gilded ages


On March 11, 2003, about a week ­before President George W. Bush began bombing Iraq, the cultural historian Jackson Lears published an Op-Ed article in The New York Times pleading for sanity. He sensed that it was already too late, and suggested that war opponents might be “fingering a rabbit’s foot from time to time.” As a historian, however, Lears couldn’t help asking when the “regenerative” impulse to seek national glory through war first took root. The result is “Rebirth of a Nation,” a fascinating cultural history that locates the origins of Bush-era belligerence in the anxieties and modernizing impulses of the late 19th century. Lears describes his bookas a “synthetic reinterpretation” of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, an effort to dislodge classics like Richard Hofstadter’s “Age of Reform”(1955) and Robert Wiebe’s “Search for Order, 1877-1920”(1967). It’s an ambitious project; both books, despite legions of critics, have shown remarkable staying power. Fortunately, Lears is well qualified for the task. One of the deans of American cultural history (as well as a professor at Rutgers University), Lears has spent decades writing about turn-of-the-20th-century debates over consumerism, modernity, religion and market capitalism. With “Rebirth of a Nation,” he expands his vision to include politics, war and the presidency as well.

more from Beverly Gage at the NYT here.