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Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 (American History) Hardcover – June 9, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookmarks Magazine

As he does in all of his acclaimed writings, Lears culls numerous sources to give a compelling, humane portrait of a cultural epoch. Rather than rehashing familiar tales, he brings acute judgment to the motivations of well-known figures like J. P. Morgan and William Jennings Bryan, while using their individual stories to illustrate the larger milieu. The Los Angeles Times saw Rebirth of a Nation as building directly upon Lears's previous books on antimodernism and advertising, in an ever-deepening examination of American culture. In fact, most critics appreciated that the author draws firm parallels between the time period in question and our own. There are a few nitpicks -- a fact-checking error here; a head-scratch about the relevance of an anecdote there -- but the reviews are resoundingly positive, and even a touch awestruck, at Lears's accomplishment.


“A remarkable book. . . . As Jackson Lears demonstrates again, he is one of the best of his (and my) generation of historians.” (David Nasaw, The American Prospect)

“Jackson Lears is one of the few pre-eminent historians of our time. As we dream for a rebirth of America in the age of Obama, this magnificent and magisterial book on the making of modern America could not be more timely. Don’t miss it!” (Cornel West)

“In Rebirth of a Nation, Jackson Lears, our most stimulating historian of American culture, outdoes himself, offering a stunning interpretive synthesis on politics, culture, and social upheaval in the pivotal half-century when ideals of regeneration assumed their modern shape, sometimes as imperial bombast, sometimes as designs for reform.” (Todd Gitlin)

“High-concept cultural history at its provocative best. Lears is a polymath and Big Thinker.” (American History)

“A fascinating cultural history. . . .A major work by a leading historian at the top of his game—at once engaging and tightly argued. Like the best histories, it is also a book that speaks to our own time.” (The New York Times Book Review)

“Jackson Lears is a formidable, compellingly original cultural and intellectual historian. . . . Rebirth of a Nation is Lears’ most ambitious work yet, and it builds brilliantly on his earlier projects. . . . Lears’ convincing new narrative of this pivotal half century never falters.” (Tim Rutten, The Los Angeles Times)

“Jackson Lears, America’s premier cultural historian, has written the smartest and most illuminating survey of this roaring, perplexing era since Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform.” (Michael Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan and professor of history, Georgetown University)

“Jackson Lears has become the historian of American yearning. . . . He excels at the miniature portrait, and his richly associative imagination enables him to make telling use of the Cecil B. De Mille-sized case he assembled for Rebirth of a Nation.” (Patricia O'Toole, The American Scholar)

“In this sweeping and charged history, Jackson Lears brilliantly evokes a defining era in American history. He recasts what we have blandly called the ‘Gilded Age,’ revealing a time of profound change, sharp conflict, and enduring consequence.” (Edward L. Ayers, University of Richmond)

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Product Details

  • Series: American History
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (June 9, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060747498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060747497
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #518,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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47 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Jay C. Smith on July 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 (American History)
In 1981 the young historian Jackson Lears impressed many with his publication of No Place of Grace, an interpretation of the antimodern strain in American thought and culture between 1880 and 1920. Lears neatly argued how the quest for intense experience, although seemingly just a back-channel reaction against the mainstream of modernism, carved the way for the transformation of nineteenth-century Protestant self-denial into the twentieth-century secular ideal of self-fulfillment.

In 2009 Lears, now at the apex of his career, takes on the same era with his broad overview of American politics and culture, Rebirth of a Nation. It is the work of a mature scholar, sufficiently accomplished to play on the same field with the most eminent historians of this segment of the American past, with Hofstadter, Wiebe, Lasch, Trachtenberg, and many others dutifully acknowledged in a very helpful set of bibliographical notes.

A major contribution of this volume is Lears' demonstration of the bonds between the narratives of personal and national regeneration in this period. The self-shaping aspirations of individuals influenced the currents of national politics, he proposes, and in turn public policies were often aimed at personal redemption. Longings for renewal formed by evangelical traditions melded into several "isms" that characterized the era: moralism, militarism, and Progressivism chief among them.

The connections were most obvious in the moralist "purity crusades," such as those against alcohol and gambling.
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45 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Mark Town on December 31, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is a difficult book to judge as it does so many things well and an almost equal number so poorly. The opening summary essay is full of revisionist insight and illuminations, both negative and positive. Negative on figures not quite fully debunked such as Custer and on aristocrats still largely revered such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr and positive on individuals such as Jane Addams and William James. My copy of that part of the book is full of underlinings and exclamation marks. It made me think and tied some things together in a very useful manner.

But Lears too often crosses the line between a reporter of new insights and a fairly demagogic polemicist. The best case of this is his powerfully negative and extraordinarily one-dimensional portrait of Theodore Roosevelt. True enough, the reader familiar with the era feels, TR was consumed with a sadly limited definition of what constitutes manliness and remained largely adolescent in many critical ways. He was certainly not ahead of his times in terms of his written treatment of Native Americans, and on many if not most foreign policy matters he was a war-mongering jingoist right to the end. And, yes, the Spanish American war and his role in it seem ripe and fair subjects for comic ridicule. Good enough so far and a useful counterpoint to the many overly praising and romanticized portrayals of TR offered by authors such as Timothy Egan in "The Big Burn."

But TR was a complex not a simple figure and he was far more progressive, and more effectively progressive, than many of the characters that Lears treats more kindly. Tom Watson is a good example. TR was by no means a soul-mate of JP Morgan, as Lears would have you believe.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By J. Grattan VINE VOICE on September 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This very incisive, though often quite critical, book examines some of the major cultural currents in American society from the end of Reconstruction through WWI. It is the prevailing thinking and psychology of the period that most concerns the author. The book is not intended to be a detailed history of the era, but the author does examine such issues and developments as race, immigration, the degradation of labor, the rise of huge corporations, economic instability, consumerism, populism, progressivism, imperialism, militarism, etc, as well as reinvention of the self.

There is little doubt that the nation was in need of "regeneration" after the horrors of the Civil War. But that renewal was accomplished at the expense of those who were brutally affected by the Southern plantation system. The War was recast as an arena for heroic Anglo-Saxons, now united in their bravery regardless of which side they were on. By the last decade of the century, emancipation had given way to Jim Crow and, even worse, widespread lynching of those who did not kowtow. This spread of racism, heroism, and militarism dominated the ensuing decades. The author describes at length a national obsession among the upper classes of asserting and proving manliness. What better way to show superiority than to subject the brown peoples of the world to Yankee imperialism backed by the military? Theodore Roosevelt, in the author's eyes, is the epitome of such thinking and actions. The author scarcely hides his disdain for the obsession of elites with individual adventure and even bodybuilding.

Of course, a huge development in post-Civil War America was the rise of enormous corporations and their huge impact on workers and the broader culture.
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