The Gilded Age
Illustration: Cover of the first edition of The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, 1873
In 1873, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published a book that became the name of an era: The Gilded Age. This period, generally believed to be between 1870 and 1900, was marked by rapid industrialization, economic growth, and immigration, most notably in the North and West. The South, however, after defeat in the Civil War and the punishment of the Reconstruction, suffered from economic depression. This is an important difference to note. The successes and excesses of the Gilded Age did not touch the United States in its entirety.
Twain and Dudley’s book is set in the United States at the very beginning of the Gilded Age. Marvin Felheim[i], who wrote the introduction to my yellowed paperback copy of the book, notes that the story’s primary criticism was focused on “the greed and lust – for land, for money, for power – of an alliance of Western land speculators, Eastern capitalists, and corrupt officials who dominated the society and appreciably altered its character.”[ii] He goes on to say:
The “Gilded Age” was a “peaceful” era following the horrors of the Civil War. The North, industrialized and righteous, had won. One consequence was the westward extension of institutions representing its victorious value system. Expansion was in the air. Capital was available and bankers were looking avidly for investments. The West, with all its rich potentialities, both of wealth and adventure, lay ready to be exploited. Colonel Sellers’ [a principle character] ambitious schemes were not merely the idle dreams of a satirist’s euphoric imagination: they represented the hopes and beliefs of a nation.[iii]
It is true wages for the average worker rose during this period. However, there was a dark side to all this growth and expansion, and that was an alarming disparity in income and wealth. Briefly put, the gulf between the wealthy class and everyone else began to widen. According to Steve Fraser:
By the midpoint of the Gilded Age about 4000 families owned as much wealth as the remaining 11.6 million. Two hundred thousand individuals controlled between 70 and 80 percent of the nation’s property. The arithmetic of dispossession and the descent of into the new American proletariat went like this: while 87 percent of private wealth belonged to a privileged fifth of the population and 11 percent to the next luckiest fifth, the bottom 40 percent had none at all. Multimillionaires (another invention of the Gilded Age) owned one-sixth of the country’s wealth. The richest 1 percent owned 51 percent of all real and personal property, while the bottom 44 percent came away with 1.1 percent. Most workers earned less than $800 annually, which wasn’t enough to keep them out of poverty. And most of them had to toil for nearly sixty hours a week to make even that much.[iv]
If all this sounds familiar that may be because we are in another Gilded Age. How it will all play out is still anyone’s guess. But I can identify with the impetus behind Twain and Dudley’s satirical novel.
This background information played into my novel, Seeing the Elephant. However, the book takes place December 1863 through May 1864. The time of great industrialists would not arrive until the next decade. And, while some northern manufacturers, like Maggie’s brother Sam, profited from producing goods for the war, we know that the Civil War did not benefit the Union’s economy quite the way that World War II gave the nation a badly-needed, economic post-Depression shot in the arm.
And yet, the boom of the Gilded Age had to start somewhere, and my instinct told me that this happened during the 1860s. Imagine how delighted I was to find the following comment in the middle of Twain and Warner’s book. “The eight years in America from 1860 to 1868 uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.”[v]
The changes described by Twain and Warner were nascent forces in SEEING THE ELEPHANT. Even so, they are bewildering to the characters in my novel. The shifting landscape is vast. It incorporates everything from the treatment of emotional and psychological issues, to a change in the Smith family’s own social and economic status, to Eli’s awareness regarding the treatment of factory workers, and the arrival of a wealthy industrialist who is intent on changing Blaineton from a “quaint little town with pleasant people” to “a center of industrial and financial power.”
More on how this plays out in Seeing the Elephant in Monday’s blog.
[i] Marvin Felheim (1914-1979) was the Joe Lee David Distinguished Professor of American Culture and Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan from 1948-1979. University of Michigan, Faculty History Project. http://um2017.org/faculty-history/faculty/marvin-felheim. (Downloaded 29 July 2016)
[ii] Marvin Felheim, “Introduction,” The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1969), 8.
[iii] Felheim, 8-9.
[iv] Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015), 66.
[v] Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age, 137-138.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder