Michael McGerr

A Fierce Discontent

  • 57-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 9 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a PhD in English Literature
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A Fierce Discontent Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 57-page guide for “A Fierce Discontent” by Michael McGerr includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 9 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Individual and Society and The Proper Roles of Men, Women, and Family.

Plot Summary

Michael McGerr’s 2003 nonfiction book, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, is titled after a phenomenon President Theodore Roosevelt observed in the early 20th century. The book’s epigraph quotes President Roosevelt in 1906:

So far as this movement of agitation throughout the country takes the form of a fierce discontent with evil, of a firm determination to punish the authors of evil, whether in industry or politics, the feeling is to be heartily welcomed as a sign of healthy life (10).

The “movement of agitation” Roosevelt describes was the movement of progressive reform that took over American culture and social life from 1870 to 1920. The book explores the catalyst for the progressive movement: middle-class Americans’ “fierce discontent” with polarizing values and behaviors in American culture. McGerr traces the progressive movement from its beginnings at the end of the Victorian Era through its decline just after the end of World War I.

McGerr details the identity of the middle class to help readers understand the Progressive Era and the goals of the reform efforts in which it was ushered. He describes progressivism as “the creed of a crusading middle class” that “offered the promise of utopianism—and generated the inevitable letdown of unrealistic expectations” (19). Progressivism was the Victorian middle class’s answer to the basic questions of human life:

What is the nature of the individual? What is the relationship between the individual and society? What are the proper roles of men, women, and the family? What is the place of work and pleasure in human life? (20).

These four questions frame the themes of McGerr’s book. And the book is divided into three parts that encapsulate the arc of the Progressive Era: “The Progressive Opportunity,” “Progressive Battles,” and “Disturbance and Defeat.”

The first part, “The Progressive Opportunity,” explains the class conflict between the working class and the wealthy class that catalyzed the middle class’s reform efforts at the end of the 19th century. McGerr contrasts working class and upper class values and behaviors with the values and behaviors defined by middle class progressives for themselves.

Next, “Progressive Battles,” explores the specific social problems that became the focus of the middle class’s reform efforts, and it describes how the progressives approached these efforts. In Chapters 3 through 6, McGerr mentions the key “battles” that the middle-class progressives chose to fight in order to transform society into a reproduction of the middle class. These include transforming the character of individual Americans (Chapter 3), ending class conflict (Chapter 4), controlling and regulating big business (Chapter 5), and quelling racial strife and violence through segregation (Chapter 6).

The final part, “Disturbance and Defeat,” discusses developments in American culture that threatened and ultimately doomed the progressive movement in the 1910s. McGerr describes the cultural and behavioral backlash from Americans that ultimately led to the decline of the Progressive Era.

McGerr uses historical figures’ stories to portray different facets of the American experience during the Progressive Era. These narratives connect and engage readers with what might otherwise feel like an overwhelming slog of historical facts and political terminology. The stories show how American values grew and changed. McGerr liberally incorporates actual quotations to communicate feelings and opinions on the reform efforts of middle-class progressives and give a clearer sense of progressive reform’s effects.

McGerr’s overarching argument is that “progressivism created much of our contemporary political predicament” (19). Though he does not thoroughly explore America’s current social problems, his critiques of the radicalism, idealism, and unrealistic expectations of the middle class in the Progressive Era offer a cautionary tale for people who want to make change going forward. It is up to the reader to make connections between the successes and failures of the progressive movement of 1870-1920 and the issues plaguing America today.

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