Recalling small wars at start of ‘our’ time

By David Waldstreicher
Globe Correspondent / October 30, 2009

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In one of Mike Myers’s famous “Saturday Night Live’’ skits from the early 1990s, “Coffee Talk With Linda Richman,’’ the middle-aged, overeducated New York host is a little verklempt and needs to pause. So she gives her audience a topic: “The Progressive Era was neither progressive nor an era. Discuss.’’

That’s how combed over the late 19th and early 20th century has sometimes seemed. The period between the Civil War and World War I has long been called, without hesitation, the beginnings of “our’’ time. Industrialization shifted into high gear; booms and busts inspired radicals and reactionaries.

Historians have described the rise of cities or corporations, the return of reform movements, and the sense of crisis itself as the force behind this gilded age turned “progressive.’’ The accomplished cultural historian Jackson Lears looks to the wars - not only the big ones that bookended the period but also the little ones that Americans seemed to seek at every turn.

Americans north and south, black and white, had embraced the terrifying destruction of the Civil War as a portent of rebirth, a baptism by fire. The notion of regeneration through battle, though, set the stage for a reunion without slavery or racial equality.

The Civil War also fueled a cult of manliness that slid easily into militarism. Confident that American imperial ventures would be different, American men took the experience of total war to the Plains Indians, and then abroad. Lears is both poetic and devastating on the self-serving aspects of the American creed in these years. Where others have seen a healthy idealism that ultimately found ways to address the harsh reality of the rich getting richer, he sees mainly self-justification and hubris.

A decadent, gilded age did not give way to an age of reform. Instead, the same culture that produced the Civil War found other outlets for its regenerative visions: Cuba, the Philippines, Haiti, and finally, in 1917, Europe.

The Jim Crow consensus at home helped justify imperial adventures: “Both policies depended on the same racial hierarchy.’’ Success in those ventures allowed Americans to think of themselves as heroic liberators. Lears peppers his narrative with some of the figures who resisted the pull toward war and its equivalents. Mark Twain mocked frontier and Civil War violence in the 1870s and skewered imperial designs at the turn of the century. But Lears appears too jaded to celebrate the limited difference made by protesters. His critics of the status quo, like William Jennings Bryan and Eugene V. Debs, launch impressive critiques that led to incremental reforms. Most lastingly, their demands led to the invention of the welfare state and the Federal Reserve System, which began to take harsh edges off of capitalism well before the New Deal.

The most moving and effective portraits in the book are of the men (almost always men) who sought to revitalize themselves and their nation, but wound up, like Woodrow Wilson, justifying another war. White Southerners who disfranchised blacks and accepted lynchings saw themselves as Christian reformers.

Lears is the kind of historian who excels at showing how everything is connected, even the opposite sides in a culture war. And after his dissection of the violence as well as idealism at the beginnings of our time, we may be prepared to accept his ironic but dead-serious closing remark that “sometimes a pacifist stance is the least sentimental of all,’’ the most in touch with the actual results of our repeated wish to dissolve our problems in war. It takes some guts to suggest, even in Lears’s almost understated way, that Americans have died not only in vain, but in vanity.

David Waldstreicher teaches history at Temple University and is the author of the recently published “Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification.’’

REBIRTH OF A NATION: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 By Jackson Lears

Harper, 432 pp., 27.99

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