The Gilded Age

A Tale of Today?

A series developed by David Richards

This series will examine one the most pivotal yet most neglected eras of United States history, one that began to define the parameters of the modern world in which we live. Rising out of the carnage of four years of civil war and a failed attempt both to reconstruct the South and reconcile race relations, Americans turned their attention during the last quarter of the nineteenth century from political debates over the nature of the nation and moral considerations of civil rights to economic projects of physical expansion and material wealth. The people of principle—of states rights versus federal union, of popular sovereignty versus free soil, of slave power versus abolition—became the people of progress—of railroad building, corporate trusts, street-car suburbs, and social and geographic mobility. In addition to industrialization, urbanization, and migration, the modernization of the United States brought with it the rise of a leisure class and a new therapeutic consumer culture.


  • The Devil and the White City by Erik Larson
  • The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner
  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells
  • Poland Spring: A Tale of the Gilded Age by David Richards


This series will examine one the most pivotal yet most neglected eras of United States history, one that began to define the parameters of the modern world in which we live, the Gilded Age. Rising out of the carnage of four years of civil war and a failed attempt both to reconstruct the South and reconcile race relations, Americans turned their attention during the last quarter of the nineteenth century from political debates over the nature of the nation and moral considerations of civil rights to economic projects of physical expansion and material wealth.  The people of principle — of states rights versus federal union, of popular sovereignty versus free soil, of slave power versus abolition — became the people of progress — of railroad building, corporate trusts, street-car suburbs, and social and geographic mobility.  In addition to industrialization, urbanization, and migration, the modernization of the United States brought with it the rise of a leisure class and a new therapeutic consumer culture.

The series will begin at the culmination of the era in Chicago, the city that most epitomized the dramatic transformations of the age.  The Devil and the White City by Erik Larson has garnered much popular attention and critical acclaim since its publication in 2003.  The book juxtaposes the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 against a series of mysterious disappearances and salacious murders that took place in the Windy City around the same time.  The debauchery of the imposter Dr. Henry Holmes, who hailed from a small town in New Hampshire, highlighted the underside of urban life – anonymity, disorder, and outright evil.  In contrast, or perhaps in response, the architect Daniel Burnham made it his mission to design a fairground that would come to be known as the White City.  Giving rise to the city beautiful movement, the project was premised on the belief that soaring stately architecture, neat orderly landscapes, and essential civic institutions could elevate the morals of the urban masses.  Despite the mammoth undertaking assumed by Burnham under daunting constraints of deadline and budget, the world’s fair was an amazingly popular success, rising to the level of cultural icon.  It not only commemorated four centuries of progress, albeit almost all of it defined materially, since the arrival of Columbus and his fellow Europeans in the New World; it also marked Chicago’s ascension from prairie outpost to the nation’s second city and leading exemplar of the acquisitive spirit of the Gilded Age.  Dr. Holmes did not fare so well in either the scales of justice or annals of history.

The second book, The Gilded Age, by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner was published in 1873 and literally dubbed and helped define the era.  The authors shared writing responsibilities for a sprawling novel that intertwines several story lines, bound together by two main themes – romance and speculation, love and money, each of which can lead to ruin.  The Hawkins family speculates in Tennessee land and dreams of riches railroads and steamboats might haul out of the region.  Colonel Sellers is an indiscriminate speculator in slaves, mules, sugar, hogs, and railroads, while the Sterling and Bolton families build a coal empire in Pennsylvania.  Along the way, a colorful cast of characters pass through the sordid halls of Congress seeking subsidies and doling out bribes, and, in a New York courtroom, a damsel in distress seeks sympathy for shooting her lover.  Proving that fact is indeed stranger than fiction, Twain and Warner based many of their characters and scenes on actual events of the era.  Underlying the authors’ biting social satire, sarcasm, and cynicism are two age-old American verities that probably would not have been lost on the ambitious people of progress, despite their great hurry to get rich:  Hard work was the only real road to success and the rule of law was the only real guarantor of justice.

