Rebirth of a Nation

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Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 2009. 448 pp. ISBN: 9780060747503

Summary

In his work Rebirth of a Nation, Jackson Lears provides a synthesis of the years between the end of the Civil War and World War I. Unlike previous historians that argue for economic change as the main main force of the period, Lears argues that the desire to be reborn, regenerated, or revitalized (rooted in Protestant desire for spiritual rebirth or conversion) is the driving force behind the “making of modern America” (5). These private ideas of regeneration began to penetrate public life, inspiring movements and policies that shaped the nation. He traces Americans’ desire for rebirth throughout the major trends and events of the age: the rise of industrial capitalism, the expansion of American empire and the explosion of Jim Crow.

Lears posits that the idea of regeneration shaped America in term of politics, morality, military ambition (masculinity), race (specifically desires for African American regeneration squashed by white supremacy and violence), women, urbanization, imperialism, big business, immigration, workers, etc. These ideas of rebirth and revitalization touched basically every aspect of American life in the early 20th century. Lears’ study focuses on two main forms of rebirth- militarism (often in the form of imperialism) and reform (such as Progressivism). Lears uncovers Americans who embraced militarist fantasies of rebirth through violence, war and empire, as well as Americans who dreamt of American revitalization through reform movements. Lears uncovers both of these impulses in his “poster boy” Theodore Roosevelt. He also examines lesser know Americans who developed their own ideas/version of American heroism and rebirth such as William Jennings Bryan, Jane Addams and William James.

Lears ends his synthesis with American involvement in World War I, arguing that it caused the death of both the militaristic and reformist vision of rebirth due to the brutal realities of fighting, the suppression of dissent at home and the failure of Wilson’s version of the League of Nations.


Commentary

Rebecca Adams, Spring 2016

Lears’ work provides an interesting and unique perspective on the years between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War I by focusing on the ideas of rebirth, regeneration and revitalization that he argues influenced the era’s most important movements and policies. He argues that this quest for regeneration took two distinctive forms- the mission to bolster masculinity through militarism and imperialism, as well as reform. His argument for the desire of rebirth affecting every large development during this time, although very intriguing, is not always totally convincing. His focus on rebirth as the main force in the making of modern American obscures the other forces that were also responsible for the shaping of the American nation in the early 20th century. Despite these minor issues, in the end Lears has revised the common narrative of this era by placing emphasis on the idea of regeneration as it derives from Protestant ideas of conversion and has provided a fresh perspective on well known historical movements and developments.

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