Nonfiction: All That's Gilded Isn't Gold
Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
Instead of finishing the business of giving African Americans equal opportunity and full citizenship during the post-Civil War years, the United States went corporate. This period—a focal point of our current popular imagination for reasons stretching from the steampunk craze to similarities between Iraq and the Philippines to the same old Wall Street shenanigans—does seem especially relevant for understanding “modern America.” A cruelly ironic twist, noted by Jackson Lears in his thought-provoking Rebirth of a Nation, is that the Fourteenth Amendment, originally conceived to protect former slaves, was used to protect corporations in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886). Lears writes, “what began as a measure to confer rights on ex-slaves became a boon for big business.” After the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, Reconstruction was abandoned as Federal troops withdrew from the South. The former slaves were also abandoned, and democracy for all was put on hold for about ninety years.
Lears claims that cultural interpretations of these tumultuous times tend to overshadow political ones; his goal is to reconnect the cultural and the political. After the Civil War, the combination of the lingering memory of the trauma and the new comforts created by the rise of technology and consumerism led to widespread fears, among affluent whites, of physical and spiritual decline. Lears claims that this created a widespread yearning for “rebirth,” which culminated in imperialist adventures. Theodore Roosevelt, a figure for whom Lears has little affection, personifies this development for him; in Lears’s assessment, Roosevelt possessed a lethal combination of Oedipal issues surrounding the Civil War, paranoia about his personal health, and an eagerness to flex American muscles on the world stage. Fair enough. At the same time, Roosevelt’s conservation achievements get scant mention here; when they do come up, they are framed as “popular longings for revitalization.” Lears also neglects the fact that TR invited Booker T. Washington to the White House—a big deal at the time, and a source of pride for the black community. Meanwhile, Woodrow Wilson’s reprehensible views on race were “a predictable product of his moment and milieu.” What about TR’s milieu? Wilson, that “huge fan” of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, has his views on many topics simply described; TR’s are consistently indicted.
Lears’s first chapter, “The Long Shadow of Appomattox,” is his most original, interpretive, and gripping section, casting a long shadow over the rest of the book. In it he discusses a depressing feature of early-modern American popular memory: “rather than a struggle to end slavery, the war became a testing ground for personal heroism—a theater of the sublime where white men, North and South, had repeatedly demonstrated their valor.” Walt Whitman conveniently represents some northern white men in the ante- and post-bellum eras as enlightened progressives before the war, creepy Anglo-Saxon fantasists afterward. But while these distortions ran deep, to the point where the valor of black soldiers and the horrors of slavery were suppressed in the popular memory, they were not totally so. Lears omits mention of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston (1897), a significant masterpiece depicting Shaw in command of the heroic black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The black regiment is marching, in August Saint Gaudens’s creation, with stern, resolute, and dignified expressions. William James (an important positive figure for Lears), in his oration at the dedication of the statue, lauded those “warm blooded champions of a better day for man.”
In the minds of many Americans at the time, “Protestantism and Progress marched westward together, fulfilling the imperial destiny of Anglo-Saxon civilization” while combining with lingering fears about “Anglo-Saxon” physical might. Lears acknowledges the transatlantic, or more properly, the Anglophonic nature of this belief and concern, but perhaps not enough. English novelist H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), for instance, covers much of the same ground, featuring stereotypes of the day in order to subvert them. Lears refers to Kipling and Conrad, but the connections could be more solid. In short, the concerns and fantasies he attributes to many white Americans were deeply shared in Britain, undercutting, I think, the centrality of the U.S. Civil War to this particular corner of his thesis.
Other chapters—especially “The Mysterious Power of Money” and “The Rising Significance of Race”—are comprehensive, but the book loses the gusto and energy of the first chapter. That being said, Lears deftly handles cultural interpretations of big business phenomena, explaining the abilities of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller to “master the tensions at the core of their culture.” At the same time, Lears gives equal attention to reformists and critics, and is especially excellent on the tragic career of the great pacifist thinker Randolph Bourne, who should have “before his time” amended to his name.
The word “sorcery” appears throughout Rebirth of a Nation in very different contexts, perhaps giving an essential clue to this fascinating period. Native Americans, Lears writes, were supposedly impressed by the white man’s “sorcery” (e.g., the invention of the telephone) while later on he discusses how firms like Drexel, Morgan and Kuhn, Loeb stabilized the “sorcery of the capital markets.” As the world of daily life came under tighter human control, the markets, with their strong spiritual component, still eluded it; Americans cast spells, and spells were continually cast back on them. Yet the biggest magic of the era belonged to Harry Houdini, whom Lears sets up as a representative of this age of sorcery. He views the vast public interest in Houdini’s escapes as an American desire for “escape:” from alienating office, factory or sweatshop jobs, grueling farm or mine work, or Victorian social mores.
Lears is at his best in his discussion of the transformation of the poor rabbi’s son Ehrich Weiss into Harry Houdini. He develops a brilliant line of thought from Houdini to John Muir to George Santayana’s critique of transcendentalism, which was, after all, another form of escape for an earlier, perhaps more hopeful era. At this point it suddenly hit me that some of the poems of Santayana’s student, Wallace Stevens, would make a fitting post-script to both the era under investigation and the book itself. Lears’s study concludes in 1920, around the end of World War I, the devastation of the influenza epidemic, and the verge of radio and film becoming another form of escape for a country craving distraction.