America in the 1890s

In 1893, the United States held the most massive exposition of new technology and ideas to that point in its history when the city of Chicago hosted the 1893 Columbian World Exposition. One of the most important aspects of this expo was the “Great White City,” a massive structure constructed to run entirely on electricity, still a novel idea in the United States. Certainly this feat showed American ingenuity and the future of the nation in terms of technology, it also exposed the distance that needed to be traversed between rural and urban communities, the city and the frontier. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner evaluated the frontier with his “frontier thesis,” which said that America’s journey westward and its successes in taming the wild shaped American culture and indicated how Americans would deal with the world in the future. Turner’s “thesis” would be the calling card for American leaders at the turn of the 20th century but would also indicate the tensions that would run throughout the early 1900s.

President Theodore Roosevelt embodied this idea of conquering frontiers when he determined that America could no longer play an insignificant role in international affairs. While Grover Cleveland and William McKinley were involved in conquests of Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines, Roosevelt wanted America to be involved not only in development within its own borders but abroad. Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for his brokering of peace between the Russians and the Japanese, intervened in Panama to continue the canal project, and provided protection to South American countries from the intervention of European nations (while guaranteeing American preeminence in the region). Americans began to be accustomed to debates over America’s role in the world, as evidenced by the Anti-Imperialist League devoted to stopping American dominance in inferior regions of the world. Members of this league included Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan, both representing a unique interest in maintaining strength at home and protecting American culture. Twain was one of the few major literary figures that was uniquely American, as Europeans still dominated literature in the United States. Bryan was a champion of farm interests and the still strong rural interest that would fade as his career faded in the 1910s. The tensions in international affairs were emblematic of tensions between the poor and the wealthy, the weak and the powerful.

Domestic progress was similar to international progress in that Americans were becoming accustomed to dialogue but were not entirely ready for the consequences. American poets like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were enduring and folk heroes, but were not commercially popular nor internationally renowned in their lifetimes. Culture in America began to become a two-way street with the rest of the world, however, because of inventions like Bell’s telephone and the transfer of European ideas like romanticism in literature to America. However, this two-way street was still far more about importing ideas than it was exporting that which was uniquely American. The industrial mechanisms for America’s cultural expansion to the rest of the world were being built at the turn of the century, but they were not ready to export ideas and goods until after the Second World War. The tensions between urban and rural were still to be sorted out and America’s international identity was to be resolved in the two world wars.

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