Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Top 10 histories of the GAPE (Gilded Age and Progressive Era)

Inspired by a series in the Guardian, which I stumbled across this past weekend, I am initiating a series of my top 10 lists. Granted these will reflect my own interests and make no attempt at providing a definitive list all historians could agree on. Still, I would love to hear any feedback you have. If there is something I missed, please let me know so I can check it out.

I tried to create a separate list for each era, but kept stumbling over those histories that crossed the period. Thus, I decided to make one list. It was not easy. In the future I will make a separate list for biographies, African-American, and environmental history.

1) Alan Dawley, Changing the World (2003). This is one of my absolute favorites. I like how it places World War I at the center of the story, instead of at the end, as is done in most books on the subject of the Progressive Era. He argues that the Progressives sought social justice, a revitalized public life, and an improved world. It was an ambitious and global movement. World War I presented certain challenges and opportunities, and, as Dawley argues, it led to significant changes within progressivism, which emerges, in his words, tougher and leaner. Of course, the meat of the book is an excellent history of how this happened.

2) Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955). Still love this story of a reform movement driven by middle class angst. If nothing else, it should be read to understand the subsequent historiography of the period, which is often a response to Hofstadter.

3) James Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory (1986). This deep, sweeping transAtlantic study connects emerging progressive politics and emerging ideas centered on pragmatism in such an impressive way. It was a tough call as James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution (1994) and Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings (1998) are also excellent works in the same category.

4) Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent (2003). McGerr sees progressivism as a radical movement that while focused on the needs of individuals, sought to transform society.  While there were numerous success stories, the movement ultimately failed in its bold mission.

5) Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (2001). There are a ton of good books that examine the emergence of modernism in the late 19th century. Menand shows how the Civil War shaped the thought of such important figures as William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Their thought (and that of many others I did not mention) subsequently became the prevailing conventional wisdom. The key part is that they did not shape their ideas in solitude; instead, they debated, discussed, and often disagreed with one another. As a side note, I do like this theme of the Civil War casting a long shadow over the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and feel it could use some additional work. On this theme, I recommend Richard Bensel, Yankee Leviathan (1990), on the growth of the state, and  Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation (2009) on how the understanding of the war as violent regeneration shaped the society and politics of the GAPE.

6) Sidney Miksis, Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy (2009). Miksis makes the case that the Progressive Party was a real political movement (meaning it was not a vanity campaign by Theodore Roosevelt) and played a critical role in breaking down party loyalty and ushering in the era of issue politics. I would pair this with Peri Arnold, Remaking the Presidency (2009), which discusses how Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson governed in this period of transition from party rule to issues.

7) Roy Rosensweig, Eight Hours for What we Will (1983). I admit I am not not very big on social history, but this book speaks to me. What is freedom after all? If you think it includes having your own free time that you alone control, this books will speak to you as well. The concept of "Eight hours for what we will" (with 8 for sleeping and 8 for work to round out the 24 hour day) is critical to the emergence of the consumer economy, which was one of the major changes to emerge from the GAPE. Rosenzweig also touches on such themes as immigration, urbanization, and politics.

8) Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers (1992). Skocpol traces the origins of the welfare state to the post-Civil War pension systems and the manner in which benefits were expanded in terms of scope and eligibility. Contrary to Western European paternalist systems that provided benefits to working men, the United States developed a maternalist system that sought to provide benefits to mothers in need.

9) Mark Wahlgren Summers, The Era of Good Stealings (1993) and Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion (2000). Ok, I cheated by naming two, but I could not make up my mind. Summers deals with Gilded Age politics better than anyone else. In the first title, he exams the role of corruption in the Gilded Age political economy, and argues that it was more stated than real. In other words, better to slander your enemies with than to prove. The second is one of the best campaign analysis I have ever read.

10) Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order (1967). Still a favorite of mine. Wiebe describes how urbanization, the railroads, industrialization, and an emerging middle class transformed the United States from a series autonomous localities, to one nation, and one marketplace.

Honorable Mentions:

1) Gregory J. Dehler, Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age Politician and President (2007). Ok, it is my book, but it is also my blog.

and more seriously:

2) Burton Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism (1976). Bledstein shows how the growing professionalization, standardization of practice, and education improved the delivery and quality of services. This ranges anywhere from historians to medical doctors to civil engineers. It was one of the more important trends of the Gilded Age, as quacks were driven out of practice, and a greater reliance on science dramatically improved lives. This is always a big part of my lecture on the Gilded Age.

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