The name of the book in question is A Fierce Discontent, which could also be a description of the way I feel, though I suppose a more precise phrase in my case would be “a ravening, tearing, savage discontent.” And I suppose that’s all I should say about that.
But on to the book. I don’t have a lot to say about this one (no, really). Michael McGerr’s survey of the progressive movement in America from, as the subtitle says, 1870 to 1920 is fine in its own way. It’s informative. It does cover a lot of ground. It’s an important period that demands study. I don’t regret reading it and I would not advise against reading it. However, I wasn’t enthralled.
McGerr starts out well, with an interesting approach to the subject. Usually when people look at the turn of the 20th century they focus on any one of these familiar topics: the horrific lives of the poor immigrant factory workers; the robber barons and those who made the age gilded; anarchists and socialists; Theodore Roosevelt. All of these are important aspects of what became known as the Progressive movement but what McGerr does look at the engine that pushed for Progressive reforms: the burgeoning, middle-class that arose in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Although not Astor-Morgan-Carnegie wealthy, this group of professionals, shopkeepers, and managers now had enough money to have leisure time, vacations, and to accumulate material things. They also had enough time to think about the world and its problems. Appalled by the poverty below them and the excessive consumption above them, the middle-class do-gooders were compelled to try to reform the upper and lower classes, to mold them to fit their own model.
The poor were squalid and slatternly, the rich were idle and amoral. The middle class reformers tried to bring the good things to one group and tried to make the other behave better. For the poor, there were settlement houses, and health groups, and calls for limiting child labor. There were education laws and cleaning up of tenements, with playgrounds, pools, and parks to follow. For the rich, there were attempts to restrain their wealth, with taxes and legislation and inheritance laws that would force the children of the extravagantly to work rather than play in such scandalous ways.
The downfall of the progressives can be seen in two ways. One is that as much as they wanted to help the immigrants and the lower classes, they (in general) didn’t particularly understand them or even like them. When it came to forming unions that could help improve work life for everyone, the more typically native-born craft workers brought about their own downfall with their excusion of African-Americans, women, and unskilled (mostly) immigrant laborers. They had trouble seeing how difficult it was for the very poor to improve their lives. In one story in the book, an immigrant factory worker tells how a middle-class woman at a settlement house explains that refinement and culture come from generations of living in a world where there are beautiful pictures, houses, and music, and people are taken care of and eat well and have good clothes. The young girl wonders why, if her father works all day making coats, he shouldn’t be entitled to good food, a beautiful home, beautiful music, even one of the good coats he makes. Why should her mother work all day scrubbing floors and know nothing better her whole life? The settlement workers and improvers who came to the tenements could put in laws about keeping hallways and basements clean and open and could give children medical care, and they could take children to visit farms upstate for the fresh air and have them attend lectures to them but they didn’t see how impossible it still was for these children’s lives to be much better than their parents miserable days. In the end, the settlement house workers returned to their beautiful homes in one part of town and the children still went to work in the factories, having seen a glimpse of a world that seemed as far away and unattainable as the Emerald City.
The progressives’ other major problem was that they had a tendency to always go a little bit too far. They did not just build playgrounds, they had supervisors telling the children how to play in the most beneficial way. They felt that dance halls and amusement parks were a threat to young people and tried to crack down on them too hard. They had a hard time recognizing that people need to have some fun and freedom. And if you create too many rules and too much structure, people will turn on you and rebel. In the end, you can change the world around people, but it’s hard to change human nature (as the communists also found).
McGerr’s look at this time period suffers from his painting with too broad a brush. All rich are “individualists,” because they lived for themselves and did their own things. The poor are “mutualists” because they are dependent on each other. Farmers are a mix of individualist and mutualist. The middle-class, meanwhile, believed in doing things by “association.” But these strictures don’t always make sense—the rich may have seemed to have been living individual lives, certainly living for themselves, but they were just as insular and interdependent on each other as any ethnic-specific corner of a city, with their own specific rules. And the different poor immigrant groups were just as disdainful of each other as the very rich were of them. McGerr also doesn’t touch on the differences in the regions of the country. Surely the lives of the Asians in San Francisco were different than the Eastern European factory workers in Chicago.
There’s a lack of variety in this book that makes it too general. McGerr relies solely on the memoirs of one Lower East Side Jewish girl for his look at the immigrant lower classes, and one farm family for his look at agrarian life. He doesn’t include any primary source accounts of the wealthy and I found that troubling—why not hear their perspective? When it comes to the reformers, most of the material seems to come from Jane Addams, but a lot has already been said about Jane Addams. I’m not saying she isn’t a worthy source, but it would be interesting to hear from another voice in the movement—one of the foot soldiers rather than the leader.
Looking at the index, it’s notable that the last mention of the Lower East Side factory girl is on page 135, and the book is about 319 pages. What happens is that midway through all the specific discussion about progressive action disappears and the book wanders off into a long recitation of technology and modernity in the 20th century. We hear about movies, phonographs, automobiles, airplanes, and sports. There is modern art and modern literature, fracturing a previously standard sense of time and place. Psychology and analysis make an appearance.
All of these things are important and they did have an effect on people’s values and behavior but the problem is that it reminded me of nothing more than a world history social studies text book I worked on (yes, world history for high school students—from sticks and stones to the World Trade Center attacks, all in one school year). Somewhere between the American Civil War and World War I we had a chapter that (blew through all these devices and innovations in a breathless paragraph to paragraph style (“then there was the telephone…then there was the automobile…then there was the wireless…then there was Stein, Proust, Joyce, and Picasso and Matisse…”). This book’s account of these subjects is very much the same and while I thought it actually was a very good textbook, considering the school year restraints, and was proud of our work on it, I don’t think a book dealing with a specific subject such as the progressive movement should devolve into this kind of survey course.
That is fitting in a way, though, because there was something overall about this book that made me feel like I was reading an expanded dissertation. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but in a book I expect something more. I thought there were some good ideas in here. The information was fine. It probably is a decent introduction to someone who isn’t familiar with the period (well, maybe). I just thought it lacked depth and wanted something more. Indeed, I would say I was left discontent.