NO PLACE OF GRACE: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 by T. J. Jackson Lears

NO PLACE OF GRACE: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Auspicious radical history: cogently argued, crisply written, and alive with intellectual passion--even if the facts occasionally buckle beneath Lears' enormous thesis. Lears surveys the life and work of some three-score artists, intellectuals, ministers, reformers, etc., from Brooks and Henry Adams to Edith Wharton, who around the end of the 19th century suffered from the malaise of American modernity and struggled to overcome it, In a sense these people, mostly wealthy, well-educated Northern WASPs, are Lears' fathers and mothers in the faith, since they resisted the ugliness, incoherence, brutality, and soulless rationality of a world run by and for ""specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart"" (Max Weber). And Lears examines, with splendid scholarly breadth, the many forms this resistance took: the American craft revival, the martial ideal, the cult of the Middle Ages, enthusiasm for Catholic art and theology and a whole assortment of ""feminine"" values (in protest aginst both personal Oedipal pressures and the destructive hypermasculinity of industrial society). But the ironic issue of most antimodernist activity--and this is more than Lears can completely convince us of--was ""the revitalization and transformation of their class's cultural hegemony."" Certainly Lears is right to connect fin de siècle aestheticism, the mind-cure movement, and the frustrated mystical impulses of figures like Laura Scudder and William Sturgis Bigelow with the later ""triumph of the therapeutic""; and he effectively scores points against the antimodernist seekers of ""inner experience"" for ""reinforcing the . . . banality they had intended to escape."" But can Lears show that his band of unhappy souls, some of them quite obscure, were that important an influence? In any event he praises the (few) antimodernists who, like his hero Henry Adams, were not co-opted by the capitalist/consumerist system or fooled by the ""flatulent pieties of our progressive creed"" or side-tracked into the nirvana of ""self-fulfillment."" As Adams' writings stress, the issue was at bottom religious: how to resolve, without deceiving or dehumanizing oneself, the dialectic between the Dynamo and the Virgin? Lears will have to strengthen his case, but the young professor from the Univ. of Missouri has made a very impressive debut.

Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 1981
Publisher: Pantheon