American Nihilism

Originally published in Bookforum on July 17, 2009.

Jackson Lears’s Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 is ambitious in conception, sharp in tone, stylish in composition, erudite in argument, and unified by the force of conviction. It continues, in these respects, the project that Lears has been pursuing since his first book, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, thenin Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (1994) and Something for Nothing: Luck in America (2003). The books purport to uncover the origins of our times, “the making of modern America,” as this subtitle says. The epigraph, from Melville’s Benito Cereno, evinces the tragic sensibility informing the project, the concern for the frailty of the American soul in contention with modernity: “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.”

Rebirth begins with the Compromise of 1877, which initiated ironic reversals of African-American freedom, and ends with Woodrow Wilson’s failed and foolish effort to engineer a global peace. Lears calls this half-century “the age of regeneration.” White men of both North and South, he says, created a redemptive myth of Anglo-Saxon supremacy that robbed emancipation of its promise and exalted an ethic of manliness that was a parody of republican valor. Lears sees past the bluster of leaders like Theodore Roosevelt—“the poster child for white-male renewal”—to nihilism and ennui. The late nineteenth century he depicts as a series of crises, metaphysical as well as political, rooted in the memory of the war’s savagery, which mooted every inherited moral code. Now discoveries in science and philosophy dashed the very idea of a fixed moral code.

The argument finds its center in Protestant spirituality, with its stress on conversion. But the “evangelical idiom of corruption and regeneration” was “adaptable to an endless variety of circumstances,” Lears writes. Neurostheniac women sought regeneration in “real life.” Young men drifting into the professional class suspected themselves of softness—until they discovered college football, weight-lifting, and bodybuilding. (These seem harmless enough—until Lears connects them to the fit of genocidal violence that wiped out the last of the Plains Indians). The magic of money “evoked dreams of sudden self-transformation” both because and in spite of the long agricultural depression of the late nineteenth century. Everyone from Henry Adams to Harry Houdini felt fascinated by force and magic, power and escape.

A minor cast of important Americans, including William Jennings Bryan, Jane Addams, and William James, developed a humane form of heroic rebirth. Some Progressives and Prohibitionists developed a discourse of “social rebirth” by linking state action with personal salvation, and cleared the path for the welfare state. But Lears ends as he began, yoking his theme to organized violence. The Great War, he argues, was not a political contingency, but the obvious and natural climax of the “millennial nationalism” that had already sent American ships, guns, and men to Cuba, Mexico, and the Philippines. By 1900, a regenerative militarism chased “the dream of a messianic destiny for America, a nation bound to play a redemptive role in the sacred drama of world history.” Yet the meaninglessness of the slaughter in Europe killed off what remained of the old faith in progress, and left the United States with a foreign policy that could not tell the difference between real interests and slights to the national honor.

“All history is a history of longing,” Lears writes in the book’s opening sentence. Whether he is skewering the “manic-depressive psychology of the business class” or attributing panic over masturbation to “a broader psychology of scarcity,” he treats culture as collective psychology, the data of sublimated desire. Here is a diagnosis of the American nervousness—the origins of what Christopher Lasch has called “the minimal self,” the soul beleaguered by crisis, surviving “empire as a way of life.”

The method is both scholarly and political, and aggressive all the same. Lears collapses distinctions among public and private, conscious and unconscious, and culture high, low, and middle, into a singular, undifferentiated mass of evidence. Everywhere he looks, it seems, he sees the signs and symbols of rebirth, which does not grow as an idea in the book, but remains a trope looking for an idiom rather than a principle of historical selection. Rebirth, renewal, revival, regeneration, and revitalization are used interchangeably.

Taking sides in most of the political disputes he narrates, Lears stands stoutly with blacks, feminists, farmers, and artists against the “ruling class,” the “elite,” and “middle and upper-class Americans of all regions.” It is heartening to read a history professor who has not forgotten how to be outraged. And it is always good to see that old bully, TR, kicked in the balls.