Changing the Metaphor

Changing the Metaphor

For Jackson Lears, the United States remains in thrall to a bogus spiritual quest born of a refusal to face the tragedy of the Civil War.


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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

But even as Progressives abandoned utopian visions and millennial dreams at home, Lears argues, they sought them abroad. Their longing for new markets and their conviction that such markets would ensure continued progress and regeneration “defined consumer demand as the engine of human improvement.” For Lears, the Spanish-American War was a tool to heal social divisions and a drug to purge the nation of the weakening consequences of commerce. The war was “wholesome,” and enthusiasts like Roosevelt equated it with not only physical toughening but “psychological healing” of “fragmented selves.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Bush administration and its supporters used similar language in the wake of 9/11. Both periods teemed with God talk, divine mandates and “the triumphalist inanities of empire.” And many Americans accepted the inanities, Lears argues, because they depended on empire “for their prosperity, for their racial, social, and even moral identity as a people, and for the power that undergirded their dreams of personal and national regeneration.” The parade of history has swung so that George Bush and Theodore Roosevelt seem to be marching shoulder to shoulder. “TR,” Lears insists, “was Bush’s ideological ancestor.”

But as the argument proceeds, Theodore Roosevelt disrupts it. The problem is a simple one. Lears is perfectly right to say that the chief purveyor of militarist and imperial inanities at the turn of the twentieth century was Theodore Roosevelt. The problem is that while Bush actually did lead us into disastrous wars, during his two terms as president Roosevelt did not. (He was assistant secretary of the Navy during the Spanish-American War.) But Woodrow Wilson did, and although Lears is hardly interested in sparing Wilson, he sympathizes with him in a way he does not with Roosevelt. Sometimes the lash best suited for Wilson–who was rigid, moralistic, racist, repressive, hypocritical–lands instead on Roosevelt merely for the sake of historical symmetry.

Lears tries to redeem Wilson even while acknowledging his faults, because he sees him as a tragic figure in ways Roosevelt was not. The recognition of tragedy–or at least its possibility–is the moral lodestone of Lears’s narrative. Any book that begins with Abraham Lincoln has set the bar impossibly high for evaluating how leaders of the Republic should think and behave. Wilson was a soft imperialist who, Lears writes, “preached a gospel of cultural uplift through consumption.” And even though Wilson’s “moralism always seemed to bring militarism in its wake,” at least–or so Lears sometimes seems to argue–Wilson “was not a mystic militarist like Roosevelt.” Lears lends credence to Wilson’s anticolonial impulses rather than his acts of colonialism (such as occupying Haiti in 1915 and invading Mexico), and to his highflying rhetoric of peace without victory despite his acquiescence to French and British demands for harsh reparations from Germany. Lears is willing to moderate his distaste for Wilson’s having led the United States into World War I because he did so full of foreboding. And even though until the end Wilson remained a purveyor of regeneration, he ended up a tragic figure. Lears cites his last speech at Pueblo, Colorado, in September 1919, as evidence of the deep religious longings that lay behind his dream of war: “There is one thing that the American people always rise to and extend their hand to,” Wilson exclaimed, “and that is the truth of justice and of liberty and of peace. We have accepted that truth, and we are going to be led by it, and it is going to lead us, and through us the world, out into pastures of quietness and peace such as the world never dreamed of before.” A few weeks later Wilson suffered a cerebral thrombosis. He “shuffled off the stage a ruined man. The age of regeneration was over.”

For Lears, as for Randolph Bourne, “the Western Front was the graveyard of the politics of regeneration.” But if that politics died in World War I, it has risen like a zombie. With the Reagan administration, militarist posturing returned. And after 9/11 it was not just neoconservatives but also Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens and other liberal hawks who brandished like a cutlass the old Progressive preaching of “national renewal through righteous war.” The casualties of millennialism and regeneration prompt Lears to champion a “politics of restraint,” which recognizes the pluralism of both American society and the world, and which is alert to the dangers of any politics based in the search for purity and perfection. But such a politics is hard to sustain, and political evaluation by historical analogy is always tricky terrain. I would prefer that George Bush be Woodrow Wilson rather than Theodore Roosevelt, if only because if Bush is Roosevelt, then Obama might be Wilson, which makes me fear for my country.

But good historians, at least on their best days, do not want to be agreed with; they want to change the terms of the argument. Jackson Lears has written a wonderful history that has done just that. The longevity of Rebirth of a Nation might not rival that of The Search for Order, but then few histories have or will. Lears has written a book to be reckoned with. Wherever the history of this period goes from here, it will have to go through Jackson Lears.

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