Review: "Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age"
Daniel Rodgers’ work, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age, explores the fundamental exchange of social-politics that engulfed both Western Europe and the United States during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Through a comparative analysis of countries such as Germany, Great Britain, France, and the United States, Rodgers demonstrates that social-politics rarely resulted from a singular source. Instead, Rodgers argues that state and national policies on welfare, housing, government subsidies, urban-development, wartime economies, poor-relief, public utility projects, and social insurance were all developed through an extensive system of transatlantic trade between nations. As Rodgers points out, progressives residing in the Atlantic borderlands actively sought out and borrowed ideas in social reform (from countries abroad) to implement in their own city and state structures. Through this borrowing of ideas, countries were afforded an opportunity to pick and choose from an array of social policies that had worked for other nation-states, while avoiding social experiments that had failed; thus, allowing progressives to create, adapt, modify, and implement a “melting pot” of social-reforms that they could tailor towards their own particular needs at home. This transatlantic trade of ideas was made possible, as Rodgers points out, through study-abroad programs for graduate students, foreign inquiry projects (organized by government offices such as the Bureau of Labor in the United States), international conferences, liberal and progressive journals and books, and through an increased inclination to travel abroad (whether through private pilgrimages or state-sponsored visits).
Rodgers' Main Points
In showcasing this exchange of social ideals, Rodgers points out that Americans were largely the recipient of European thoughts (concerning social reform programs) in the beginning of the twentieth-century; benefiting from a large array of social experiments taking place across the European continent. However, with the advent of the twenties and thirties, Rodgers argues that this pattern began to dramatically shift as Europeans gained a newfound interest in exploring the innovations being developed by American progressives in the years of Roosevelt and the policies of his New Deal program.
By focusing on this earlier tendency of the United States to borrow ideas from abroad for their own needs, Rodgers’ interpretation serves as a great counter to historical works that emphasize the isolationist policies of America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rodgers’ work demonstrates, beyond a doubt, that America participated deeply in the transatlantic exchange of social ideas from the late 1800s until the end of World War Two – when the politics of the Cold War finally put an end to the cross-exchange of ideas that had permeated intercontinental relations for decades.
Do you agree with Rodgers that America was not entirely isolated from Europe in the nineteenth-century?
All in all, Rodgers offers both a thorough and compelling account of social politics in the United States and Western Europe during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The author's thesis is both well-formulated and articulated, and is backed by an impressive array of research that incorporates documents from multiple nations. These sources include: letters, newspapers, diaries, journals, magazines, travel-memoirs, government documents, commission reports, as well as proceedings from conferences and meetings.
I was particularly impressed with the amount of detail and clarity that Rodgers seeks to provide in each chapter, and his ability to switch back and forth between both a “survey” and “analytical” approach to the material that he presents. Given that his book was published through Harvard University Press, it is clear that Rodgers’ work was aimed primarily towards a scholarly and academic audience. However, through his incorporation of relevant details and background information in each chapter, Rodgers’ work can be equally appreciated by individuals that are new to this particular subject area (such as myself).
I also really enjoyed how this book ties in well with William Cronon’s book, Nature’s Metropolis. While these books offer two entirely different arguments and accounts from one another, Rodgers’ chapter on cities seemingly builds upon Cronon’s work in that it addresses the “social” dimension of urban-centers during the early twentieth-century. Combined, both works give their audience a more profound and complete understanding of the urban history surrounding the late 1800s and early-twentieth-century.
While Rodgers succeeds in presenting a well-articulated argument and narrative, one clear shortcoming of his book lies in the fact that he focuses almost entirely on elites in his analysis. Although Rodgers does occasionally mention common and ordinary individuals from the lower-classes, his work follows a largely top-down perspective. This does not diminish the effectiveness of his overall argument, but this avoidance certainly limits the scope of his analysis to a degree. With a work this large, Rodgers’ book also faces problems with its uneven analysis of themes. Whereas some chapters – particularly his discussion on cities and “city planning” – are both detailed and thorough in their accounts, other sections – such as his analysis of the First World War – feel incomplete and rushed. Rodgers’ work also lacks a bibliographical section, making it difficult to sort through his tremendous collection of endnotes. These are only minor problems, however, as his conclusion and findings remain untarnished throughout the entirety of his work; thus, making Rodgers’ book both a fascinating and engaging piece of work from start to finish.
I give Atlantic Crossings 5/5 Stars and highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a social history of the United States during the twentieth-century. Definitely check it out!
Questions for Further Discussion
1.) What is Rodgers' thesis/argument?
2.) Did you find the author's argument and main points persuasive? Why or why not?
3.) What are the main points of this book?
4.) What are the main primary sources that the author incorporates? Provide detailed answers.
5.) What sort of scholarship does Rodgers build upon and contribute to with this work?
6.) Did you find this work to be engaging?
7.) Who is the author's target audience for this piece? Can both scholars and non-academics benefit from the contents of this work?
8.) Does Rodgers organize his chapters in a logical manner?
9.) Did Rodgers provide a detailed analysis for each of the topics he discusses? Or were particular areas of his book addressed in an uneven manner?
10.) Did Rodgers' introduction provide a satisfactory overview of the book’s argument, main points and historiography?
11.) What are the strengths and weaknesses of this book?
12.) What kind of history book is this? (ex: environmental, labor, etc.)
Suggestions for Further Reading
Milkis, Sidney. Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009.
Rauchway, Eric. Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.
Susman, Warren. Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
Rodgers, Daniel. Atlantic Crossing: Social Politics in a Progressive Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
© 2017 Larry Slawson