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Changing the Metaphor | The Nation

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Changing the Metaphor

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KERMIT ROOSEVELT COLLECTION, PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, LOCTheodore Roosevelt in Africa with a dead rhino, 1909, photograph by Edward Van Altena

About the Author

Richard White
Richard White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, is the author, most recently,...

In his still useful What Is History?, published in 1961, Edward Carr appeals to the old cliché of history as a moving procession. But Carr insists that the historian does not enjoy a privileged view of the parade. A historian is "just another dim figure trudging along" in the midst of everyone else, Carr writes. And yet, because the procession winds and swerves, sometimes doubling back on itself, "the relative positions of different parts of the procession are constantly changing." New vistas and angles of vision constantly appear. We see certain stretches of the past--other sections of the procession--more clearly because we are figuratively nearer to them. "Great history," Carr concluded, "is written precisely when the historian's vision of the past is illuminated by insights into the problems of the present." The trick, of course, is not simply to impose the present onto the past but to use the problems of the present to explain and create sympathy and understanding for people in the past.

If Carr was right, and I think he was, Jackson Lears has grasped with Rebirth of a Nation an opportunity for reinterpreting a period that seems almost a doppelgänger of our own. For readers of Lears's generation, most of their adult life has passed during an epoch spanning the end of the Vietnam War and the ongoing war in Iraq; Rebirth of a Nation covers the era from the end of the Civil War to the end of World War I. The resemblances between the two periods are eerie. Both followed wars that wrenched the nation apart. Both were marked by mass immigration, sweeping economic changes, new technologies that altered senses of space and time, growing disparities of wealth and capital flows that circled the globe. Leaders justified foreign military adventures in the name of freedom and progress. Innovation--technological, intellectual, cultural and social--came largely from outside the major political parties and usually from outside the political system. The analogy is hardly perfect: after the Civil War the nation retreated from aspirations to correct a history of racial injustice and instead enshrined injustice in law, while the recent era has been a long struggle to correct that very legacy. The bitter class struggles of the late nineteenth century have no equivalent in the modern era, and American expansion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hardly matches the United States' recent global dominance. Still, Lears insists that our recent past bears a striking resemblance to the half-century after the Civil War because during both eras much of the country was in thrall to "militarist fantasy" and "mystical nationalism." Many Americans, then and now, regarded violence and conflict as the crucible of moral regeneration and national rebirth.

Lears's opportunity comes with a corresponding challenge, for Rebirth of a Nation has its own doppelgänger: Robert Wiebe's magisterial The Search for Order: 1877-1920. Because all history is revisionist history, it is rare that a historical work survives the lifetime of its author and remains the standard book on a period. But The Search for Order, published in 1967, is one of the most enduring historical works of the past generation, despite the efforts of the scholarly termites (of whom I am one) who have eaten away at it. Wiebe portrayed the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a period of centralization, professionalization and nationalization. Americans found themselves adrift as an older world of autonomous, local "island" communities disintegrated; they responded by undertaking a "search for order" to organize, discipline and tame a society that was diverse, industrial, urban and increasingly corporate. Newer scholarship has undermined many of Wiebe's conclusions, such as the existence of island communities in the wake of the Civil War and the rationality of the new corporate order. Yet his book stands--a weathered but imposing monument reinforced by the powerful metaphor of its title. Metaphors matter; they can corral all kinds of restless and fractious people and events, and Wiebe settled on a good one.

Unlike Wiebe, Lears is a cultural historian, one of the founders of the modern field and in many ways its most illustrious American practitioner. He is writing at what may prove to be cultural history's apex; and unlike his previous books (No Place of Grace, Fables of Abundance and Something for Nothing), Rebirth of a Nation is an attempt to seize the moment. But Lears has no ambition to be the termite that brings Wiebe's monument crashing down. Indeed, the synthetic argument of Rebirth of a Nation depends, in part, on propping Wiebe up. Lears is a bold historian, and a very curious one. He has read widely and incorporates newer scholarship into his narrative, but his portrait of emergent industrial capitalism is not that different from Wiebe's: capital is firmly in control; the modern corporation is the template for social and political order; farmers and workers are brave but outmatched by industrialists and capitalists. The edifice of Lears's argument is like one of those architectural hybrids found in large cities, the product of the facade of an older notable building being integrated into a newer structure. Some of the building's lines and angles are jarring to my eye. I do not think capitalism was as powerful nor workers as weak as they are sometimes depicted in Rebirth of a Nation, but to object too strongly would be to miss Lears's point. We know these lives; we know these events. What Lears contends is that we have not truly known what they mean, and the key to finding that out involves tracing the cultural and psychological changes of the half-century after the Civil War.

Lears wants to swap metaphors: to replace a "search for order" with a "rebirth of a nation" (itself an inversion of the title of D.W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation). The consequence of Lears's shift of emphasis is clear in his book's opening sentence: "All history is the history of longing." The longing in question--a desire for spiritual, moral and physical regeneration--is deeply Protestant, and it is rooted not only in Protestant patterns of conversion but also in the country's secular saga of self-invention and transformation.

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