The third book in the series, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, looks at New York high society during the 1870s.  In contrast to the unbounded social fluidity described by Twain and Warner, Wharton focuses on the entrenched, but beset, ruling commercial elite of the Gilded Age.  Theirs was a leisured life filled with teas and dinner parties, banquets and balls, openings and operas, art and literature, polo matches and yacht races undergirded by rigid rules of propriety, ritual, and fashion.  Change is in the air, however.  The social mores of marriage, moral integrity, and female dependence are threatened.  Commerce, not custom, is king.  The old-fashioned age of innocence is passing.  Published in 1920, the novel uses the vantage of time to conclude at the dawn of a new age, the Progressive Era of New Yorker Teddy Roosevelt, when a “new state” of “reforms and ‘movements,’ with fads and fetishes and frivolities” reigns.

The Gilded Age distinguished between two wealthy classes, the Antiques and the Parvenus.  Appearing a dozen years later in 1885, The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells examines the career of one of the noueau riche, a member of the rising  commercial middle class that challenged the social elite of Wharton’s New York and Howells’s Boston.  Set in the hub of New England commerce and culture during the 1870s, the novel exemplifies a realism Howells hoped to bring to the study of urban life.  It charts the fortunes of a Vermont farm boy, who comes to prominence in the city as a successful paint manufacturer, until he gets caught up in the competitive struggles, speculative fevers, and rollercoaster business cycles of a laissez-faire economy.  During his rise, Silas Lapham sets about becoming a solid and accepted member of the urban upper middle class, learning the social customs of Boston Brahmin aristocracy, building a new home in the Back Bay, and attending to the affairs of his two marriageable daughters.  In his leisure time, Lapham and his family vacation at mountain and seaside resorts.  In a twist on the prevailing Horatio Alger self-made-man myth, Lapham eventually falls, in part, ironically, because he cannot betray an old-fashioned morality for the prospect of modern-day riches.  In the end, he finds a measure of social, if not economic, redemption back home on a farm in his native Vermont countryside.

This “vivid contrast” between the modern city and anti-modern countryside is the creative tension that propels the historical narrative in Poland Spring: A Tale of the Gilded Age.  Published in 2005, this cultural study by David Richards traces the transformation of a tired family farmstead into a prosperous Victorian resort during the last half of the nineteenth century.  The Ricker family cultivated a clientele consisting of “the representative people of our country,” many of whom had biographies rivaling the fictional Silas Lapham, during his rise to prominence at least.  The people of progress were partly pushed out of the city during the summertime by the heat, the pollution, the immigrant masses, the labor strife, and the general busyness of modern urban life.  They were also pulled toward the ocean, mountains, and countryside by yearnings for historical nostalgia, pastoral landscapes, and natural beauty.  Competing with the anti-urban and anti-modern allures of Gilded-Age resorts like Poland Spring were the modern values they reinforced and promoted in their roles as social mecca, therapeutic spa, and recreational playground.  Symbolizing their resort’s ultimate transformation into a “summer city,” the Ricker family had a cast off from the White City of the World’s Columbian Exposition removed to and reconstructed at Poland Spring in 1894.  The following year, the Maine State Building provided some of the modern cultural amenities expected by the leisure class – a museum, a library, and an art gallery.

In time, the people of progress came to understand, if not entirely reconcile, the “vivid contrasts” that shaped their daily lives.  The contrasts raise intriguing questions to ponder.  What is the place of nostalgia in an era marked by rampant progress?  Is it more important to be solid or fashionable?  How can morals and materialism be squared?  Where does the center of American culture and civilization reside, in the country or the city?  What is the proper balance between work and leisure, thrift and consumption, moderation and indulgence?  Where does nature end and culture begin?  Can the technological machine be accommodated in the bucolic garden?  Can the social ills of the city be whitewashed away?  Is there purity to be redeemed from pollution?  And what of the social equilibrium in a nation founded on the motto: “E Pluribus Unum”?  Can farmers and businessmen, immigrants and industrialists, natives and tourists, the sons of former slaves and slave owners truly live together in peace and unity?  These are questions that informed, and often bedeviled, the people of the Gilded Age.  Many still perplex and plague us in our own modern times, too.  The series will, therefore, ultimately explore one broad overarching question:  To what extent is the Gilded Age a tale of today?

