A sharp, wide-lens snapshot of American society 100 years ago.
"Turn-of-the-century America," a phrase newly applicable to our own time but long meaning the US around 1900, is the subject of this timely account. Kent characterizes the nation then as many would portray the US today: world power, economic markets, and the problems of diversity were its basic challenges. Although the nation's economy was "invincible," empire bred its discontents. Citizens hotly debated the day's great disparities of wealth, and many people offered self-serving justifications for the fortunes amassed by the trusts or held by too few individuals. In fact, the 1900 presidential contest was the last to challenge the influence of the corporate elite—who, with the election of William McKinley, came out on top. White Americans were in the driver's seat, and the nation's "genuine moral center could never be located." It's not surprising that this all sounds suspiciously like our own time. In fact, Kent gives the game away by asserting that "the America of 2000 first became distinctly visible a century ago." But historical arguments that find the future in the present are always dangerous; so, too, is the assumption (which Kent never argues) that history comes in 100-year chunks. If comparisons are to be useful, they must be justified. Might not a comparison of today's society with that of, say, 1917 be more illuminating? There's no way to tell from this otherwise sound, solid, readable general history of a time that had its own character and integrity—whatever that history might mean to us.
A deftly rendered portrayal of the US at the turn of the century.