Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Banking on rebirth at the factory gate

Jackson Lears stakes his claim to define our understanding of post-Civil War U.S. history

The following review was published yesterday in the book section at the History News Network.

Though he's not a household name, Jackson Lears has long been one of the most impressive interpreters of American history. His output over the course of the last three decades—three major books whose locus is the late Victorian era, and a pair of edited anthologies of cultural history—are judicious, gracefully written, and, always, deeply suggestive. His latest book, an overview of the period spanning the end of Reconstruction to the end of the First World War, is no exception.

There's a curious tension, even paradox, running through Lears's body of work. On the one hand, he was part of the vanguard of cultural historians who emerged in academe in the 1980s. The 1983 collection of essays he edited with Richard Wightman Fox, The Culture of Consumption, was a both showcase and manifesto for an emerging generation of talent that challenged the primacy of labor and social history in the profession. The two followed up with a broader collection in 1994, The Power of Culture, which is an even better book.

Yet even as he helped define the field of cultural history, Lears was a misfit within it. While embraced key aspects of the over-easy Marxism that characterized the work of many of his peers like Michael Denning or George Lipsitz, he was skeptical about the materialist analysis that forms the bedrock for all its manifold variations. Moreover, Lears was deeply chary of the post-structuralist influences that dominated scholarship on popular culture by such scholars. So an air of conservative iconoclasm suffuses his work, even as his politics are for the most part mainstream (academic) left.

The heart of this tension is Lears's stance toward the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant demographic core of U.S. society. In the late 19th century, the nation's intellectual elite upheld WASP culture as the essence of all that was valuable in American civilization. In the late 20th, it was widely considered the source of all that was wrong with it. Lears is as familiar with this critique as anyone in the academy, and there are stretches of
Rebirth of a Nation that read as if they could have been written by David Blight, Ron Takaki or Nell Irvin Painter, whose 1987 book Standing at Armegeddon: The United States, 1877-1919 is probably the regnant survey of the period. But Lears may well be unique in his insistent gaze at the religious longings for regeneration that provided the driving energy of American life ever since, an energy that even its celebrants knew could be dangerous. As Lears notes in the vivid language of his introduction, "The molten core of conversion needed to be encased in a solid sheath of prohibitions, rules [and] agendas for self-control."

The dualities of the Protestant ethic could be deeply ironic and tragic, and Lears is unsparing in his descriptions of their cost—among them a mania for control that, partially inadvertently, led to bloodless managerial state. But for him the receding glow of the Reformation is never far away from the surface of American life. In his first book, No Place of Grace (1981), a study of the “antimodern” impulse among elite Victorians that was part of the broader critique of industrial capitalism that he describes here, Lears paid considerable attention to high society figures like Henry Adams and George Santayana, who appear on these pages as well. But now he broadens his canvas to include relatively nuanced portraits of figures such as William Jennings Bryan or an obscure Colorado widow named Emily French, whose visions of another life never disappear even as they soldier through the adversities of their times.

Rebirth of a Nation is not an especially well-proportioned book. The first and third chapters on race and ethnicity recite familiar arguments that might have been telescoped; Lears's handling of the events like the pivotal presidential election of 1912 and the U.S. experience in the First World War seem a bit perfunctory. (His heart is really in the 1890s; he spends a good deal of time, to good effect, describing the ravages of the economic depression of the 1890s, which rivaled that of the Great Depression and makes the current economic downturn seem mild indeed.) In this regard I'm reminded of Lears's enormously resonant, but ungainly, 1994 book Fables of Abundance, which was subtitled "a cultural history of advertising in America" but was more an extended meditation on the lost art of, and need for, a truly fabulous dimension in national life.

I suspect the parameters of Rebirth of a Nation were defined by the imperatives of the marketplace. The 1877-1920 periodization staked out by Robert Wiebe in his sociologically-minded, and still influential, The Search for Order (1967) remains the point of orientation for virtually all serious students of U.S. history. Lears is laying a claim for the primacy of a cultural history lens for the period, and I would not be surprised if this book becomes the go-to textbook adoption for the next generation.

In this regard, Lears is a little like the well-respected, but not widely known, pop artist angling for a hit. I hope he gets one. For my money, Fables of Abundance and his marvelous 2003 cultural history of luck, Something for Nothing, are the Lears "albums" of choice. But as an introduction to the man, his work, and a notably intelligent reading of the standard U.S. history repertory, Rebirth of a Nation is not a bad place to encounter him.