Changing the Metaphor | The Nation


Changing the Metaphor

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Although Lears may seem to be prescribing vitalism as the antidote to the millennial and racist versions of regeneration that arose after the Civil War, his analysis is more complicated than that. For one thing, he does not celebrate vitalism. He is well aware of its flaws. Vitalist racism might have been less virulent and harmful than the other varieties of racism, but it was still racism. Moreover, Lears sometimes sympathizes with millennialism--a "creed of redemptive transformation." He regards nineteenth-century anti-monopoly politics, wrongly, I think, as millennialist but appreciates the motive: antipathy toward concentrated wealth and power. At the same time, Lears's sympathy sometimes seems to smack of condescension. Because he tells a conventional political and economic narrative in which anti-monopolists are bit players, their many alliances and organizations--the Greenbackers, Readjusters, Farmers' Alliance and Populists--are not given their proper due. Lears criticizes, rightfully enough, Wiebe and Richard Hofstadter for ultimately being interested only in the history of winners; but so, in a sense, is he. His accounts of anti-monopolists are less fresh, less interesting and less powerful than those about empire builders. Anti-monopolists seem to be a doomed evolutionary branch. Lears doesn't reduce them to mere victims, but unlike his dominant figures, they don't spawn new forms.

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

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Lears wastes no time mourning the failures and defeats of the Greenbackers and Populists. Because each new development replicates old divisions, he finds within vitalism hopeful signs. He is very sympathetic to vitalists who sought heroism but were "rooted in lived experience rather than the platitudes of millennial nationalism." Among his exemplars are Jane Addams, Mark Twain and William James. James sought risk, and he longed for regeneration, but he "defined it more capaciously and humanely" than did the millennialists, who celebrated force and sought conquest. "Everything, for James," Lears writes, "boiled down to the question of how to escape the enveloping fear that life was essentially meaningless." The kind of courage that interested him as a philosopher and psychologist was manifested in the risk of belief in an "unseen order." For James, Lears explains, "betting on belief brought revitalization in this world rather than salvation in the next." Yet the efforts of James and others to explain that "the powers unleashed in the new century could be demonic as well as divine" were dwarfed and overwhelmed by what Lears calls the "inanities of empire." The public struggles of the period that mattered most took place on an imperial scale.

Theodore Roosevelt is Lears's poster boy of imperialism and vitalism's dark side, "the public figure who best embodied the politics of regeneration." A man who "stirred up disorder at every turn," Roosevelt has been Lears's bête noire since No Place of Grace. Lears condemns Roosevelt's "portentous vacancy," his "adolescent bellicosity" and his tendency to reduce the new cult of manliness and wilderness "to absurdity." "Driven by a myopic nationalism and tendentious reading of world history," Lears writes, President Roosevelt intervened recklessly in Panama and the Caribbean and helped create generations of upheaval. Once he had left the presidency, and was cut off from power, Roosevelt's mystical nationalism led him to become quite simply "unhinged." Thirsting for revenge, blood and purification, he denounced Wilson's initial refusal to enter World War I as the act of a "demagogue, adroit, tricky, false, without one spark of loftiness in him, without a touch of the heroic in his cold, selfish, and timid soul." Lears's portrait of Roosevelt is an understandable and necessary reaction to the contemporary celebration of T.R. (see Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex), but it eventually creates some analytical difficulties in Rebirth of a Nation.

In distinguishing between malevolent and benevolent vitalists, Lears is at his most imaginative and compelling. Vitalists like Roosevelt often embraced force, but Lears sees his good vitalists as less susceptible to this tendency. The fascination with force was not merely "an ideological cover for ruling-class interests" during the late nineteenth century. In a society of increasing middle-class affluence, military heroism seemed like an antidote to "overcivilization" and the selfishness, narrowness and materialism associated with commerce. Lears, however, sees this as an antique strain of regeneration and not the dominant one by the century's end. Rather than rejecting commerce, the new "modern martial ethic" merged "commerce and courage." It reached full voice in the 1890s as many businessmen and politicians came to believe that the health of the American economy was tied to the continued expansion of US markets abroad. Indeed, often suspicious of American capital at home, Roosevelt was its sponsor overseas. The regeneration that began in individual hearts would, Lears writes, "be spread--by force, if necessary--to the entire world." In essence, there emerged a muddled racial ideology that involved the "civilization of backward peoples on the outskirts of settled society, revitalization of an overcivilized bourgeoisie in the metropolitan centers" and the projection of imperial power and fantasy onto the imagined "white spaces" on maps. But it also could be adopted by those "backward peoples" themselves. Booker T. Washington's emphasis on "manliness and black uplift" was of the age.

Lears is at his most daring when explaining the cultural dimensions of economic change. In his view, the emergence of vitalism enabled the passing of an earlier "psychic economy of scarcity"--whereby everything from strength to money to semen had to be husbanded--and the rise of a psychology of abundance. Very quickly "freedom from fear meant freedom to consume." The challenge to the psychology of scarcity yielded a repackaging of Protestant desires for regeneration in "secular containers--a managerial ethic of peak performance, a martial ethic of disciplined sacrifice." This "rationalization of regeneration" provided the "core of the dominant culture in the twentieth-century United States."

Its most benign advocates were progressives like Josiah Strong and Jane Addams, who mingled what had earlier often been separate streams of regeneration--the personal and the national. They were practical rather than millennial, managerial and reformist rather than utopian and revolutionary. Lears finds Progressive reform most attractive when it was the most humane and the least repressive: empowering the previously powerless through child labor laws, workman's compensation and other factory legislation governing working hours, particularly for women. The powerless, however, form an odd triumvirate: women, children and workers. To group adults with children is always problematic. And while women and workers may have been abused, were they always powerless?

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