Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Book Review: (Finishing up) The Gilded Age


So, I decided to sit down and finish this collection of essays about post-Civil War America. I was a little disappointed with the last selections. The next one up, for instance, Lewis Gould's "The Republican Search for a National Majority" is primarily just a booster piece extolling various things that the early GOPers accomplished. The tone made me a bit suspicious of the author's intentions, and then I got to this:
"Dissappointed Democrats have persuaded historians that Republicans in 1896 used economic coercion and vote frauds to swell McKinley's total. This explanation ignores both the relative honesty of American national elections following the adoption of the Australian ballot, and the continuation of Republican majorities for thirty years after 1896."

The author obviously lives in some sort of strange parallel universe where the urban political machines didn't exist.  And while McKinley's campaign didn't rely on the machine system for money, it did take in a huge amount of cash from capitalism's new elite. Not to say that votes were being bought outright, but private money was used for the first time to build up the candidate by hiring professional travelling orators, as well as the usual tactic of distributing printed material.

Hooray for money!
(Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

The next essay was even more reactionary. Paul S. Holbo wrote his "Economics, Emotion, and Expansion: An Emerging Foreign Policy" to refute a specific 1920s historian, Charles A. Beard, who by the 1970s wasn't taken seriously, anyway. You really have to be into the minutiae of the ongoing tariff battle between the Republicans and Democrats to be interested. I skimmed through the dry words of this one, looking for odd bits of trivia.
 "In 1891, for example, the House Democrats introduced a series of 'pop-gun bills,' which had no chance to pass the Republican Senate but kept the Cleveland policy of free raw materials before the public."
Putting aside the fun nomenclature of "pop-gun bills," the author makes an interesting point about Social Darwinists not wanting to get involved in expansionism. Those savages in the jungles of the Philippines or Hawaii just wouldn't be able to handle democracy.

AND Hawaii is ruled by a woman! another threat to democracy!
(Linn's Stamp News)

The next bit, "The Writer's Search for Reality" by Robert Falk, is a pedestrian essay which holds up William Dean Howells, Mark Twain and Henry James as the holy triumvirate of the era's literature. He doesn't really have anything to say about them, outside of the obvious move toward "naturalism."
"In an informal poll taken by some British scientists in the 1930's, Sir Isaac Newton was rated the greatest scientist to appear since the Renaissance. Charles Darwin's name was second on the list, and Michael Faraday and Albert Einsten tied for third place. The fourth highest was an American: Josiah Willard Gibbs, professor of mathematical physics at Yale from 1871 until his death in 1903."
Paul F. Boller, Jr.'s essay on "The New Science and American Thought" is a vast improvement. It's a loving look at all the forgotten men of science that contributed so much to our ability to understand the universe, while living in a country that expressed a fear of evolutionary theory. Darwin, of course, had help from many American naturalists and fossil hunters. We also had the amazing William James, who tried to point out that religion and science fulfill two different needs of the human psyche.

Robert E. Roberts has the trying task of describing "Popular Culture and Public Taste" in just a few pages. It's not really possible and he ends up flying quickly through circuses, tent revivals and dime novels. This was a ridiculous decision for the editor to make, shoe-horning in the cultural context of a few decades into a small essay at the end of the book. If the whole point of this project was to refute a few liberal political theories about the time period, then that should have been made clear at the beginning. Don't call your anthology "The Gilded Age" and then spend only two paragraphs on minstrel shows. Which brings me to one of my favorite understated sentences, anywhere:
"The stock Negro character of the stage bore little resemblance to any actual person."
Thanks guys!

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