Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Search for Order, 1877-1920, by Robert H. Wiebe

There is an interesting and I think rather consequential disjunction between the style of Wiebe's classic synthesis of the Gilded Age/Progressive Era and its content: in few words, Wiebe brought an 18th-century sentence to a 19th-century fight. Wiebe's equipoise and preference for the apothegm, resembling above all a long cascade of heroic couplets, repeatedly turn his arguments about the character of these times against themselves: balancing where they should be evoking turbulence, harmonizing where they mean to demonstrate dissonance, affording closure where they intend to describe a new sense of endless process. It's like putting a gyroscope on a dirt bike.

Of course, the prose is also so, so pleasurable to read. "Too many ambitious men pictured themselves as tomorrow's kings to proscribe royalty." "Essential services became the playthings of private profit, and a busy people paid the price of danger, dirt, and disease." "Too isolated for leadership before 1917, Roosevelt and his comrades were too overwhelmed by agreement after that." Of William Jennings Bryan, "His public life was devoted to translating a complicated world of affairs he barely comprehended back into those values he never questioned." Few poets could pull off without a smirk such alliteration as that of the second sentence, and I'm tempted every once in awhile to scan these sentences for the meter; some have to be very near iambic pentameter.

Occasionally, this bent toward beauty becomes obtuse: of the 1877 railroad strikes, "Called America's first national strike, it was actually the first national holiday of the slums. The rioters, rather than self-conscious wage earners, were simply the inhabitants of center city who had taken advantage of a singular opportunity to come out and roam." That terminal intransitive verb is a gorgeous way to conclude, a perfect alighting point for the thought being expressed, but one does wonder about its content; how much of the disorder of the time is interred by the metaphor's grace?

Style also plays a role in some of the book's argumentative flaws. There is an outright indifference to geography ("The titans of Wall Street would have made the same decisions if they had operated from Denver; the same spate of holding companies would have appeared if Oregon instead of New Jersey had passed a lax incorporation law" (32)) which is enabled or encouraged by Wiebe's Olympian (or perhaps Parnassian) summations; there is little need for geographic specificity when the events are being narrated from 30,000 feet above the fray. There is almost an inadvertent joke between the work's title and its contents: if the era was a casting about for organization, Wiebe somehow finds order at the end of every (sentence's) period.

But the largest complaint I have is with what Wiebe's style does to his basic argument for what was transformed or precipitated in this period and what this transformation or precipitate came from. This argument is articulated by various means throughout the book, but mostly to the same theme, and I'll just pick two passages to exemplify it. From page 40 and 43, the background to or first stage of this transformation:
More generally, Americans emphasized the obvious. What they saw about them were more tracks and more factories and more people, bigger farms and bigger corporations and bigger buildings; and in a time of confusion they responded with a quantitative ethic that became the hallmark of their crisis in values. It seemed that the age could only be comprehended in bulk. Men defined issues by how much, how many, how far… For lack of anything that made better sense of their world, people everywhere weighed, counted, and measured it.
And on pages 147 and 154, a description of what came out of this quantitative ethic:
The meaning of data had fundamentally changed. Earlier theorists had examined society assuming an infinite number of one-to-one relationships; a cause produced an effect, a law covered an action, a reform led to a result. Now society was 'a vast tissue of reciprocal activity… all interwoven to such a degree that you see different systems according to the point of view you take… It was not that the exponents of bureaucratic thought sacrificed ends to means but that they merged what customarily had been regarded as ends and means into a single, continuous stream, then failed to provide a clear rationale for the amalgam. Endless talk of order and efficiency, endless analogies between society and well-oiled machinery, never in themselves supplied an answer. Instead of careful definitions, they offered only tendencies.
For Wiebe, these last are fairly knotted sentences, but it nevertheless approaches something like a performative (or perhaps a mimetic) contradiction; they are far more like a careful definition and an answer than like a tendency or a tissue. And Wiebe's heroic couplets fight rather than evoke this sense of continuity; so firmly stamped and discrete is the meaning of every thought, that the book seems entirely written in topic sentences—extremely well-written ones, but each one could begin a new and separate paragraph, or even a whole essay. They are far more like the "one-to-one relationships" which were supplanted by the new mentality, although Wiebe is very, very far from anything like a "quantitative ethic" (I can recall almost no instances of statistics in the book, certainly no tables). So far from the sense of what is actually being described, this again seems like a sort of mimetic contradiction.

