It’s not every day — it’s not every year — that a book appears that upends all the guiding historical views of the age. Then again, Jon Grinspan’s The Age of Acrimony is that rare disturbance in the waters of the historiography of 19th-century America. It is an engaging, inviting, and ultimately disruptive story of what happened between the assassination of Lincoln and the sinking of the Lusitania, though neither really serves as a bookend to Grinspan’s argument ... Grinspan offers us two books crammed into one hardcover binding ... There are times when the Kelley story seems a digression, but then again there were historical digressions aplenty in that era. Suffice it to say that their passage serviceably illuminates the country’s — from blustery winds of partisanship to more gentle (and genteel) breezes of reform that in time define the country even as they upend the nature of what it is to be an American in a broad half-century period ... Overall, Grinspan delivers a compelling look at America in this period, devoid of the clichés and cloying generalizations of textbook history.
... isn’t a detailed narrative of the era’s political struggles or a political-science thesis with tables and graphs. The wondrous profusion of technological innovation and economic growth of the late 19th century is touched on, but without the robotic denunciations of 'robber barons' that permeate so many historians’ accounts. Mr. Grinspan’s focus is on practical politics, which in this period meant mass politics—the highest rates of voter turnout and mass participation in the nation‘s history.
... brisk, edifying ... A political-history curator at the Smithsonian, Grinspan enlists a large cast of tenacious optimists and mercurial opportunists. Together, their biographies illuminate a half-century of strife and grudging reform ... Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the Jim Crow South and the Progressive Era already have their definitive texts, and this relatively modest book won't displace them. But Grinspan has skillfully assembled a roster of memorable personalities who embody some of the era's vicissitudes.
This turbulent time in American politics is expertly captured by historian Grinspan ... The highly readable account is based on extensive primary resources, such as the voluminous correspondence between the Kelleys ... This compelling history of a time that mirrors our own will be enjoyed by readers interested in American history and politics.
... nuanced and engaging ... a welcome addition to the vast body of historical interpretations of what the Gilded Age meant for the erratic quest to fulfill the American nation’s democratic promise. Against the notion that our political system was, under the combined pressures of industrialism, urbanization, racial suppression, farm and labor insurgencies, and nativist backlash, evolving into a giant rolling shakedown administered at the behest of this or that powerful and conspiratorial faction, The Age of Acrimony stresses the broader currents of change in American mass politics ... Grinspan excels at teasing out the deeply rooted (and long-enduring) backstories that propelled the landmark confrontations of Gilded Age politics ... Grinspan seeks to wrest a salubrious civic moral from his narrative of expert ascendance and broad participatory decline, but it comes off as something of a rushed afterthought that overtly clashes with much of the astute and arresting analysis that fills the body of The Age of Acrimony.
Grinspan vividly recreates the period’s tumults and personalities—he foregrounds the colorful father-daughter duo of Republican congressman William Kelley and Socialist activist Florence Kelley—while shrewdly analyzing its evolving culture of civic engagement, conveying it all in snappy, evocative prose. This immersive study shows how the form of politics profoundly shapes its content.
In a highly readable narrative, Grinspan also forges some unexpected connections—linking, for instance, the women’s enfranchisement movement (largely composed of White Protestant women) with a drive 'to offset the power of the working-class and increasingly foreign-born male electorate' ... If today’s political divisions are frightening, Grinspan’s lucid history soothes by recounting when it was far worse.