Study Guide

A Fierce Discontent

by Michael McGerr

A Fierce Discontent Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

A Fierce Discontent is eminently readable. Chapters commence with snappy scenes that illuminate forthcoming themes. In the opening paragraph of “Signs of Friction,” tycoons at an elite Chicago men’s club romp across sofas and onto tables playing follow the leader in celebration of “Old Guard” Republican William McKinley’s 1896 victory over Populist-leaning Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Their wealth and status were secure, at least for the moment. In contrast, readers later learn about sick, depressed Rahel Golub, who had just broken off her engagement to Israel, the neighborhood grocer. A visit from nurse Lillian D. Wald, the founder of Henry Street Settlement in lower Manhattan, opened up a new world of self-discovery for Russian-born Rahel. Throughout the book are capsule biographies of such disparate personalities as axe-wielding Carry A. “Carrie” Nation and expatriate “Son of the Middle Border” Hamlin Garland, whose accomplishments and eccentricities gave the age its special flavor.

Ann Bassett grew up on a ranch in northwest Colorado in the late nineteenth century. As a girl, she knew the Utes and other Native Americans who lived around the Little Snake, the Elk, and the Yampa Rivers; she encountered the outlaw Butch Cassidy and the bounty hunter Tom Horn. . . . “All I asked of life,” she declared, “was to be perpetually let alone, to go my way undisturbed.”

Despite the relative affluence of the middle class, there was widespread concern over the consequences of industrialization, urbanization, unrestricted immigration, and the consolidation of economic power. Bassett feared that in the absence of government intervention, grasping cattle barons would drive ranchers such as her parents off federal grazing lands and out of business. Fueled, therefore, by fear as well as hope, articulate Progressives expected the government to provide rules promoting the general welfare. Anxious also to uphold standards of respectability during a time of explosive change, they grappled with fundamental questions about relationships between the races, sexes, and classes, while challenging the cult of individualism that so pervaded American culture. Editor of The Outlook Lyman Abbott equated individualism with “simple barbarism, not of republican civilization.”

If exploited workers embraced mutualism and captains of industry extolled Social Darwinism (a fashionable variant of laissez-faire), Progressive clergy countered with the Social Gospel, a message of brotherhood. Humanitarian Hull-House founder Jane Addams hoped to form associations that transcended class lines. Most Progressives shied away from radical economic solutions but sought to create what William James pejoratively labeled a “middle-class paradise” after lecturing at Chautauqua, the sylvan summer upstate New York tent city where visitors absorbed information and ideas from the United States’ foremost lecturers. The Harvard philosopher feared that do-gooders would stifle originality and the spicy things in life. James to the contrary, the Progressive challenge, writes McGerr, “was to make the hothouse environment of Chautauqua and Hull-House a day-to-day reality in society as a whole.”

The book’s core is a detailed analysis of four Progressive battles. In theory at least, ameliorating class conflict and regulating big business were praiseworthy objectives. Disturbingly, Progressives also aimed to change people not like themselves whether they liked it or not, and, paradoxically, to segregate African Americans. Despite widespread dissemination of Franz Boas’s The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), supposedly informed people from President Theodore Roosevelt on down assumed that inherent biological racial differences existed and accepted Jim Crow practices in the South and North in the naïve hope that they would increase stability and mute race tensions.

“So far as this movement of agitation throughout the country takes the form of a fierce discontent with evil, of a firm determination to punish the authors of evil, whether in industry or politics, the feeling is to be heartily welcomed as a sign of healthy life,” said Roosevelt on April 14, 1906. He believed in the possibility of progress if an informed citizenry could become powerful enough to wrest control of the processes of government from selfish businessmen (“malefactors of great wealth”) and their political allies (“machine bosses”). Though descended from the old New York aristocracy, Roosevelt loathed the so-called idle rich as much as he feared the “desperate poor.” Intent on using his high office as a “bully pulpit,” he embraced Progressivism but remained the consummate politician, practitioner of the art of the possible.

While his views on birth control,...

(The entire section is 1958 words.)