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.
This flawed but useful book on the influence of the Progressive movement in U.S. history illustrates both the potential and the limits of sentimental radicalism as a force in U.S. historiography. McGerr has a clear preference for radicals over Progressive middle-class leaders such as Jane Addams and Theodore Roosevelt, which gives him a better understanding of the limits of Progressivism than more conventionally liberal historians. Many historians of Progressivism have reluctantly acknowledged the popularity of eugenics and immigration restrictions among their subjects; McGerr goes further, illuminating the role Progressives played in establishing and then defending segregation and the degree to which they attempted to coercively reform the lower classes. Yet McGerr's nostalgic (and very middle class) radicalism creates blind spots of its own. In particular, by limiting his serious political analysis of Progressive thought to the early years of the period, he underestimates the radicalism that increasingly shaped Progressive leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt after 1910. One is left thinking that Mark Twain's description of the Widow Douglass, who wanted to "sivilize" Huck Finn and his father, is the best account of American Progressivism and that Twain's description of Huck "lighting out for the territories" to escape the shackles of her well-intentioned rules remains the best description of why the Mugwumps, prohibitionists, earnest professors, food cranks, suffragettes, segregationists, social workers, and missionaries of Progressive America never quite got their way.
McGerr (history, Indiana Univ., Bloomington) provides a detailed and readable study of Progressivism, the middle-class reaction to the social, economic, and political changes wrought by industrialization. The Gilded Age saw conflict between workers and capitalists, immigrants and natives, men and women, and blacks andwhites. As McGerr demonstrates, the middle class of office workers, small businessmen, and professionals hoped to replace 19th-century individualism and conflict with a sense of community, making America a harmonious and orderly middle-class haven. Progressivism had notable successes-reining in corporate trusts, regulating the purity of food and drugs, and broadening the power of the government to deal with national problems. However, McGerr expands the account to show that Progressivism was seriously weakened by its condescension toward the working class, its complicity in establishing segregation, and the strength of its opponents. This book offers a fascinating description of an America with vast disparities of wealth, unchecked corporate power, and a government serving only the elite. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-Duncan Stewart, Univ. of Iowa Libs., Iowa City Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
A highly accessible survey of the Progressive Era, linking its reformist movements to their fruition-or, sometimes, repudiation-in the decades that followed. "We live in a politically disappointing time," writes McGerr (History/Indiana Univ.), and certainly as compared to the tumultuous half-century when progressive movements of various stripes worked to rein in corporate power and make the nation safe for democracy. McGerr elaborates: the Progressive Era inaugurated the "American Century," a period that was resolutely liberal and that ended early in the racial backlash, social upheaval, and sour economy of the late 1960s and the conservative counterrevolution that ensued. At its origin, McGerr holds, progressivism was an economic movement, a reaction against the "upper ten"-the percentage of society as measured by wealth, that is, which really turns out to have been a mere one or two percent of the population who controlled "fortunes with few parallels in history." Through campaigns for graduated taxation on income and inheritances, workers' rights, a humane workday, and other measures, progressives such as Jane Addams managed to curb some of the power of this superclass, always stopping short of calling for pure socialism-for most progressives of the time mistrusted the deterministic, Marxist view of the class struggle, and in any event European socialism clashed with nativist sensibilities, which, as McGerr does not hesitate to acknowledge, lent progressivism a racist edge. ("The progressives' . . . political weakness," he writes, "was their willingness to segregate the ballot box, and thereby keep so many Americans out of the battle against privilege.") The fundamental goal ofprogressivism, he suggests, was to end the battle between labor and capital, but the struggle spilled out in other directions, such as Carrie Nation's campaign to rid America of the evils of alcohol (which, she argued, contributed to crime, prostitution, and the oppression of women) and Sherwood Anderson's mission to bed as many women as he could in the name of sexual liberation-quests that would be replayed by others in the years to come. A lucid overview for students of American history and politics.