Doubters and dissenters: Cataclysmic Thought in America, 1885-1918

Doubters and dissenters: Cataclysmic Thought in America, 1885-1918

Doubters and dissenters: Cataclysmic Thought in America, 1885-1918

Doubters and dissenters: Cataclysmic Thought in America, 1885-1918

Excerpt

HISTORICAL CATEGORIES are manifold in purpose and approach. They may trace social change or probe the style of life at a given time; they may be constructed out of objectively verifiable principles or subjective impressions. America from 1885 to 1918 has been interpreted from many such perspectives but never through a study of cataclysmic thought.

Undoubtedly, the United States was on the rise in this period, but society is so delicately balanced that it cannot change without disturbing its equilibrium; for the whole to progress, some parts must retrogress. To study the era only from the top, therefore, to contemplate it only as a prelude to America's eminence is to miss a great deal. This type of analysis not only omits what was left behind but also distorts the very process of national emergence. Development is partly shaped by resistant elements that cling desperately to a vanishing order. Although the future may be eagerly anticipated by those who swim with the tide, for those who want to hold fast against the currents of change, innovation seems cataclysmic.

Since historical categories are structured by the phenomena they explain, the cataclysmic perspective is shaped by the forces that were transforming the nation. Although cities were growing, immigrants arriving, corporations forming, unions agitating, and artisans already giving way to factories before the Civil War, not until the 1880's did these forces come to dominate American life. To many who thrived on memories of a rural, agricultural, native-born, and small-propertied community, these elements embodied the threat of modern times--they were the manifestations of the cataclysmic tren of industria capitalism.

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