A few weeks ago I offered some thoughts on Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation. At the end of that post I noted there would be one more entry of reflections. In the meantime, however, I had been challenged on Howard Zinn’s famous book. Having immediately (and serendipitously) acquired a copy, I read a few chapters, got inspired and dashed off a post*–interrupting the plans to complete my thoughts on Lears most excellent work.
In my last post on Rebirth of a Nation I covered the topics of synthesis, alliteration, the importance of chapter five, erotic symbolism, and William James. Here I cover liberation, presentism, imperialism, and the beauty of a fresh interpretive overlay.
– The liberation half of chapter six, titled “Liberation and Limitation,” is first rate. The chapter’s introductory pages, which introduce the reader to Ehrich Weiss—aka Harry Houdini, were much praised by reviewers. Rightly so. But the discussion of liberation, which begins when Lears notes the transition from an economy of scarcity to one of consumption (p. 246), brings together a great deal of cultural history produced over the past 20-25 years. A mentality of “perpetual growth” in the economy meant more leisure time, and people took advantage (p. 247). This secondary historical literature is not new (littered with names like Dumenil, Peiss, Kasson, Rosenzweig, Erenberg, May, Douglas, Leach, etc.), but Lears does an excellent job utilizing a great deal of it, and does it concisely. And he does this while also showing the trade-offs in relation to lives “enmeshed in market discipline,” subject to the efficiency trends inspired by Frederick Winslow Taylor (pp. 254, 258). Because of my graduate training I know this literature and the era’s topics well, and I was pleased with Lears synthesis.
– Rebirth of a Nation struggles, in a productive way I think, with presentism—the fallacy of reading today’s values onto the past (rather than relaying and interpreting those values for today’s inquirer). Lears’ ongoing critique of imperialism, covered head-on in chapter seven, gives the text an immediate urgency for even those with limited historically comparative imaginations. Indeed, he makes his links between the past and present explicit in spots. In the Introduction, “Dreaming of Rebirth,” Lears notes:
“The idea of regenerative war fell into well-deserved disgrace for several decades. …But the Cold War and the ‘war on terrorism’ revived all the old, destructive fantasies—the belief in America’s capacity to save the world; the faith in the revitalizing powers of combat; the cult of manly toughness in foreign policy. …The age of regeneration is over, but its spirit stalks our lives like an invited ghost” (p. 11).
To paraphrase Faulkner, the past isn’t over; it isn’t even the past for Lears. Lears will reargue and expand Richard Slotkin’s thesis that regeneration through violence is a dominant theme in American history. There is a present-day moral urgency in Lears book that demands our attention. Presentism can shortchange a historical period, but I think Lears’ concerns add to his energy in analyzing the period at hand.
– Returning somewhat to my first point of praise, regarding synthesis, I believe that this book proves yet again how new evidence is not required to write compelling, paradigm-changing history. The relevance and intensity of new history is as much, or more, about interpretive overlay. Lears’ thesis and themes reanimate old figures and events for fresh audiences. Although I have read extensively on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Lears has awakened dormant interests. I predict that I’ll be rereading a few dusty GA/PE tomes this year, all the while rethinking their arguments in the context of rebirth and regeneration. – TL
*I’ll resume those posts next week, after USIH migrates to WordPress.