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Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
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A-Rebirth of a NationA preeminent, award-winning historian at Rutgers University, Jackson Lears is the author of numerous multidisciplinary cultural histories, including No Place of Grace and Fables of Abundance.

The Topic: Turn-of-the-century America was a place of seismic transformations. Industrialism, Jim Crow laws, populism, religion, and an expansionist foreign policy are just a few of the major political and cultural threads that Lears weaves together to paint an illuminating picture of America emerging into a world power during the period between the Civil War and World War II. With revealing portraits of cultural icons from Harry Houdini to Woodrow Wilson, Lears, in this ambitious "synthetic reinterpretation," uncovers an often aggressive nation, one that, after the Civil War, increasingly relied on war to define its identity.
Harper. 418 pages. $27.99. ISBN: 9780060747497

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Lears vividly recounts the rise of populism and its more sophisticated relative, progressivism, the union movement, from the conciliatory Samuel Gompers to the violent Big Bill Haywood of the Wobblies, and the American Socialist Party and its eloquent blue-collar candidate, Eugene V. Debs. ... Peppered with lively language and sharp, at times harsh insights, Rebirth of a Nation warrants close reading." Bob Hoover

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"At times, it's not quite clear how these disparate figures all fit into the theme of 'rebirth,' a concept at once highly specific and conveniently broad. ... Rebirth of a Nation is 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." Beverly Gage

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Lears is at his inspired best when he discusses the anti-imperialist intellectuals such as Mark Twain, Jane Addams and William James. ... [A] dazzling cultural history: smart, provocative and gripping. It is also a book for our times, historically grounded, hopeful and filled with humane, just and peaceful possibilities." Charles Postel

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Rutgers University professor makes a convincing case that the transformations America underwent in the half century's journey from out of the 'long shadow of Appomattox' and into the terrible flare-lit night of the European trenches remains fundamental to our understanding of ourselves-and to the conduct of our affairs. ... Lears' convincing new narrative of this pivotal half century never falters, but it does sometimes stutter." Tim Rutten

Critical Summary

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.