It is, of course, not presumed that historiography must be stylistically mimetic of its subject, and if it were, it would no doubt end in disaster. (That's what we have novels for, anyway.) Yet there is something missing in Wiebe because of this disjuncture between style and content that undercuts, for me, his analysis of the era, as if the mimetic gap between what he depicts and how he depicts it actually distorts our ability to perceive it, even as he says straightforwardly what it is we are looking at: disorder, struggle, and confusion, emergence, improvisation, and an ad hoc transformation.

So when Wiebe argues that 
If those who thought of the new industrial giants as diabolically perfect organisms could have peeked inside, they would have found jerry-built organization, ad hoc assumptions of responsibility, obsolete office techniques, and above all an astonishing lack of communication among its parts… Presiding over ramshackle concerns, the officers could only command and hope.
we get a barely clearer vision of what this ramshackleness really looked or felt like than the contemporary critics who didn't see it at all or ignored it. Wiebe compares at one point the new mentality of reform to "the fluidity of calculus, not the order and balance of plane geometry" (146). There is much more of the latter than the former; at its most elaborate, The Search for Order is extremely elegant trigonometry.

Much earlier in the book, Wiebe describes the basic dynamic of change and progress that he found repeated throughout the period: "Once again, a narrow attempt to impose order tended to increase the disorder around it." It is this dynamic which seems to be entirely suspended for the duration of the book, a sort of unnatural imposition of order everywhere without any increase of disorder anywhere within it. No sentence really seems to feel the pressure of obscurity, and the balance of one sentence sends no succeeding sentence off-kilter; everything is calibrated, nothing is confused.

Again, this is not to say that Wiebe's writing isn't absolutely lovely to read; it is so far from cloying even in its unruffled smoothness that I very well understand why it continues to be assigned even as its synthesis has been scavenged and challenged almost piece-by-piece ever since it was published in 1967. Jackson Lears's new synthesis of the period, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920, has been, as is readily visible from the titular span of dates, called by Richard White a "doppelgänger" of Wiebe's book.

White goes on to say of Search for Order, and I find this very interesting:
Wiebe portrayed the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a period of centralization, professionalization and nationalization. Americans found themselves adrift as an older world of autonomous, local "island" communities disintegrated; they responded by undertaking a "search for order" to organize, discipline and tame a society that was diverse, industrial, urban and increasingly corporate. Newer scholarship has undermined many of Wiebe's conclusions, such as the existence of island communities in the wake of the Civil War and the rationality of the new corporate order. Yet his book stands--a weathered but imposing monument reinforced by the powerful metaphor of its title. Metaphors matter; they can corral all kinds of restless and fractious people and events, and Wiebe settled on a good one.
It is strange to me that White (and the others to whom he alludes) takes the "rationality of the new corporate order" as one of the primary conclusions of Wiebe's study; perhaps it is merely because I am reading it after the revisionists have re-framed the period that I see instead of an emphasis on "order" an emphasis on the "search" for it, but I have to disagree with White that this achieved (as opposed to nominal or aspirational) rationality is in fact how Wiebe characterizes the new corporate order (as evidenced by the "jerry-built" quote above). There is a constant reminder of the romantic overhang (or hangover) shadowing the period, and if the trend was toward "science" and "rational management," Wiebe nevertheless gives frequent acknowledgment of the inertial forces inside that trend.

It is, instead, probably the prose which has influenced later scholars to play up the "order" part of the book rather than the "search." If White and others remember the book as a monument to a society in the process of ordering itself—instead of, as Wiebe really argues, producing more disorder by "narrow" attempts to impose order—it is almost certainly because the evenness of the book's arguments feels so little connected to the turbulent process of imposing order upon its materials that this smooth and successful stylistic calibration comes to replace in our minds the uneven and "ramshackle" process that it in fact depicts.

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