Changing the Metaphor | The Nation


Changing the Metaphor

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It takes great skill and talent to pull off this kind of sweeping cultural interpretation, and in large part Lears succeeds, but he makes two assumptions that are certain to be challenged. The first is that to understand how the United States changed between 1876 and 1920, it is largely the lives and longings of Protestants that are worth studying. Except as historical extras, there are fewer Catholics and Jews in these pages than at a camp meeting. Not only that but the cast of Protestants is a familiar one, including John Hay, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Ida Wells, Henry Grady (the father of the New South), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Woodrow Wilson, William James and Henry Adams. Lears makes a good case for concentrating on Protestants--a Protestant consensus, he notes, "dominated American politics from the Revolutionary Era into the twentieth century"--but his second assumption is more fundamental and probably more precarious. For Lears, rebirth and regeneration end up being more than metaphors. They are pervasive ways of thinking--habits of mind that shaped the public world of factories, banks, warehouses, battlefields and shop windows. Longing, not capital or political power, is in the saddle, and rides mankind. This is about as far from materialist interpretations of history as it is possible to go. It is an interpretation that will live and die with cultural history.

About the Author

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

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Taking a half-century known largely for the rise of industrial capitalism, westward expansion and considerable political corruption, Lears locates the age's significance in a spiritual quest born of a refusal to face the tragedy of the Civil War. Lincoln and Lee may have had a deep appreciation of that tragedy--"a bloody expiation visited on North and South alike for the national sin of slavery," in Lears's words--but most Americans, Lears thinks, reduced the searing conflict to melodrama. They interpreted the bloodshed as a cleansing religious sacrifice, but one not offered on behalf of emancipation. They thought the purpose of the war was reunion: "The idea that the Union had reaffirmed its very being through blood sacrifice promoted a postwar dream of national renewal through righteous war." It was a telling shift, and lingers still. Barack Obama may be the nation's first African-American president, but by sending a wreath to the Confederate Monument in Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, he followed a tradition started in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern (and segregationist) president since the Civil War. "Yankees and Confederates," Lears writes, had "made peace on the backs of blacks. The ideology of reunion was millennial nationalism...but adding a racial component of Anglo-Saxon supremacy." The ideology of white supremacy was well defined by 1877, even if fully race-based power was not dominant until the 1890s.

The regenerative impulse was at heart racist. In a market society where self-invention was celebrated and identity was "malleable and up for sale," racism lent identity a kind of solidity. In a world of rapid economic and social change, those Americans who could claim white manhood took shelter in it. But the era's racism was not uniform. Lears is almost Linnaean in his description and cataloging of types of racism. It could take the form of "Paternalist uplift," full of condescension and "universalist hubris." The Congregational minister Josiah Strong, now largely forgotten but in his time a major figure, best embodied this variety. "The world is evidently about to enter on a new era," Strong told Americans in 1893, and "in this era mankind is to come more and more under Anglo-Saxon influence, and Anglo-Saxon civilization is more favorable than any other to the spread of those principles whose universal triumph is necessary to that perfection of the race to which it is destined; the entire realization of which will be the kingdom of heaven fully come on earth." There was also a "vitalist racism," which sprang from an affinity for the spontaneous and emotional, and was attracted to the exotic, the sensual and the power of the supposedly primitive. "Naturalist racism" was the most virulent variety. It severed the common bonds of humanity and equated nonwhite and native populations with animals. In this "new racial hierarchy," Lears writes, the Caucasians were "at the pinnacle and the Negro barely a rung above the orangutan."

Regeneration was not exclusively racist, and cataloging its various forms is crucial to Lears's larger project. Everywhere he looks, Lears finds the language of regeneration: in patent medicine advertisements whose testimonials resembled Protestant devotional literature; in the literature of consumption--magazines, advertisements, product descriptions--that promised rejuvenation through the purchase and use of mass-produced goods; in the cult of the self-made man, which intertwined mastery of money and mastery of self. For Lears the search for rebirth and salvation was a constantly evolving phenomenon, yet each new form always seems to replicate the same internal dichotomy, like a new species always replicating a male and female form. The first form, which sometimes seems gendered as male, is the one Lears dislikes and deems dangerous. It was millennial, providential and rooted in vapid ideals, such as a mystical, often martial nationalism. The second, for which Lears has a guarded sympathy, was rooted in experience and championed an older republican tradition of independence, distrust of power and authority, and belief in the dignity of productive work.

A key episode of Lears's history of regeneration is the flowering of vitalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Lears first formulated a history of vitalism in his enormously influential No Place of Grace, and in Rebirth of a Nation he expands and complicates his interpretation. Whereas in No Place of Grace vitalism represented a detour from and reaction against American modernity, in Rebirth of a Nation it is a multilane highway to modernity on which good and bad vitalists travel together. In general, vitalism arose as a celebration of spontaneity. It was in many ways a "religion of experience" that expressed itself in a cult of experience, a "recoil from banality [that] led beyond the battlefield, toward new directions in literature and the arts as well as in philosophical and religious thought," Lears writes. "These explorations, disparate as they were, stemmed from a common longing--a desire to smash through the evasions of late Victorian life and immerse oneself in a flood of unmediated, intense experience." Vitalism lay at the heart of "a broad revolt against positivism, a rejection of a barren universe governed by inexorable laws, where everything was measurable and nothing mysterious." It expressed itself in pragmatism but also in mysticism, in all kinds of self-help regimes and in revolts against domesticity and the orthodoxies of the Victorian literary culture. It created wilderness as the antidote for the city. It sought "mind-body cooperation." It delved into and celebrated the subconscious.

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