I have read Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 several times throughout college and it has remained my favorite historical monograph and serves as a model for my own writing and something I continue to work towards.
He argues that Americans tried to reunite the country after the Civil War around a “militarist fantasy” of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. He concludes that this militarized and hyper-masculine rhetoric justified the lynching of African Americans, and imperialistic policy against the American Indians in the West, and war with Cuba, the Philippines, and Europe. Lastly, he argues that this rhetoric continues and led to American military action in Iraq. The broad swath of history Lears covers is truly impressive. The synthesis covers the major trends of the periods—the rise of industrial capitalism, Jim Crow, America’s expanding empire. While Lears’ ability to process so much information astounding, it’s his tight argument and careful examples that truly amaze. His synthetic work is bound together by the continuing pattern of American action being spurred by a personal search for meaning. This theme makes the chapters, organize chrono-thematically, flow and form a cohesive monograph.
Lears opens his “synthetic reinterpretation” of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era with the following paragraph, which I have broken down using Barthes’ five codes.
All history is the history of longing.
I love the first sentence. The “lexia” starts the introduction with a feeling, and with that feeling introduces a broad historical telling with a sense of the personal. I instantly think about what I long for when I read it. It’s a sentiment that every reader can identify with.
The details of policy; the migration of peoples; the abstractions the nations kill and die for, including the abstraction of “the nation” itself—all can be ultimately traced to the viscera of human desire.
This sentence implies that the book will cover all of these topics. The notion of violence perks readers’ interests. “The nation” in quotations is jarring as many readers might think they know what the nation means and there is little abstraction. This serves to challenge and intrigue readers.
Human beings have wanted innumerable, often contradictory things—security and dignity, power and domination, sheer excitement and mere survival, unconditional love and external salvation—and those desires have animated public life. The political has always been personal.
This is segment serves to place humans in the greater context of his story. Though this is a synthetic history and it takes broad strokes at history, humans are at the center of this story. The changes and rhetoric Lears analyzes is driven by ordinary citizens, not just a bloc of *important men.*
Put together, this introductory paragraph orients readers, both academic and from the greater public, to what this monograph will be about. Even Lears’ primary title hints at the book’s contents. The title Rebirth of a Nation is, of course, a reference to D. W. Griffith’s 1915 hit film “Birth of a Nation,” which tells the tale of a heroic Ku Klux Klan and bastardly African Americans. These careful details and attention to prose are what make the monograph a wonderful read.