GLOBAL DAWN: THE CULTURAL FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN INTERNATIONALISM, 1865-1890 by Frank Ninkovich, Reviewed by Stephen Shapiro
 

GLOBAL DAWN: THE CULTURAL FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN INTERNATIONALISM, 1865-1890
By Frank Ninkovich
(Harvard, 2009) 418pp.
Reviewed by Stephen Shapiro on 2010-03-24.

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The prejudice of existing paradigms is hard to shake, as historian Frank Ninkovich knows. The late nineteenth-century United States is now conventionally known as a period of entrenched isolationism and xenophobic racism. While these features might have dominated the governmental policies and popular, commercial press of the time, Ninkovich's book expertly illustrates the presence of alternative viewpoints among the East Coast-associated writers for small-subscription journals like The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and The North American Review. Addressing the educated and upper middle-class, these journals were consistently interested in the cosmopolitan relations between the United States and other continents, and Ninkovich almost forensically details how this cluster of publications tried to calibrate the strengths and weaknesses of various European nations as well as Asian and African ones for American consumption. In these journals, the world was a place that Americans could survey for comparisons and models to emulate or avoid. The journals' readers could be expected to be interested in these topics since tourism for the comfortable classes rapidly expanded after the Civil War, thanks to advances in transportation and communication technologies, so that even if readers could not or did not travel abroad, they could be expected to imagine themselves as possible travelers.

According to Ninkovich, the journals he examines sought to promote cosmopolitanism (or what would today might be called globalization), the belief that "civilization" beneficially emerges through le doux commerce, the amity resulting when markets are freed from isolationist tariffs. This liberal internationalism, Ninkovich writes, "rested on the belief that progress was global and that continued advance depended on the expansion of liberal commercial and cultural process on a global scale, among and within societies" (9). From this optimistic viewpoint, the obstacles to progress were not race or ethnicity but rather cultural forces such as religion or the continued resistance to republicanism.

The key point here is that after the Civil War, the writers of "high" opinion--the period's self-anointed, public-sphere intelligentsia--had far more heterogeneous viewpoints on other cultures and peoples than is often believed to be the case, either by writers of the contemporary right, with their manicured confidence in a clash of civilizations, or those on the left, who are often eager, in the wake of the late Howard Zinn, to excavate the crimes of American politicians and capitalists and often do so by using the period's cultural and literary writers as surrogates for these misdeeds, even often indiscriminately including "muckraking" figures within those to be denounced.

At the level of disciplinary formations, Global Dawn's focus on publications in the journals of comment has two main objectives. First and foremost, Ninkovich wants to convince political scientists and historians about the value of examining cultural formations. For instance, embedded within his account is a claim that the long tail of the period's cosmopolitan writing, lay the path to much later and more widespread social movements, like civil rights (more on this claim below). On the other hand, Ninkovich contests the charge often made by specialists in American Studies, who tend to put pre-modernist writers on the wrong side of sensitivity to matters of racial and ethnic "otherness." By repeatedly showing that social Darwinism was not the dominant viewpoint for the "educated" journals, he implies the need for a different rubric in evaluating this strand of American writing on race and ethnicity.

These two objectives may have relatively different successes. Among political scientists and historians, one suspects that Global Dawn pushes against an open door, for while Ninkovich is most likely right to argue that his own scholarly generation needs to reckon with the importance of "culture," its importance has probably been accepted among the junior faculty and current wave of graduate students. For literary and cultural studies scholars, it will be Ninkovich's careful sifting and synthesizing of several decades' worth of issues that is most useful, since these scholars might have some hesitations about the way in which Ninkovich has delimited his "archive," the subject matter that he discusses. But from whatever vantage point one reads Global Dawn, it is worth the price of the ticket (and full disclosure, this reviewer sees himself as primarily working from within left-wing literary and cultural studies). There ought to be a place for admiring good work, regardless of whether it confirms or jars one's own perspective. Ninkovich comes across as a fundamentally thoughtful scholar and decent figure, a mensch. This is a book that everyone would be proud to see produced by a member of their own department, and if any part of this review remains in your memory, let it be this, my respect for the work of a calm and probing mind.

In Global Dawn, Ninkovich argues that a few small-circulation journals made a lasting impact on American culture. Even though they addressed the educated elite with opinions that remained decidedly in the minority for the time, Ninkovich claims, they exercised an influence disproportionate to their sales as they helped shape a future consensus., Nevertheless, in limiting his scope to a handful of magazines and their commentary on international affairs, Ninkovich raises a number of consequential questions.

