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A Fierce Discontent : The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 Hardcover – September 15, 2003

ISBN-13: 978-0684859750 ISBN-10: 0684859750 Edition: First Edition

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Indiana University historian McGerr (The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928) examines the social, cultural and political currents of a movement that, through its early successes and ultimate failure, has defined today's "disappointing" political climate. From the late 19th century until the Great Depression, American progressives undertook a vast array of reforms that shook the nation to its core, from class and labor issues to vice, immigration, women's rights and the thorny issues of race. In three parts, McGerr illuminates the origins of Progressive thought, the movement's meteoric ascent in American life and its descent into "the Red scare, race riots, strikes and inflation," positing that the Progressive vision of remaking America in its own middle-class image eventually sparked a backlash that persists to this day. McGerr hits all the usual notes associated with the Progressive era: the political ascensions of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and Progressivism's revered heroes (Jane Addams, W.E.B. Du Bois) are well represented. It is McGerr's vivid portrait of turn-of-the-century America, however, that separates this book from the pack. Expertly weaving an array of vignettes and themes throughout his narrative, McGerr pulls into focus a period in American history too often blurred by the rapid pace of social, political and cultural change. He contrasts the values and lives of some of the "upper ten"-America's wealthy, high society families, the Rockefellers and Morgans-with unknown immigrant laborers and farmers the Golubs and Garlands. He discusses the dawn of the automobile as a hallmark in the struggle for women's rights. The plight of African-American boxer Jack Johnson resonates against the backdrop of segregation. And the life and work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the dawn of flight, and communication breakthroughs are also explored. Simply put, this is history at its best. McGerr's wide-ranging narrative opens our eyes not just to the broad strokes of a widely varying movement but to the true dimensions of an explosive era when the society we know today was forged amid rapid industrialization, cultural assimilation and a volatile international scene. Perhaps most compelling, and the mark of any great work of history, is McGerr's success in connecting the Progressive era to the world of today. The social and economic chaos of the 1960s and '70s and the rebirth of conservatism reinforce "the basic lesson of the Progressive era," McGerr concludes: "reformers should not try too much." In today's trying times, McGerr doubts that today's leaders will undertake "anything as ambitious as the Progressives' Great Reconstruction." That prospect, McGerr concludes, "is at once a disappointment and a relief." This is a truly remarkable effort from one of our nation's finest historians.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The progressive movement, historian McGerr writes in this fresh and incisive overview of the era that shaped the America we know now, was essentially a middle-class revolution fueled by a belief in the sanctity of the home and the need for equality between the sexes. The era's vehement campaigns against drink, prostitution, and divorce and its grappling with class conflict and racism were as much about personal happiness and health as they were about social progress. This may seem counterintuitive, given progressivism's involvement with such sweeping social reforms as the labor movement, women's suffrage, the regulation of food and drugs, antitrust laws, and conservation (the list of progressive achievements is mind-boggling), but McGerr, vigorous and compelling, makes a solid case as he documents the influence of such complex visionaries as Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, and Carrie Nation. As he chronicles with great finesse the sweeping changes that transformed Americans lives as industrialization gathered speed, immigrant populations increased, and business and government grew big, McGerr portrays a seminal time and delineates crucial social issues that continue to challenge us. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (September 15, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684859750
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684859750
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #927,783 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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84 of 98 people found the following review helpful By pnotley@hotmail.com on October 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
"Progressivism" is one of the vaguer words in the history of American politics, and we could always do with a new attempt to define it. And Michael McGerr's new book starts out promisingly. There is an apparently detailed description of the very rich, workers and farmers which appears to be based on the latest research. The book is supported with sixty pages of notes, though there are no archival sources, and the primary sources are mostly from the usual suspects (Wilson, Roosevelt, Jane Addams, plus a few memoirs from Hamlin Garland and Rahel Golub.) McGerr continues with a discussion of the middle class, and how concern over increasing class conflict and social instability encouraged them to support a Progressive philosophy-one that encouraged a sense of association instead of the old individualism, as well as a strong Protestant moralism that valued duty and discouraged pleasure. He then looks at how Progressives sought to change Americans, such as by encouraging school attendance, supporting prohibition, attacking divorce and improving country life. There then follow chapters on limiting class conflict, regulating big business, and imposing segregation. However, Progressivism does meet its nemesis. The rise of the automobile and modern transportation, the rise of popular amusements and jazz, and a more liberal attitude towards sexuality threatens Progressivism's stern ethic. The attempts to encourage government regulation in the First World War only undercut support for it, leading to the disastrous electoral defeat of 1920. In the end, McGerr concludes, this reinforces the "basic lesson" that "reformers should not try too much."
Unfortunately on closer examination one sees that McGerr has produced a superficial book.
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31 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Panopticonman on September 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover
In A FIERCE DISCONTENT, Michael McGerr, has written compact history of progressivism -- the wide, complex river of reform that began to overrun the constrictive banks of Victorianism in the 1870s, gathered force and power with the tacit and sometimes outright approval of the administrations of Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson, and then vanished into the great cataract of the Red Scare in the immediate aftermath of WWI. Through a narrative of the social and economic cross-currents which progressives attempted either to control or unleash, a narrative interwoven with a terse biographies of reformers as well as those whom they hoped bring into confluence with their vision of the "middle-class paradise" (in William James' scornful elitist characterization), McGerr tells a story of epic sweep.
"To change other people; to end class conflict; to control big business; to segregate society" were, according to McGerr, the four quintessential battles of the progressive movement. With this formulation he thus includes Carrie Nation as a progressive, making a strong argument that in her attacks on drinking and barrooms she was attempting to change the behavior of men, and in so doing, improve the lives of women, and change society for the better. He also includes Frank Lloyd Wright, who in his "destruction of the box" and the creation of the prairie style attempted to refashion the very spaces that people lived in.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By David Montgomery on October 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
McGerr's book is a valuable resource on helping to define who the progressives were and what they wanted to accomplish. The Progressives were at their peak in influence from the late 19th Century until the end of World War I, from Theodore Roosevelt's administration to Woodrow Wilson's administration. As McGerr stated, Progressives wanted to transform Americans into their own image of a middle class society, uplifting the poorest workers while chastising the wealthiest. It is this transformative vision that makes the Progressive movement stand out from most other political movements in our country's history. In addition to transforming Americans, McGerr says Progressives wanted to end class conflict, use government to control big businesses, and use segregation to help implement their objectives successfully.

McGerr is effective in adding the human dimension to his history of Progressivism. The Garlands, young Rahel Golub and her immigrant family, the Bradley-Martins and others are all used to give an image of who some of the wage laborers, upper class and progressive reformers were. The reformers include many of the standard names like Hull-House founder Jane Addams, salon smashing Carrie Nation, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and a host of other reformers in all different strata of society. Many organizations that formed to support the various agendas of the Progressive movement are also mentioned, including the Anti-Saloon League, the Country Life Commission, and others that represented various Progressive causes.

I felt the author was most focused on and interested in the Progressive belief in transforming other people to conform to this middle class vision of society and he handles the issue very ably.
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