Suggestions for Further Reading

Session One

The literary fortunes of Chicago during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are addressed in several classics of American literature.  Published in 1900, Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser explores the effect of the rootless and ruthless city on human nature in general and feminine morals in particular.  The fictional title character, Caroline Meeber, who was loosely based upon one of the author’s own sisters, is just the sort of unsophisticated country girl upon whom the real Dr. Holmes preyed.  Dreiser’s naturalist perspective on the fateful evils of urban life is further developed in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking expose of the Chicago meatpacking industry, The Jungle.  The progressive reformist worldview of Jane Addams provides a more hopeful account of the possibilities of the Windy City.  In Twenty Years at Hull House published in 1910, Addams reflects on her involvement beginning in 1889 with a settlement house that attended to the social and educational needs of a predominantly immigrant neighborhood.

Session Two

For a less colorful, more harsh view of the economic machinations of the Gilded Age, read the epic 1901 saga of western wheat, as well as the people who raise and trade in it, in The Octopus by Frank Norris.  For a broad historical survey of the Gilded Age, begin with The Search for Order by Robert Wiebe.  Still an insightful analysis despite being published in 1966, the book represents the era as one in which “island communities” became linked together by revolutions in transportation and communication, causing a complete reordering of American society and culture.  A more interdisciplinary thematic approach to the era, which includes an interesting analysis of the cultural significance of the White City, is The Incorporation of America by Alan Trachtenberg, which was published in 1982.  Both works illustrate what historian Louis Galambos referred to as the “organizational synthesis” of Gilded Age and Progressive Era historiography.  In essence, the United States was becoming truly that – united – in the aftermath of a war that according to historian Charles Beard was fought more on economic than moral or political grounds.  As a consequence, the nation moved from local and regional economies to a more fully national one.  To understand both the opportunities and dislocations caused by the transformation, consider the upheaval caused by the current “flattening” of the global economy.

Session Three

To fill out Wharton’s microscopic view of Gilded-Age New York City, start with Jacob Riis’s telescopic view of the plight of tenement residents, How the Other Half Lives.  In this classic example of the power of photojournalism published in 1890, Riis’s compelling photographs and vivid prose brought to life the squalid circumstances of the immigrant masses.  A portrait of the urban blight found in the New York Bowery, which marked a new naturalistic style of literature, was provided by Stephen Crane in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets published in 1893.  What governance and municipal services were provided in laissez-faire, Gilded-Age American cities were often the spoils of corrupt urban political machines that traded assistance for votes.  The most notorious of them all was New York City’s Tweed Ring run out of Tammany Hall.  The exploits of ward boss George Washington Plunkitt were faithfully captured by newspaperman William Riordon in Plunkitt of Tammany Hall published in 1905.

Session Four

The Rise of Silas Lapham starts out in the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches tradition.  Alger wrote prolifically, but Ragged Dick, published in 1867, is one of the earliest and most quintessential of his success stories.  For a scathing critique of the Gilded-Age American social elite, read Thorstein Veblen’s seminal 1899 study, The Theory of the Leisure Class.  Veblen coined the oft-used term “conspicuous consumption” to denote a wealth of money and time that was expended not just for economic necessity or personal pleasure, but for social status as well.  Reactionaries against the social climbing of the Laphams and social display of the leisure class are examined in No Place of Grace by Jackson Lears.  Published in 1981, this historical monograph celebrates an elite that embraced antimodernism as an antidote to the prevailing therapeutic culture of consumption.

