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'Rebirth of a Nation' by Jackson Lears

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Jackson Lears is a formidable, compellingly original cultural and intellectual historian.

In "No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920," Lears skillfully delineated the role of aesthetic radicals -- notably Englishmen John Ruskin and William Morris and their American disciples -- in staking out humane alternatives to consumerism that gradually shifted from social justice to ideals of therapeutic personal fulfillment. In "Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America," he explored the exploitation of that hunger for "authenticity" that resulted from the earlier process.

"Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920" is Lears' most ambitious work yet, and it builds brilliantly on those earlier projects. The Rutgers University professor makes a convincing case that the transformations America underwent in the half century's journey from out of the "long shadow of Appomattox" and into the terrible flare-lit night of the European trenches remains fundamental to our understanding of ourselves -- and to the conduct of our affairs.

What Lears makes of that is clear from the quote he takes from Herman Melville at the book's outset: "Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come." To summarize his sense of the transformation almost to the point of oversimplification: An earlier 19th century notion of "manliness" gave way to an amoral militarism, which fused with a muscular new Protestantism and evolving theories of racial supremacy; these, in turn, conjoined with a new economic order in which capital made way for capitalism. All were able to meld because each began in the post-Civil War hunger for "regeneration." The result was an assertive, aggressive, frequently intolerant national identity.

What makes "Rebirth of a Nation" so readable -- beyond the author's writerly facility -- and saves it from a descent into didacticism is Lears' skillful mining of original cultural references and his strikingly drawn portraits. This is particularly true of figures a reader already imagines knowing -- Oliver Wendell Holmes or Williams Jennings Bryan, for example -- and, especially, the great financiers. The concise portrait of the dominant Wall Street figure of the age, J.P. Morgan, is extremely well-rendered, as is the simple encapsulation of his all-transforming financial system, "Morganization," which essentially was the shift of a company's equity from interest-paying bonds to stocks that depend on earnings. (Unlike credit default swaps, it was a financial innovation that worked.)

Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were two money magicians who migrated from a mastery of insider trading -- the foundation of the era's great market-based fortunes -- to the invention of systematic philanthropy, though not, as is so often assumed, to assuage troubled consciences. As Lears puts it, "Despite vast differences in personal style, Carnegie and Rockefeller had much in common. Eventually both migrated to systematic philanthropy, contributing to the common good even as they disregarded it in their business practices. Both shared a tendency to conflate their own interests with those of society . . . as well as a talent for self-deception that dissolved moral ambivalence in a warm bath of ideological certitude. In this they were no different from captains of commerce in their time and ours."

Lears has the natural breadth of interests and grasp of multiple genres that marks a truly accomplished cultural historian. He's particularly good at drawing together details that reveal the complexities and contradictions of actual political and economic turmoil. Edward House, for example, one of Woodrow Wilson's closest advisors, was a phony Texas colonel who wrote a dystopian futuristic novel in which Philip Dru, a young West Point graduate, takes military command of the Progressive forces in a second civil war against the monopoly capitalists. After Dru and his Progressives crush the monopolists in a final apocalyptic battle, he "appoints himself dictator to oversee the return to a constitutional and efficiently administered democracy, subdues the 'the revolutionaries and bandits' in Mexico, extends the United States throughout North America from the equator to the pole" before abdicating and sailing away with the heroine.

Similarly, Lears is bracingly insistent on the contingent nature of many of this era's processes -- ones whose inherited conclusions many of us treat as preordained. "It is important to see the post-Reconstruction history of African-Americans not as a swift and inevitable descent to a nadir but as a period when freed people struggled, sometimes successfully, to sustain the meaning of black emancipation against the relentless reassertion of white supremacy."

Wilson, as John Reed described him, possessed -- or, perhaps, was possessed by -- "a principle, a religion, a something on which his whole life rests." He entered politics from academia believing that social transformation could be promoted by "some great orator who could go about and make men drunk with his spirit of self-sacrifice." More than 100,000 Americans, intoxicated by that spirit or not, ultimately would die for it in World War I and the imperialist adventures in Latin America that preceded it. Lears has a particularly sharp eye for Wilson's embrace of the Anglophilic racial fantasies that helped fuel the psycho-social transformation culminating in the Great War. He not only repeats the familiar story of Wilson's screening of D.W. Griffith's race-baiting "Birth of a Nation" in the White House, but also points out that, as president, he addressed the Civil War veterans assembled to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg without once mentioning blacks, slavery or emancipation.

"The Wilson Administration," Lears writes, "made Jim Crow the official policy of federal offices in Washington, [which] marked the post-Civil War nadir of African American participation in United States public life."

Lears' convincing new narrative of this pivotal half century never falters, but it does sometimes stutter. While it's certainly true, for example, that Wilson first intervened in Mexico to shore up Venustiano Carranza's insurgent government, the percipient cause of Gen. John J. Pershing's long incursion was Pancho Villa's banditry. His forces kidnapped and murdered 17 American mining engineers, then -- two months later -- crossed the border to attack the U.S. Cavalry base at Camp Furlong and, on their way home, raided and burned the town of Columbus, N.M. Fourteen men of the 13th Cavalry and 10 civilians were killed.

Finally, that so thoroughly clear-eyed a historical reconsideration ends with the gauzy musing that the Great War's lesson is that "sometimes a pacifist stance is the least sentimental of all" is more than merely debatable -- since just two decades later, events would prove it utter folly.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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