Sunday, June 14, 2009

Reviewed: Lears, Rebirth of a Nation

Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 is Jackson Lears' "most ambitious work yet," writes Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times. Hat tip. Rutten continues:

In "No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920," Lears skillfully delineated the role of aesthetic radicals -- Englishmen John Ruskin and William Morris and their American disciples -- in staking out humane alternatives to consumerism that gradually shifted from social justice to ideals of therapeutic personal fulfillment. In "Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America," he explored the exploitation of that hunger for "authenticity" that resulted from the earlier process.

"Rebirth of a Nation"...builds brilliantly on those earlier projects. The Rutgers University professor makes a convincing case that the transformations America underwent in the half century's journey from out of the "long shadow of Appomattox" and into the terrible flare-lit night of the European trenches remains fundamental to our understanding of ourselves -- and to the conduct of our affairs.
In this work,

An earlier 19th century notion of "manliness" gave way to an amoral militarism, which fused with a muscular new Protestantism and evolving theories of racial supremacy; these, in turn, conjoined with a new economic order in which capital made way for capitalism. All were able to meld because each began in the post-Civil War hunger for "regeneration." The result was an assertive, aggressive, frequently intolerant national identity.
Continue reading here.