Session Five

 An excellent narration of life at a Gilded-Age resort is provided in The Romance of the New Bethesda published in 1888.  The novel was written by Bostonian Jane

Patterson, who along with her minister husband spent many summers at Poland Spring.  Set in a fictionalized version of the resort, called New Bethesda, the book offers a perceptive account of the process of class social definition addressed by Wharton and Howells.  William Dean Howells also wrote a novel set at a resort, this one in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  The Landlord at Lion’s Head, which appeared in 1897, contrasts the rural virtues of a family farm turned summer resort with the temptations and travails of life in Boston for landlord Jeff Durgin.  Another novel of the era, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, examines resort romance with more dire consequences.  In this story published in 1899, the main character, Edna Pontellier, finds illicit love, leading to eventual tragedy, while summering at Grand Isle, Louisiana.  An outstanding historical analysis of the rise of tourism in the Northeast is Inventing New England published in 1995.  In it, Dona Brown argues that the region’s late-nineteenth-century image of pastoral virtue and rural simplicity was a cultural invention and notes the irony that this creation of the modern marketplace was presented to tourists as a retreat from modernity.

Two other topics readers may want to explore are literature of the countryside and literature of the neglected.  The Gilded Age was the moment when the “local color” genre flourished.  Nowhere was the attempt to record nostalgic values associated with the pastoral countryside, quaint seaside, and wild frontier more prevalent than in Maine.  Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sarah Orne Jewett were the most accomplished practitioners in such works as The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), Old Town Folks (1869), Deephaven (1877), and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896).  Authors largely lost to the obscurity of time are also of note.  Elijah Kellogg, a minister from Harpswell, Maine, revived colonial values and virtues in Good Old Times published in 1877.  Charles Asbury Stephens from Norway, Maine, authored an entire series of “homely romances” of “simple, wholesome outdoor life” named after his central character, the Old Squire.  Two of C. A. Stephens’s novels have connections to Poland Spring.  In A Great Year of Our Lives published in 1912, but set a half century earlier, the orphaned grandchildren of the Old Squire are sheltered by Hiram Ricker, the proprietor of the Mansion House, while on their way to adventures, some expected, some not, in the big city of Portland.  In A Busy Year at the Old Squire’s published in 1922, Stephens writes about the healing powers and economic potential of the fictional Rose-Quartz Spring, which bears some resemblance to the real one at Poland Spring.

An informative historical monograph published in 1984 about the plight of rural New England during the Gilded Age is Those Who Stayed Behind by Hal Barron.  Although most towns in northern New England lost significant numbers of their population, particularly their young people, in the decades after the Civil War, Barron argues that in the case of Chelsea, Vermont, the remaining residents, along with newcomers, were able to preserve some semblance of social and economic equilibrium.  Some places, such as Poland Spring, even prospered amidst the transformation from island community by finding new activities, like tourism, to take up the slack from declining small-scale agriculture and manufacturing.

Last but certainly not least, the neglected segments of society were not completely overlooked by authors of the day.  Abraham Cahan wrote about Jewish immigrants in stories such as Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto published in 1896 and most famously in the book The Rise of David Levinsky published in 1917. With its obvious borrowing from the title of Howells’s novel, the latter is yet another take on economic mobility in the United States.  For a perspective on the harshness of working-class life, see Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills published in 1861.  A somewhat sentimental, romanticized Native-American tale is presented by reformer Helen Hunt Jackson in Ramona.  Outraged by injustices against Indians, Jackson hoped her 1884 book would be comparable in impact to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  In the aftermath of what President Lincoln supposedly described as the great war started by the little woman, referring to Stowe, the critical debate in the African-American community was between emphases on self-help versus civil rights, between accommodation and activism.  Booker T. Washington counseled the former in Up from Slavery published in 1901, while W. E. B. DuBois advocated the latter in The Souls of Black Folk published two years later.  These are just a few suggested readings, but by no means is this meant to be an exhaustive list of the literature of the Gilded Age.