January 23, 2005

The Search for Order: 1877-1920

Robert H. Wiebe | First published 1968| Amazon

This is a stunning synthesis of a period many people prefer to ignore. Rather than playing with the usual stereotypes of The Gilded Age, Wiebe starts by looking at the dislocations that change has brought in post-Civil War America:

The great casualty of America's turmoil late in the [19th] century was the island community. Although a majority of Americans would still reside in relatively small, personal centers for several decades more, the society that had been premised on the community's effective sovereignty, upon its capacity to manage affairs within its boundaries, no longer functioned. The precipitant of the crisis was a widespread loss of confidence in the powers of the community. In a mannger that eludes precise explanation, countless citizens in towns and cities across the land sensed that something fundamental was happening to their lives, something they had not willed and did not want, and they responded by striking out at whatever enemies their view of the world allowed them to see. (44)

Wiebe circles over American history, looking at problems from different perspectives and comparing those perspectives as they collide. The period he covers was in many way the largest transformation in American history, a time in which people and communities more rapidly grew connections than has happened since. Isolation was largely shattered, interdependence expanded, and people rapidly found themselves feeling that they had less control over their lives.

Much of the book reflects efforts to fight that feeling, to maintain a sense of community values even as economic and technological change combined with the sheer physical growth of the nation to make that sense of community more difficult to sustain. Wiebe does an excellent job weaving together a variety of stories to tell a grand tale of conflict and fear of chaos.

My one concern about the book is that while it probably can be read by someone without much knowledge of the period, names and events can be hard to follow unless you've already looked at this period. It's a comprehensive synthesis, and not a total introduction.

Posted by simonstl at 09:47 PM