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The 20th century, in case you didn’t know it, is going to be the best one yet. Or at least that’s what pop culture tells us: From Ragtime to Titanic, historic nostalgia has flooded the country like so much flat microbrew. Here in the waning years of the “American Century,” our neurotic nation distracts itself with olde-time ballgames at Camden Yards, city tours in fake trolley cars, and non-Cuban stogies at cigar bars. The nostalgia, of course, is the ultimate manifestation of the Age of Irony: Hey, man, remember when they thought this shit would be cool?
But it’s nonetheless somewhat odd that such little fanfare has accompanied the real historical milestones we’ve passed in 1998 alone. One hundred fifty years ago this winter, victory in the war against Mexico doubled the size of the United States. The war brought California into the union and convinced Americans that a glorious age was at hand. Fifty years back, the Berlin airlift marked the real beginning of the Cold War. We’d roll back the commies, the logic went, and remake the world in our own image. The future would be better than ever.
The most surprising omission, though, is of the tumultuous 12 months exactly a century ago. In a nation booming with immigrants, dollars, and self-regard, the world’s first continent-sized mass media launched a war. A few months later, the U.S. owned Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and world-power status. It was a year draped in red, white, and blue bunting. According to historian David Traxel’s 1898: The Birth of the American Century, that year marked the real beginning of America’s 20th centurythe same epoch whose demise leaves 1998’s America so jittery.
Traxel’s engaging account emphasizes beginnings. 1898 was a dramatic time, but it’s the year’s mundane consolidations that make its history so important today. Early in 1898, New York Biscuit and the American Biscuit company called a truce in a decade-long war during which the two had gobbled up just about every other cookie bakery in the country. The successor firm, Nabisco, dominates the industry to this daylike so many other industrial titans whose roots go back to the Gilded Age.
The year’s shifts in popular culture also shoot straight to this day. Faith in progress and in the power of youth were the optimistic themes of the year. In 1898, the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison were all alive, and workplace efficiency was being reduced to a physical science by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Technology’s foes may have worried about the environment, but in the tale of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir battling for the soul of the American environmental movement, it’s pretty clear that salvation was coming to be seen by most folks as lying in rational progress.
And 1898 was also the beginning of a new American relationship with the outside world. Buoyed by the increasing demand for distant markets for American business to market their wares abroad, greater numbers of the young best-and-brightest were also coming to see exporting their nation’s progress overseas as a national mission.
Thanks to the new tools of pop culture, the mission was on display at home, too: In an eerie example of indoctrination to this manifest destiny, Traxel describes an essentially fake Indian battle staged for politicians in Minnesota. Westward expansion was by 1898 already calcified history, ritualistically re-enacted (as it has been in western movies ever since) to spur the missionary zeal of the day. The scary blood would flow elsewhere.
Students of any part of the 20th century will find 1898’s talk all too familiar. The reason the year is important, however, is that the talk turned to action far from the fake battlefields of the Midwest. The Spanish-American War mobilized all of the contemporary forces of American culture to defeat Spain. The new media barons created war fever. The new industrial moguls saw overseas dollars. Muscular young Americans saw their country idealistically engaged in a battle for progress. With little obvious dissent, the United States became an imperial power. By summer, citizens were telling each other that the Spanish skirmish had cured three decades of post-Civil War domestic divisions.
Traxel spends a great deal of 1898 looking at the character of Theodore Roosevelt. The wealthy New Yorker was one of those energetic young Americans. He became the hero of the Rough Riders and, by the end of the year, governor of New York. Two years later, he was elected vice president, and not long thereafter, he became perhaps the most popular president in history. Traxel makes a pretty good case for Roosevelt’s shadowin cultural terms, if not policy choicesspanning the century he helped birth.
The problem with the book is that not everyone voted for Roosevelt. Traxel’s survey is for the most part an examination of 1898’s winners. It’s well-researched, fun, and charming; it smells and feels like an artifact of history, much like Titanic, evoking a certain slice of a distant American culture. But it doesn’t necessarily teach any lessons.
That’s not to say Traxel writes only about happy people: He spends time on the gloomy sides of industry, progress, migration, and conquest. But he doesn’t spend much energy on places where they didn’t take place at all. Racism is noted, but Jim Crowed African-Americans get fairly brief treatment. So, for that matter, do white Southerners: Neither really lived in the brave new America that had just won Cuba.
Ultimately, 1898 matters to 1998 because it parallels in so many ways our own timewith rapacious consolidations noted in the business pages and ideals of progress promulgated in the editorials. The difference, of course, is that with the passing of the American Century, a lot of folks wonder just whom the Clinton era’s similarly bullish propagandists are talking about. For 1898 to be relevant as we exit the century created by that year’s winners, it’d be nice if it offered more peeks at the year’s losers, toojust in case.CP