In the age of the railroad, social movements, revivals, and campaigns for political office spread like wildfire across the United States. Leaders and their surrogates could go travel faster than ever before, even as industrial capitalism overthrew the public and private relationships of a previous era. As would-be movement leaders discovered their growing power to reach a national audience, their experience speaking to gathered crowds in city after city and town after town produced a new style of public address. Jeremy C. Young
's The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940
(Cambridge University Press 2017), traces the history of that new style from the theoretical foundation laid down by its forbears in the 1840s, through the battles over charisma's power at the height in the early 1900s, to its eventual decline as a new technology, radio, again flipped the script on what it meant to address a national audience. The Age of Charisma
is a fascinating history of a period in which followers came to believe in their right to an emotional connection to their leaders, something that we could not imagine our democracy without today.
Between theorists and writers like Gustave Le Bon, who urged that charismatic leaders use their powers of persuasion and control to shape society for the better, and William James, who pushed back and urged for an understanding of crowds as intellectual bodies of people whose role in a movement is the flowering of their agency and personal power, leaders like Theodor Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Eugene Debs, and Billy Sunday worked to win souls and elections using the style and techniques that were pioneered by James Rush and Henry Ward Beecher. Thomas Carlyle's ideas, reaching the US in 1841, that following noble heroes ennobles the self and society, echoed down the years in the soul-saving work of revivalists like Charles Finney and the efforts of social reformers to harness the power of charisma to draw followers into the fight for social change. The suspicion of others, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw nobility in individual self-reliance over and against collective commitment to shared purpose, served to stoke the fears of many that charisma would be put to nefarious ends as magnetic leaders reduce their hysterical followers to instruments of their seductive will.
Using a wealth of archival work, synthesizing decades of original newspaper reporting, early photography, and personal testimony, and delving into collections of follower testimonies in journals, letters, and more, Young explores both the perspectives of leaders who harnessed the power of charisma for their cause, and the experience of following charismatic leaders as an American in the early twentieth century. Young's research overturns our expectations about how leaders and followers saw themselves, their relationships, and their place in an unstable political, economic, and religious landscape. All told, The Age of Charisma
provides a rich and detailed picture of the effects of charismatic leadership, and of the people who followed them, on the present and future shape of American society.
Carl Nellis is an academic editor and writing instructor working north of Boston, where he researches contemporary American community formation around appropriations of medieval European culture. You can learn more about Carl's work at carlnellis.wordpress.com.