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Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920

 By Jackson Lears, Harper Collins, 448 pp., $27.99

This is high-concept cultural history at its provocative best. Lears is a polymath and Big Thinker. Essentially, he says the post–Civil War yearning for rebirth—moral, religious, physical, psychological, financial—shaped the modern American Dream and our country’s politics, institutions and culture. He deconstructs the forces at work as the United States explodes convulsively to become a first-rank world power. Discussions about religious belief, class structures, masculinity and femininity, capitalist barons, unions, monetary schemes, land grabs, international power projection, the role of leisure and many more topics filigree Lears’ pages. Familiar and unfamiliar characters from across the American spectrum parade through this history-made-strange to unexpected cadences. Yes, it’s demanding reading—but not least because it challenges you to confront basic beliefs. Beneath the analysis, Lears is an optimist: He thinks readers—and America— can do that successfully. How American can you get?


Originally published in the August 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here