A cultural historian looks at America’s “age of regeneration” between the end of the Civil War and World War I.
The end of Reconstruction in 1877 also marked the beginning of decades of social and economic upheaval that transformed the nation from a sleepy republic to a world power. From the Civil War’s widespread destruction emerged an intense longing for rebirth. Lears (History/Rutgers Univ.; Something for Nothing: Luck in America, 2003, etc.) presents this struggle between farmers and bankers, workers and industrialists, pacifists and militarists, immigrants and nativists, as a battle for the nation’s soul. During this contentious period the noble Republican Party of Lincoln become the captive of big business, while the old bugaboo of race kept Northern and Southern Democrats from mobilizing an effective opposition. In richly allusive and lively prose, Lears explains how the desire for reconciliation among whites was achieved at the price of equal rights for blacks and a reign of racial terror. He examines how the populist dream of a cooperative commonwealth ultimately yielded to the elite cult of manliness and militarism, the pervasive power of capital and a managerial and political class convinced that the nation’s road to renewal ran through empire. The author’s cast of characters ranges from the unexpected—Harry Houdini, Buffalo Bill—to the predictable array of Gilded Age villains—mainly Morgan, Rockefeller and Carnegie. Lears clearly sympathizes with the idealists and dreamers determined to wrest meaning from the Civil War’s awful sacrifice. He cites the work and commentary of people like Jane Addams, Mark Twain, William James and Eugene Debs. For him, Teddy Roosevelt was a monster and Woodrow Wilson a tragic figure, overwhelmed by dark forces. Though the author’s take on the era is partisan, readers need not agree with his politics to appreciate the high style and obvious passion he brings to this difficult subject.
Large-scale history with an intimate touch.