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.
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
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