Cover image for A fierce discontent : the rise and fall of the Progressive movement in America, 1870-1920
A fierce discontent : the rise and fall of the Progressive movement in America, 1870-1920
McGerr, Michael E.
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Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xvi, 395 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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E661 .M415 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E661 .M415 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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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.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The progressive movement, historian McGerr writes in this fresh and incisive overview of the era that shaped the America we know now, was essentially a middle-class revolution fueled by a belief in the sanctity of the home and the need for equality between the sexes. The era's vehement campaigns against drink, prostitution, and divorce and its grappling with class conflict and racism were as much about personal happiness and health as they were about social progress. This may seem counterintuitive, given progressivism's involvement with such sweeping social reforms as the labor movement, women's suffrage, the regulation of food and drugs, antitrust laws, and conservation (the list of progressive achievements is mind-boggling), but McGerr, vigorous and compelling, makes a solid case as he documents the influence of such complex visionaries as Theodore Roosevelt,ane Addams, and Carrie Nation. 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 Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This is an intelligent and gracefully written cultural interpretation of US Progressives and their era by the author of The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928 (CH, May'86). Progressives sought a "radical" but virtuous middle-class utopia--exemplified by the Chautauqua, New York, retreat--through collective self-restraint and, when necessary, enforcement of their values for the transformation of individual and society. Conflicts between Victorianism and industrialization produced middle-class progressive culture. Contemptuous of the powerful and licentious rich and the volatile and licentious working class, these confident reformers (little status anxiety here) sought order through renunciation of individualism, a new understanding between the sexes, paternalistic handling of labor, an internally conflicted approach to managing capitalism, and the enactment of racial segregation, among other things. Brought low by the post-WW I backlash, Progressives might have lost anyway due to the new cultural tendency toward individual liberation and pleasure. McGerr (Indiana Univ., Bloomington) adds a short and (perhaps) leaping conclusion that the Progressives' defeat made New Dealers, "Great Society" liberals, and Reagan revolutionists alike too timid to attempt sweeping change. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. Upper division undergraduate and graduate students. K. G. Wilkison Collin County Community College

Table of Contents

Part 1 The Progressive Opportunity
1 ""Signs of Friction"": Portrait of America at Century's End
2 The Radical Center
Part 2 Progressive Battles
3 TRansforming Americans
4 Ending Class Conflict
5 Controlling Big Business
6 The Shield of Segregation
Part 3 Disturbance and Defeat
7 The Promise of Liberation
8 The Pursuit of Pleasure
9 The Price of Victory