Synopses & Reviews
The Progressive Era, a few brief decades around the turn of the last century, still burns in American memory for its outsized personalities: Theodore Roosevelt, whose energy glinted through his pince-nez; Carry Nation, who smashed saloons with her axe and helped stop an entire nation from drinking; women suffragists, who marched in the streets until they finally achieved the vote; Andrew Carnegie and the super-rich, who spent unheard-of sums of money and became the wealthiest class of Americans since the Revolution. Yet the full story of those decades is far more than the sum of its characters. In Michael McGerr's A Fierce Discontent America's great political upheaval is brilliantly explored as the root cause of our modern political malaise.
The Progressive Era witnessed the nation's most convulsive upheaval, a time of radicalism far beyond the Revolution or anything since. In response to the birth of modern America, with its first large-scale businesses, newly dominant cities, and an explosion of wealth, one small group of middle-class Americans seized control of the nation and attempted to remake society from bottom to top. Everything was open to question -- family life, sex roles, race relations, morals, leisure pursuits, and politics. For a time, it seemed as if the middle-class utopians would cause a revolution.
They accomplished an astonishing range of triumphs. From the 1890s to the 1910s, as American soldiers fought a war to make the world safe for democracy, reformers managed to outlaw alcohol, close down vice districts, win the right to vote for women, launch the income tax, take over the railroads, and raise feverish hopes of making new men and women for a new century.
Yet the progressive movement collapsed even more spectacularly as the war came to an end amid race riots, strikes, high inflation, and a frenzied Red scare. It is an astonishing and moving story.
McGerr argues convincingly that the expectations raised by the progressives' utopian hopes have nagged at us ever since. Our current, less-than-epic politics must inevitably disappoint a nation that once thought in epic terms. The New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, the Great Society, and now the war on terrorism have each entailed ambitious plans for America; and each has had dramatic impacts on policy and society. But the failure of the progressive movement set boundaries around the aspirations of all of these efforts. None of them was as ambitious, as openly determined to transform people and create utopia, as the progressive movement. We have been forced to think modestly ever since that age of bold reform. For all of us, right, center, and left, the age of "fierce discontent" is long over.
"This is a truly remarkable effort from one of our nation's finest historians." Publishers Weekly
"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, Booklist
In the tradition of David Kennedy's Freedom from Fear
, a sweeping new history of one of America's most exciting ears a time of unprecedented wealth, wrenching social conflict, and titanic political battles. A century ago, Americans launched a crusade to save their country. Frightened by the unchecked power of giant corporations and the rapid growth of an immigrant working class, middle-class men and women set out to remake the United States in their own image. They wanted to wrestle big businesses under control, humble the rich and reform the poor, empower women, ban prostitution, alcohol, and other pleasures, segregate the races, and purify American public life.
Together, these crusades became the Progressive movement, a dynamic force that made the political careers of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, sparked the greatest upsurge in radicalism in American history, and created modern government as we know it. Yet by the 1920s, the bold experiments of the Progressive Era collapsed amid economic crisis, labor strife, and a virulent hunt for "Bolsheviks." What remained, in many ways, was the country we know today.
A rising star among historians, Michael McGerr imaginatively recreates the turbulent times of the industrializing United States of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. He reinterprets this vital era in our history by weaving together the compelling individual stories of ordinary people and famous public figures, from Manhattan immigrants and millionaries to midwestern crusaders like Carrie Nation. Fascinating and definitive, A Fierce Discontent is a classic in the making.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 321-380) and index.
About the Author
Michael McGerr is a professor of history and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University. A much-honored teacher and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, he is in regular demand as a speaker on various topics in American history, politics, and culture.