature of Lears’ writing can become tiresome fairly quickly. I grew tired of it halfway through chapter one. In the second half of the book, however, the alliteration is either toned down or less noticeable. I confess that this is a bit of carping on my part. Perhaps I’m jealous. Then again, I received a lot of criticism for too much alliteration in my early writing, so maybe I’m over-sensitive to the issue. Anyway, when it’s not tiring Lears’ style makes the work easy to read. This is no small thing in relation to the fact that gender analysis—one of Lears’ strengths—is not my primary analytical mode. [Aside: My title is, of course, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Lears’ alliteration.]

– In my pre-reading of Rebirth (wherein I thoroughly study the TOC, Notes, and Index), I had identified chapter five as the pivotal part of the book. I do not mean, in any way, that chapters one through four are less valuable. All four are absolutely necessary to the story. But chapter five met my expectation of importance. It stirs militarism, violence, market culture, white male supremacy, and urban-rural tensions into a hot cauldron of 1890s crises. In this cauldron, crises were dissolved into a new language of reform, order, and regeneration, manifest in market consumption, the idea of a cooperative commonwealth, and empire. Every major character of the age appears in the chapter: Addams, Adams, Beveridge, Bryan, Burnham, Coxey, Darwin, Debs, Gompers, Herron, James, Morgan, Pullman, Roosevelt, Strong, Twain, and Willard. Lears shows how misunderstandings about Darwin were put to both good and evil uses (p. 204). The introductory discussion of  empire in this chapter (pp. 200-221) is first rate, supplanted only by the contents of chapter seven, titled “Empire as a Way of Life.” Lears’ discussion of civil religion in the chapter compared favorably, in terms of themes, to the contents of Ray Haberski’s God and War—though the later focuses on the post-World War II period and, to my knowledge, doesn’t reference Lears.

– In the first 100 pages of the book I became annoyed with Lears’ slight tendency to look for the erotic when its presence was questionable (pp. 61, 63, 64). At some point the search says more about the author than the material. Intemperance comes in forms other than sex–e.g. anger, verbal abuse, alcohol, etc.

– Although Lears does not seem highly sympathetic to pragmatism, based on his framing of Randolph Bourne’s criticisms of John Dewey later in the book (pp. 237, 344-345), William James is a clear hero in the text. Even if Lears disapproved of James’ experimentalist pragmatism (he didn’t, p. 225), that disapproval would have been drowned in relation to praise for James’ anti-imperialism (pp. 22, 217, 219-220), his capacious spiritualism (pp. 238-239), and his desire to subvert militarism to “more humane” ends (pp. 22, 49, 329-330). Lears’ perspective on James corresponds with mine, but I think the reader should know that James is a hero in the text. Despite our agreement and Lears’ praise of James, I still think that Lears offers a somewhat shallow reading of James’ famous essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War” (1906). I’m not sure that James “idealized war’s revitalizing force” as much as he sought to deeply subvert the language of his period (i.e. the discipline, order, and physical fitness inherent in militarism are not exclusive to it). But maybe I need to reread the essay.

This is probably enough for today. I’ll gather up more reflections to pass along next week. In the meantime, have you read the book? Do any of your thoughts correspond with mine? – TL

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for the suggestion, having read “No Place of Grace” not too long ago I wonder if Lears’ interest in the erotic doesn’t stem from his proclivity to view society/individuals through a Freudian lens?

    • Paul: I’m sure you are right. It’s been years (about 8-9, I think) since reading *No Place of Grace*. I recall the Freudian lens, but I can’t recall how Lears’ past use matches up with *Rebirth*. I should’ve consulted my notes and offered a comparative opinion. That aside, I don’t want to underestimate the power and usefulness of that tool. I just felt, in the spots I mentioned above, that Lears was maybe overusing Freud. This is a mildly distracting quibble in relation to the nirvana of narrative perfection; it doesn’t detract from the overall story. – TL

  2. Thanks for this post. Haven’t read the book (indeed, wasn’t even aware of it), but am interested in this period.

    Re James’s ‘Moral Equivalent of War’ (published I believe in 1910): James shares the then-prevalent assumptions about masculinity, ‘hardiness,’ toughness but wants to harness these notions to non-militaristic, non-imperialistic ends. I’m not sure “subvert” is exactly the right verb here, as that implies an undermining. It’s more like redirection than subversion.

    Cf. Kim Townsend, Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others (paperback ed., 1998). On the ‘martial ethic’ and its class roots, Christopher Lasch’s essay “The Moral and Intellectual Rehabilitation of the Ruling Class” (in The World of Nations, Vintage pb., 1974) is still worth reading, though I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says in it.

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