Perspectives on Modern America: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century

Perspectives on Modern America: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century

Perspectives on Modern America: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century

Perspectives on Modern America: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century

Synopsis

In Perspectives on Modern America: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, Harvard Sitkoff brings together some of America's most distinguished scholars to survey and analyze the twentieth century. The impressive list of contributors includes Paul Boyer, Lizabeth Cohen, Sara M. Evans, Jacqueline Jones, William E. Leuchtenburg, and Charles Payne. Each contributor has written a broadly interpretive essay on a key aspect of American life and how it has changed over the past one hundred years, offering vivid end-of-the-century snapshots of our past troubles and triumphs-of the people, ideas, events, and developments that mattered most. The essays address a wide range of political, social, and economic issues including the history of liberalism and conservatism; the labor movement and the distribution of wealth; immigration and ethnicity; the status of women and African Americans; changes in the South and the West; consumer culture; the federal government; foreign policy; religion; and American cultural and intellectual life. The book includes astute portraits of such historical turning points as the Progressive era, the Great Depression and Second World War, American society in the 1960s, and the Reagan revolution. It also includes thoughtful essays on the growth and decline of organized labor, the limits of the American welfare state, the persistent systems of inequality, and the means employed to resist oppression. Offering a challenging and enlightening assessment of the past one hundred years, Perspectives on Modern America: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century is an essential text for undergraduates in twentieth-century American history and will also appeal to general readers.

Excerpt

Harvard Sitkoff

Much as our ancestors had approached the milestone year 1000 with escalating trepidation only to escape the disasters expected in the Apocalypse, so January 1, 2000, despite predictions that the world would end, or worse, came and went with just slightly more of the minor irritants of modernity than we usually expect. We did learn again just how elastic time is, how entirely a human construction. Reminded frequently of the errors in the Julian and Gregorian calendars, of the calculations devised by a sixth-century monk, Dionysius Exiguus or Dennis the Short, that marked this year as year 2000, and of such wholly different measurements of time contained in the Chinese, Hebrew, and Mayan traditional calendars, we recalled what Thomas Mann wrote in The Magic Mountain (1924): “Time has no divisions to mark its passage.… Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.” and so the ending and beginning of the decade, the century, the millennium, proved mainly to be an opportunity for celebration and crass commercialism.

We devoured a feast of predictions, special editions on “The Next Hundred Years,” and the many books like Predictions for the Next Millennium, too often forgetting to remember that, at the turn of the last century, the commisioner of the U.S. Office of Patents opined that everything that could be invented had been invented. Or that Popular Science Monthly had boldly predicted that the next century would be the Trolley Age, and Henry Adams fixed 1950 as the year when the world must go to smash. Or that Modern Mechanix promised the 13-hour work week and a nuclear car in every driveway. Or that Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century–Fox, scoffed at television in 1946, “People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night,” and the president of ibm asserted there was a world market for only about five computers.

As the former catcher of the New York Yankees, Yogi Berra, reminds us: “Its tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Consider that at the start of the twentieth century Europe dominated Asia and Africa and overshadowed the United States. Few imagined a world war probable, and fewer . . .

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