Firstly, he prompts us to wonder whether academic writing and debates among the intelligentsia have the impact that is claimed for them by later generations of scholars, who are themselves writers of informed opinion and thus inclined to overestimate the weight of critical thought in the writing of social history. If the fin-de-si?®cle writers did not subscribe to cruder forms of social Darwinism, does this really mean that they did, in fact, lay the grounds for the later mass movements of civil rights? One counter-reply might be that these social movements had far deeper roots either in earlier abolitionist ones or the period's socialist and communist writing (or fusions of the two), both of which were typically bypassed in the crisp pages of the journals of genteel commentary. Or, rather than seeing these journals as the origin of internationalist thought, we ought to consider them as a cultural sediment left over from secondary processing and selection of more demotic journalism beyond this study's ken.

If small-circulation journals in late nineteenth-century America did indeed have a delayed effect on mass movements in the twentieth century, we would also want to ask about the differences among those movements. For instance, lesbian and gay equality campaigns are clearly not to be found in the pages of Reconstruction-era thinkers. It is thus possible that while the study of these journals may reveal the mentality of a particular class fraction, their delayed impact may have been no stronger than it was when they first appeared. Ninkovich's argument prompts us to compare the late nineteenth century to our own time. While the last decade of American politics has been dominated by officially sanctioned ignorance and the bellicose retreat into delusional thought, the U.S. public sphere has not been lacking for consistent voices of reason and judicious analysis. To analyze the ideological contests of the late nineteenth century and of our own time, therefore, we need to know not so much how culture can become power, but rather why certain cultural formations do not become cultural foundations, why emergent or resistant liberal discourses do not become dominant or hegemonic.

Here Ninkovich overlooks an important precedent. Although he does not mention it, this ensemble of ideas about trade and society was not original to the late nineteenth-century American journals at all, but seems to have been almost entirely reproduced from the assumptions of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly those of Adam Ferguson's Essay on Civil Society (1767) and Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiment (1759) and Wealth of Nations (1776). The question, then, is not what these journals promoted, but what led them to go back in intellectual history. Why did they resurrect a set of claims about the outward extension of amicable trade that had been left behind by the mid-century's utilitarian claims and by its glorification of aggressive entrepreneurialism and the cult of the monomaniacal captain of industry? If liberal advocates for internationalism found the classic phase of capitalist-driven foreign policy distasteful, why did the "best minds of the generation" find themselves incapable of developing new ideas and instead simply dusted off the slogans of the last century? Was the best that Harvard Yard's perambulators and their ilk could do was to retreat back into the library stacks?

Here is where Ninkovich's chosen boundaries--his exclusive focus on a set of small-circulation journals--make themselves felt most strongly. While Ninkovich admirably surveys the attitudes expressed in these journals about European nations (and reminds us that American Anglophilia is mainly a twentieth century invention, given that the stronger intellectual affinities to Germany needed the two World Wars to submerge them) and also the publications' comments on Asia and Africa, we do not get any sense of what the magazines' writers had to say about domestic policy and affairs or how internal affairs might have intersected with international ones. If the journals did not subscribe to scientific racism and proto-eugenicist dismissals of Africa or Asia, what did they have to say about Reconstruction-era Jim Crow laws? And why is there no review of American attitudes to Mexico, the Caribbean, or Central and South America, given that these lands were the ones most directly within the U. S.'s political sphere of influence? While Ninkovich does not have to subscribe to a marxist analysis, can it really be that these social movements and labor issues did not impact on internationalist concerns, especially as the travelling middle-class emerges only after the labor conflicts bubbling throughout the long depression of 1873-96? If these writers favored free trade, the creation of bureaucratic careers open to the educated as a trained civil service, and international copyright protections (in other words, the renewed protection of the middle class's right to property and life-security against the instability of monopoly capitalism), can the period's economic context, especially for commercial journalism, really be stripped out from the study? Many of these journalistic pieces come from fiction writers, like Howells, who were acutely aware that their readers' bourgeois amity stood unsteadily on a guarded policing of the lower and foreign classes.

In raising questions about what is left outside the margins of this book, however, I fully realize that the book itself enables us to raise these questions by clarifying the grounds on which they can be asked. This monograph lays a basic and necessary cultural foundation for reviewing both the last century and our own. Let its lifetime of readers be long.



Stephen Shapiro is Associate Professor in the Department of English & Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick.


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