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  • The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870–1940 by Jeremy C. Young
  • Daniel Wickberg
The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870–1940. By Jeremy C. Young (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xxiv plus 331 pp. $49.99).

As the title would indicate, Jeremy C. Young's Age of Charisma argues that the period between 1870 and 1940 in the United States was marked by a distinctive style of leadership—one relying on a charismatic emotional bond between leaders and followers. Drawing on a variety of sources—guides to oratory, local and national periodicals, works of political and social thought, and manuscript collections of noted political and religious leaders—Young aims to reconstruct a world in which political and religious leadership was exemplified by the power of magnetic personality, and followers found meaning and purpose in their emotional attraction to those leaders. This is not so much a study of particular charismatic movements or subcultures, but a study of the emotional character of a national culture during an era bookended by the emergence of a corporate industrial economy on one end, and the rise of mass media on the other.

His argument rests largely on portraits of particular leaders and their followers in the context of values and methods articulated in the larger discourse that surrounded them. His cast of characters are nationally known and very familiar religious and political leaders: Henry Ward Beecher, Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Debs, James G. Blaine, Theodore Roosevelt, Marcus Garvey, Woodrow Wilson, Booker T. Washington, and Frances Willard, among them. These figures are analyzed in terms of the history of ideas of intellectuals such as William James, Gustave Le Bon, H.L. Mencken, Elbert Hubbard, and Herbert Croly, as well as more generalized and diffuse discourses around methods of elocution and public speaking, psychological ideas, evangelical conversion, and progressive ideology. Spheres such as business, higher education, athletics, and the arts are mostly absent in Young's analysis, which concentrates on religion, politics, and labor movements as the sites of charismatic leadership.

Histories of emotion and emotional style are notorious for their potential conceptual fuzziness. Young's approach tends to synthesize the model of emotional history associated with Peter Stearns, with the focus on the history of political style that one finds at work in Michael McGerr's Decline of Popular Politics—not surprisingly as McGerr was one of his mentors. The conceptual problems, which are not specific to Young's book but are shared widely in the [End Page 1419] field, are several, but I want to mention two that might help illuminate where Age of Charisma works, and where it fails to do so.

The idea that there is a bounded "age of charisma" in the past, runs up against the problem that the markers historians conventionally use to define the integrity of a coherent era—political events, the formation of institutions, legal landmarks, publication of books, etc.—are very difficult to find in the case of emotions and emotional style, nor is it easy, in the face of the coexistence of competing varieties of emotional life, to decide when or if an emotional configuration becomes "dominant," and can mark the character of an age. Young clearly points to antebellum precursors of his charismatic era such as Charles Grandison Finney, whose evangelical style is almost always associated with the revivalism of the 1830s and 40s, and behind him the emotional charisma of George Whitefield in the 1730s and 40s. In other words, there is a strain of charismatic leadership associated with evangelical Protestantism that both precedes the era he is examining, and continues in many respects throughout the twentieth century. Similarly, the theory of elocution developed by James Rush in his 1827 text Philosophy of the Human Voice, written in the era of antebellum oratory was, according to Young, the basis of the style of Beecher, Bryan, and others in the Age of Charisma. And the idea of magnetism, Young confesses, has itself a long history going back to the Mesmerism of the late eighteenth century. There is much "prefiguring" of the age of charisma in Young...


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