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Turning Point

<i> Susie Linfield is the acting director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at New York University. She is a contributing writer to Book Review</i>

David Traxel’s new book is somewhat of a marketing ploy: It cannot be purely coincidental that “1898: The Birth of the American Century” has been published this year. Still, it is not a marketing ploy devoid of intellectual validity. For it can surely be argued that certain years--1848 and 1968 immediately spring to mind--have been extraordinarily influential in determining future events.

Just as surely it can be argued that 1898 should be considered one of those watersheds, for this was the year the United States won the Spanish-American War and, more significant, became a player in the colonial game through our subsequent acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. “During 12 months of rich confusion, wild contradiction and violent change, the United States in 1898 advanced from being viewed as a country of sharp-dealing businessmen with a second-rate military and little international influence to acknowledgment as a respected member of the Imperialists’ club,” Traxel writes. “It was the first and necessary step in making the twentieth century the American Century.”

Traxel’s thesis is neither controversial nor remarkable, and it therefore does not need to--nor, for that matter, can it--be proved. The question, then, is how well does Traxel achieve his stated aim of “render[ing] a portrait of America in 1898"--or of vividly and coherently recounting, as the book jacket puts it, “the tumultuous year of victory, invention, internal strife, and industrial expansion”? The answer is decidedly mixed. While some parts of Traxel’s narrative are engaging, compelling and gracefully written, too much of it is muddled, bland or so incomplete as to be misleading.

Traxel is best when he strays from traditional political and economic issues and ventures into what might be loosely termed social history. The book begins with an almost magical evocation of New Year’s Eve 1897, when “Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx lost their independence” and became incorporated into the mighty City of New York. He introduces us--as Americans were then being introduced--to such wonders as electricity, “the marvel of the age,” and the bicycle, which, by encouraging mobility and athleticism, changed both dating patterns and “the old-fashioned image of women as being weak and helpless.”

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We learn how L. Frank Baum, who would later win fame as the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” pioneered the art of large store-window displays, which had been made possible by new advances in glass manufacturing but were looked upon with suspicion: “The older generation had been raised to regard gawking at windows as vulgar. To help overcome this reluctance, ‘window gazers’ were hired to stand, stare, and draw a crowd.” And Traxel treats us to a fascinating exposition of how the first mass-produced, nationally distributed cracker was created by the newly formed National Biscuit Co., thus introducing both branding and advertising expertise into American life.

Traxel gets into trouble on other fronts, though. His wide-eyed portrait of Theodore Roosevelt--"shining star,” fearless fighter, defender of the common man--is embarrassingly gushy. (Richard Hofstadter put forth a far more intelligent, nuanced analysis of TR as both overcompensating militarist and “master therapist of the middle classes” in his book “The American Political Tradition,” which was written half a century ago.) Traxel’s treatment of the vacillating William McKinley, a man noticeably lacking in moral, intellectual or political imagination, is remarkably generous. The complicated, sometimes counterintuitive political positions created by the Spanish-American War are inadequately explained (some of the country’s most powerful capitalists, for instance, opposed military action, while some people on the left fervently supported it). And, in a structural miscalculation, Traxel spends a large portion of his book on an overly detailed, often tedious narration of U.S. military strategy in the war. (Battle-hungry readers might do better to consult “Empire by Default,” Ivan Musicant’s recently published, exhaustively detailed history of the war.)

Traxel is an unimaginative researcher. There is scant evidence that he sought out original sources such as court records, government reports or previously unpublished personal (or corporate) papers, diaries or letters. And the sources he does utilize are, for the most part, conventional; too often he eschews anything outside the mainstream, such as African American or labor newspapers.

This results in practical, not just theoretical, shortcomings. Take, for instance, Traxel’s account of the lethal Virden, Ill., mine workers’ strike, in which African American workers from Alabama were imported as strikebreakers. In his retelling of this incident, Traxel relies almost solely on a contemporaneous New York Times account and a 1959 article from a historical journal. He does not indicate how black, labor or socialist intellectuals of the time viewed the strike; how it affected relationships between Negro and labor activists; or how either the strikers or the scabs interpreted their bitter confrontation. Traxel skirts some of the most fascinating issues raised by the strike and does not present us with its most germane voices. He then concludes his narration with the highly dubious, not to mention entirely illogical, assertion that "[a]lthough all of the strikebreakers were to be ‘colored’ or ‘Negros’ from the South, there does not seem to have been any racial overtone aside from that.”

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As befits our current era--when, as the wise pundits tirelessly remind us, both history and ideology are kaput--Traxel’s book lacks a critical prism: “I have avoided any overarching theory or analytical approach,” he tells us. This is certainly true, although not, perhaps, quite the accomplishment Traxel believes it to be. In fact, his approach sometimes results in a disturbing obliviousness. He claims, for instance, that “hazards” such as “unshielded equipment in industrial workplaces contributed a thrill of danger to the regular routine of even the most conventional Americans.” But it is not at all clear that the thousands of workers who were injured, crippled and sometimes killed in workplace accidents during the 1890s found their situation exactly thrilling. In a similar vein, Traxel describes, virtually without comment, a rather grotesque Christmas dinner at Madison Square Garden, where “thousands of poor people were fed at tables set up on the arena floor . . . while wealthy New Yorkers paid admission to sit in . . . galleries and watch.”

Traxel concludes his book with an ode to that most banal of concepts--the “particularly American identity"--under whose rubric he includes such figures as W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Winslow Taylor. True, both men were Americans, but their visions were wildly incompatible: Du Bois was a partisan of knowledge, justice, equality and freedom; Taylor was dedicated to order, discipline, stability and profits. To lump these men together is a sign of lazy (or at best wishful) thinking; it is likely that both Du Bois and Taylor would be rather surprised to find themselves placed in such cozy proximity to one another.

There is enough good writing in “1898" to convince us that the United States was indeed a fascinating, burgeoning, stubbornly contradictory country in that year. The problem with Traxel’s book is that it whets, but does not satisfy, the appetite to find out just how and why this was so.


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