The Gilded Age
Remembered as an era in American history characterized by great prosperity and industrial growth, the three decades following the Civil War have often been referred to as “The Gilded Age,” so called in part because of the 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner entitled The Gilded Age. The satirical novel, written in just a few months and intended as a caricature of the era, describes what the authors viewed as the greed and hypocrisy of American society and the folly of countless numbers of ordinary citizens who firmly believed that some magical scheme would lead them to riches. As articulated by Twain and Warner, the term “Gilded Age” refers primarily to the middle-class experience of the time, an experience typified by what author Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”—of dress, home décor, and all material goods which were considered signs of “good taste.” Along with the increased aestheticism of the age, and perhaps in direct response to it, developed more self-conscious literary criticism and realism.
The Gilded Age was characterized most significantly by the rapid industrialization that transformed the country from a primarily rural and agriculturally-based republic whose citizens for the most part shared a belief in God, into an industrial and urbanized nation whose values were changing rapidly due, in part, to increased wealth and to the ramifications of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie—both of whom virtually monopolized their respective industries—symbolized both the “self-made man” and the spirit of acquisition that dominated the late nineteenth century. This “spirit” is what Twain and Warner criticized in The Gilded Age, drawing attention to the artificial standards of taste attributed to the growing American bourgeoisie. As individual income levels increased due to such factors as improved communications resulting from the introduction of the telephone, technological innovations such as electricity, and rapid transportation via the new transcontinental railroads, many individuals—the “new rich”—could afford to indulge in finer clothing (which had become cheaper and more accessible), home decorations (which were mass-produced), and leisure activities that would previously have been considered impractical. The steam engine, the railroads, and the industrial boom following the Civil War years produced the country's first moguls and monopolies and created a collective dream both at home and abroad of self-made fortunes and streets “lined with gold.”
But all that glittered was not gold. Economic change came unpredictably. In 1873-78, 1883-85, and again in 1893-97, the nation experienced serious economic depressions. African-Americans, betrayed by the false promises of Reconstruction, were subjugated in new and more subtle ways. Black Americans in the South were subject to Jim Crow laws (legal segregation sanctioned by the Supreme Court). These laws were often enforced with violent methods involving torture and lynchings. The North, too, was not entirely committed to racial equality: blacks there were typically relegated to subservient and subordinate roles. Critic James H. Dormon, studying the “coon song craze” of the late nineteenth century, has found that these immensely popular songs, which depicted stereotypical caricatures of black Americans, reflected the nationwide feeling that blacks should be held in subordinate and segregated positions in society. According to Dormon, these songs rationalized white America's perception of blacks not only as silly buffoons, but also as dangers to the existing social structure. Black Americans were not the only ones to suffer hardships during this period; many farmers lost their holdings as railroads and new machinery lowered their crop prices. Cities became crowded with immigrants eager to succeed but whose only real opportunity was to provide an endless supply of cheap labor. In short, the chasm between rich and poor seemed greater and more visible than ever.
The development of literature at the time reflects this division. Both “low-brow” and “high-brow” forms thrived, and so did artistic snobbery. For the first time in American history, art received critical attention for art's sake. Largely due to the support and example of William Dean Howells, one of the most influential writers of the late nineteenth century, authors like Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Stephen Crane, and Henry James turned their attention to realistically depicting human behavior and social experience. Crane and Twain often went further in focusing on a new and more “realistic” subject matter—the experience of those who were not part of the middle class that so defined the standards of their age. The era also saw the emergence of regional literature, typified by the New England fiction of Sarah Orne Jewett and the vernacular dialect in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories and George Washington Cable's Creole tales. Several critics have suggested that this type of literature flourished during the latter part of the nineteenth century in part because these “local colorists” sought to preserve these distinctive modes of life before they were swallowed up by industrialization.
America experienced an industrial revolution later than England but more rapidly. The concentrated shift from homogenous, rural populations to diversified, urban ones created crowding and poverty, yet the industrial elites enjoyed a new wealth and urbane lifestyle that allowed for increased cultivation of the arts. Advances in machinery and transportation destroyed the old dream of agrarian self-sufficiency yet allowed for the mass production and accessibility of both necessities and luxuries. It was a time of great division, as well as a time of significant instability and anxiety, as many saw and lamented the replacement of religious and moral values with materialistic ones. Critic Paulette D. Kilmer, examining the “rags-to-riches” model in late nineteenth-century literature, has suggested that a great portion of Gilded Age literature is still closely tied to religious values. In these tales, as Kilmer has stated, a young protagonist often aids a wealthy benefactor, whose gratitude in turn enables the youngster to rise to the middle class. The tales offer evidence of benevolence—rather than a “quick fix”—as the source of a young man's success. Howells, though, beginning with the novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and continuing with the novel A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), addressed what he saw as the dangerous relationship between the economic growth of the United States and the corresponding decline of moral values under capitalism.
Modern critics have continued to debate this perception of the era. While many stress the negative influences of politics, industry, and technology on the society as a whole, others object to the emphasis on greed and corruption so often connected with the era, and instead focus on the dramatic and rapid transformation of the entire nation.