Barbarian virtues: when Americans firs yearned to transform themselves and save the world.

Author:O'Toole, Patricia


The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920

By Jackson Lears Harper

432 pp. | $27.99

Whether he meant to or not, Jackson Lears has become the historian of American yearning. Rebirth of a Nation is his fourth venture into that territory and the second focused on the tumults of the years between the end of Reconstruction and the end of World War I. The first, No Place of Grace (1981), is an elegant, perceptive account of the aesthetes and intellectuals who shuddered at the voraciousness of the Industrial Age and longed for the passion and authenticity they ascribed to life in the Middle Ages, the Orient, and cultures unsullied by modernization. Fables of Abundance (1994) chronicles the rise of the advertising business, which prospered by inventing "needs" and inflaming desires for happiness of every description. And Something for Nothing (2002) presents three centuries' worth of Americans handing themselves over to chance and praying for deliverance from the Protestant work ethic.

Rebirth of a Nation features an enormous and variegated cast of characters, all of them longing for regeneration--of mind, of body, of national will. Their yearnings arose from myriad anxieties: about the ruination lurking in every bottle of rum, the political aspirations of women and freed slaves, socialism and pacifism, assaults on Anglo-Saxon civilization, bodies going soft amid the comforts of modern life. While conceding that private desires do not always influence public affairs, Lears argues that this was a time when personal fears and regenerative dreams had profound, far-reaching effects: they transformed the politics and culture of the United States, and they were instrumental in launching modern America's delusional (and apparently endless) crusade to save the world.

"This cauldron of emotions created an atmosphere of recurrent crisis," Lears writes. And out of the cauldron spilled Prohibitionists, white supremacists, imperialists, champions of civil rights and women's suffrage, union organizers, muckrakers, reformers, the robber baron reborn as philanthropist, the expert, the social theorist, the bodybuilder, and the YMCA, which promised spiritual as well as physical abs. All of them used "an evangelical idiom of corruption and regeneration," Lears writes. "It was the coin of the political realm, fluid and adaptable to an endless variety of circumstances."

The evangelizing voice that could be heard above all others belonged to Theodore...

To continue reading