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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 399-407

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The World According to Gape

Leslie Butler

Matthew Frye Jacobson. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000. xii + 324 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliographic essay, and index. $30.00.

Pity the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, that hybridized epoch American historians awkwardly reduce to the acronym GAPE. Regrettably, the profession has resigned itself to cobbling together the half-century of American history between 1870 and 1920 by conjoining the title of a lesser Mark Twain novel with a notion of "progressivism" that perpetually baffles specialists. With such a conceptually suspect title, the GAPE lacks any obvious coherence. As it stands, it is all too tempting for nonspecialists to dismiss these years as a gap: a valley of political corruption, ersatz wealth, and urban reform that stretched out between the two mountains of Reconstruction and the more familiar "American Century."

Again and again, however, talented historians have been undeterred by such challenges. They have displayed an uncanny knack for transcending the conceptual deficiencies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by painting unifying, compelling themes on the broad canvas of these years. Narratives have opened up an age of excess and an age of energy, a time when Americans searched for order, stood at Armageddon, responded to industrialism, and sought antimodern refuges in "Places of Grace." Readers have witnessed in these years nothing less than the incorporation of their culture, the transformation of their economy, and the rise of what we now see as modern America. 1 In his new, imaginatively written book, Matthew Jacobson joins the very best of this group in showing how white, native-born Americans of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era encountered foreign peoples at home and abroad. His work examines economic, cultural, and political trends--many of which are still with us today--and presents a Gilded Age globalized. In so doing, he at once pushes forward the internationalization of American history and provides a new paradigm for a period enormously difficult to pull together.

Jacobson comes well-equipped for making this mark. His first book, Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the [End Page 399] United States (1995), investigated how three distinct groups of immigrants constructed their new national identities, particularly through popular culture and the imperial wars of the 1890s. Though encompassing the entire scope of the American national narrative, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (1998) evolved naturally from its predecessor in examining how nineteenth-century European immigrants, once seen as alien and racially distinct, became white "Caucasians" in the twentieth century. Jacobson argued there that turn-of-the-century American imperialism was as crucial to the story of whiteness as it had been to that of immigrant nationalisms.

Barbarian Virtues, his third book, returns with a different perspective to the Gilded Age-Progressive Era and to imperialism. Here Jacobson investigates how the "world's peoples" provided the international context within (or against) which native-born white Americans forged their national identity. Foreign peoples both at home and abroad, he contends, became the "barbaric" foils to idealized, virtuous American citizens. Though Jacobson pulls no punches, this is no comfortably whiggish tale. He provides a historical context for our current understanding of both immigration and foreign policy, condemning these "two striking failures of our national memory" (p. 262). Indeed, he warns that this national-international dynamic is not "safely fossilized in a bygone epoch," as he asks us to "ponder the continuities" between the age of the Philippine-American War and the Immigration Restriction League and our own. In so doing, he suggests that we might consider how "dominant notions of national destiny and of proper Americanism draw upon charged encounters with disparaged peoples whose presence is as reviled in the political sphere as it is inevitable in the economic" (p. 8, 9). In its breadth of vision, its succinct characterizations, and its vivid prose, Barbarian Virtues offers a bold international revision...


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