Written by American historian Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent is a work of non-fiction that recreates the Progressive Era which ran from the 1890s to the 1920s. The Progressive Era was a time of extensive social and political activism and reform across the United States.
In chapter one, "Signs of Friction: Portrait of America at Century’s End," McGerr takes a detailed look at the class system—the upper, working, and laboring classes—in America at the end of the nineteenth century. Here he finds widespread disunity, with the upper classes generally believing that the poverty and general hardship of the working class were due to their own failings:
The gulf between the upper ten and the working class was enormous at the turn of the 20th century, and the middle class, simultaneously appalled by and caught in the middle of this conflict, was desperate to mend these divisions.
Whilst the upper class believed in the individual being instrumental in creating their own success, the working classes were forced, through economic hardship, to depend on one another.
In chapter three, "Transforming Americans," McGerr examines the middle-class progressives in America who wanted both the upper classes and the working classes to follow their own middle-class principles and codes. They believed that many of society’s problems were down to the failings in these two classes and that they could “reshape character by reshaping the environment.”
However, neither the upper, laboring, or working classes were interested in changing their environments to fit in with the middle-class ideology.