A Fierce Discontent

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Michael McGerr. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920. New York: Free Press, 2003. xvi, 395 pp. $30.00, ISBN 0-684-85975-0.


In A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, historian Michael McGerr has crafted a compelling analysis of the rapid social and cultural changes occurring in America at the turn of the century. Focusing on the Progressive views on the individual, society, gender, and pleasure, McGerr targets what he considers the “four quintessential progressive battles: to change other people; to end class conflict; to control big business; and to segregate society”(xv). These questions are addressed in order in the second section of the book, buttressed with useful context explaining the catalyzing factors of these progressive behaviors and their outcomes.

The primary theme that binds the sections together and forms the crux of McGerr’s analysis is the question of the changing importance of individualism. Progressives, in contrast to their Victorian parents and grandparents, saw individualism as a characteristic that needed to be altered in order for society to be stable and productive in the emerging industrial economy. Whereas “in the hands of the upper ten, individualism became an excuse for complete autonomy, a legitimization of indulgence and inequality; and a rationalization of the troubling national status quo”(56), individualism prompted farmers to skimp on education for their children and for the tension within working-class immigrant families.

Though McGerr seeks to examine individualism and Progressivism through the multiple lenses of class, race, ethnicity, and gender, his emphasis on class is the most prominent. In the analysis, class becomes a factor that influences all the others to the most notable degree. Specifically, McGerr states that “the relentless development of the industrial economy, the increasing spread of news in papers and magazines, and the unceasing political contests of a democracy all made the different classes constantly aware of one another and generated many signs of friction in late nineteenth-century America”(28). These frictions of course are products of the new industrialized economy such as urbanization, immigration, and ethnic and gender mixing that created the social problems the Progressives sought to rectify.

Mechanism of Progressive change can be broken down into two primary categories: the “Social Gospel” and government regulation which both attempted to change the lifestyle and working habits of Americans. The “Social Gospel,” very active at the grassroots level, gave rise to the settlement house movement which sought to improve quality of life for the working-class, primarily women and children. Through an emphasis on education and children’s well-being (kindergarten and day care, for example), the grassroots workers became active in state regulatory affairs related to labor laws, such as the eight-hour day, abolition of child labor, and later, prohibition. Their influence then prompted federal legislation, elevating the Progressive platform to the national level to reshape behavior on a larger scale.


Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent is an accessible, solidly-argued account of the Progressive Movement in America. Beyond this, the writing style is elegant and intelligent with narrative devices that are both engaging and highly useful. In particular, McGerr starts each chapter with a short story focused on the experience of a single individual—whether it is Theodore Roosevelt greeting the mixed masses (182) or Ann Bassett, a rancher, confronting big business (147)—that encapsulates a particular issue of Progressivism. While arguably these vignettes may be a bit too contrived and convenient, they are so clever and well-written that the reader is likely to forgive or overlook that aspect. Overall, the writing and organization of argument are the strongest features of A Fierce Discontent. McGerr manages to make complicated issues such as organized labor and big business and the multiple arguments and outcomes that accompanied them comprehensive and manageable for readers who would ordinarily be more interested in cultural or women’s history.

McGerr’s primary weakness is his uneven treatment of race as compared to gender and class. Race barely appears until page 130, whereas class and gender, most especially women, are addressed from the first chapters. Throughout, it becomes clear that McGerr believes that changes were based on class awareness and race was an incidental factor. Further, McGerr pays considerable attention to women’s activism and later, feminism. Nowhere, though, do we read about any black activists working for change during the Progressive period. Work has been done on the topic, especially as related to the black migration to northern cities (which is mentioned), but it is not reflected here.

Finally, a reader must consider the role of Theodore Roosevelt in the Progressive movement as portrayed in A Fierce Discontent. McGerr clearly places Roosevelt in the Progressive camp from the start—“A Fierce Content” is quoted from Roosevelt in the opening of the book. Further, McGerr inserts Roosevelt at various points in the narrative to suggest a Progressive stance, for example, facing down J.P. Morgan over the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (157). However to say that Roosevelt disdained the individualism of the upper ten like the Progressives and therefore clamped down on big business as a result is an overstatement and not a clear enough link to Progressivism. McGerr does not present Roosevelt’s views on the role of women, for example, as it would likely disrupt his succinct categorization of Roosevelt as a Progressive. At least McGerr is direct with this important question, but answers it unsatisfactorily by being imprudently selective in his examples and too obvious is his exclusions.

A Fierce Discontent culminates in an analysis of the challenges the new consumer, leisure lifestyles brought to Progressivism. Here, McGerr illustrates how the compression of time and space through the invention of the automobile and telephone and the rise of leisure that mixed classes and sexes led to the demise of the Progressive movement in America. McGerr argues that Progressivism was an “ideology of the center” that was a “blend of reworked domesticity, restrained pleasure, antiindividualism, association, and state power” (71) that found its limits in an unrestrained culture of movies and entertainment. The new leisure culture offered challenges so complex that they required the consensus Progressives could not find. As questions of race, class, and gender became increasingly multi-faceted as they were marketed, consumed, and subverted in uncontrollable environments, their meanings defied the Progressive “ideology of the center.” Further in the face of changing national imperatives in a world at war, both grassroots activists and federal legislators found more important causes and were forced to abandon the middle-class utopia central to the Progressive mindset.

--Alechne1 15:19, 21 Aug 2007 (EDT)

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