With America's current and ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor and the constant threat of the disappearance of the middle class, the Progressive Era stands out as a time when the middle class had enough influence on the country to start its own revolution. Before the Progressive Era most Americans lived on farms, working from before sunrise to after sundown every day except Sunday with tools that had changed very little for centuries. Just three decades later, America was utterly transformed into a diverse, urban, affluent, leisure-obsessed, teeming multitude. This explosive change was accompanied by extraordinary public-spiritedness as reformersfrightened by class conflict and the breakdown of gender relationsabandoned their traditional faith in individualism and embarked on a crusade to remake other Americans in their own image.
The progressives redefined the role of women, rewrote the rules of politics, banned the sale of alcohol, revolutionized marriage, and eventually whipped the nation into a frenzy for joining World War I. These colorful, ambitious battles changed the face of American culture and politics and established the modern liberal pledge to use government power in the name of broad social good. But the progressives, unable to deliver on all of their promises, soon discovered that Americans retained a powerful commitment to individual freedom. Ironically, the progressive movement helped reestablish the power of conservatism and ensured that America would never be wholly liberal or conservative for generations to come.
Michael McGerr's A Fierce Discontent recreates a time of unprecedented turbulence and unending fascination, showing the first American middle-class revolution. Far bolder than the New Deal of FDR or the New Frontier of JFK, the Progressive Era was a time when everything was up for grabs and perfection beckoned.
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. (Sept. 15) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.