Rebirth of a Metaphor
In a recent issue of The Nation, Richard White reviews Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation, a new synthesis of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that aims to be for this generation what Robert Wiebe's The Search for Order was for a previous one -- a synthetic text with a guiding metaphor. Lears's image is a religious one: spiritual regeneration. White writes:
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. . . . . .
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 Protestant center of American history makes a big comeback in this text, as well, a function of a focus on the "longings" of cultural elites and middle-class Americans in the era. American religious historians have been putting that center in the grave for a long time, but in these kinds of synthetic history it rises again.