Sunday, April 21, 2013

Question for the audience

A question for the audience: Where do you draw the line between historical fact and artistic license? This question comes up most in discussions about films with historical themes, such as JFK or Lincoln, but the same discussion also applies to books. I admit I am a purest on this question and feel historical facts, as we can understand them, are always more interesting and colorful than fabricating information to add color. Edmund Morris's Dutch, a biography of Ronald Reagan, famously added characters that allowed the author the ability to provide some additional perspective.  Morris felt this allowed him to tell a better story. Like many, I feel adding fictional material to what is purported to be an historical account (as biographies are) damages the integrity of the final product. In Dead Certainties Simon Schama tells two stories. One is the death of General Wolfe during the British conquest of Quebec in 1759, and the second is a murder mystery revolving around the death of George Parkman, uncle to historian Francis Parkman. The historian Parkman is the only thing tying the two sections of the book together. In this case Schama  identifies his book as a novella, but he weaves verifiable fact with fiction. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this work, but I still wonder what was real and what was not. Currently, I am reading William F. Buckley's Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater, an account of the conservative movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the introduction Buckley refers to the work as "reliable" but adds that it is "not strictly factual" (both quotes are from page xi). In essence, Buckley feels he has the spirit of the times, but takes liberty in writing conversations (although he defends himself in stating that these words fit the character of the orator as the author understood it). One wonders, though, where to draw the line in using this book for classes, research, etc. I almost put down Flying High, but decided to continue reading it because it is enjoyable. On the historical side, I will take the broadest message from it. Of course, works labeled historical fiction are a totally different beast. It makes no pretense to historical accuracy, even though many historical events are portrayed accurately in such works. I do find historical fiction a valuable tool to understanding the past. I believe that examining other possible outcomes to real events helps better understand what actually did happen.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Top 10 Gilded Age Primary Sources

Here are my top 10 favorite primary sources of the Gilded Age (1877-1900). Please let me know your

1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907). The grandson and great grandson of presidents, Adams had no use of an age that pushed him to the side with no afterthought. His "education" was in learning his place in this new and ever changing world. This very personal quest combined with the author's sharp and cutting wit give The Education its value as an historical text. On the hand, it also explains the book's serious limitations. For a lack of a better phrase it is full of piss and vinegar and has very little positive to say on the age or many of the people in it. In that sense it is like reading Allen Nevins's biography of Hamilton Fish or Matthew Josephson's, The Robber Barons in that for all their insights, all you come away thinking after reading them, is thank God I did not live between 1877 and 1900.

2. Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick (1868).  Classic pull-yourself-up-from-the-boot-straps stuff. The poor are poor because they deserve to be. One has to work to succeed, as it should be. Perseverance, thrift, and constant improvement are the themes. Alger's success as a single theme writer demonstrates the power of that theme during this period.

3. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888). I know, another less than surprising pick. Bellamy uses fiction to depict a futuristic utopian society. I did not find this particularly good fiction and the romance scenes were clumsy at best, but it inspired thousands of Americans to join "Bellamy Clubs" to advocate for deep political and social reform.

4. Andrew Carnegie, "Wealth" (1889). In this article he wrote for the North American Review, Carnegie argues that the wealthy are the trustees of the national wealth who have an obligation to provide an example of good living to the population, and should use their wealth to provide opportunity, or "build ladders," as he phrases it, for the poor. He also argues on the positive nature of the economy and how driving prices ever lower is good for the consumer. Social Darwinism creeps into this essay, when he declares that while the economic systems of the time might be harsh for the individual, it is beneficial for the race.

5. The Diary and Letters of Rutherford B. Hayes (online edition ). Although Hayes is not regarded as one of the greatest luminaries of our nation's highest office, he left an extensive diary that offers insights into the role of the presidency during the Gilded Age, including some important events, such as the massive railroad strike of 1877.

6. Francis Parkman, "The Woman Question" in the North American Review (1879). Wonder why it took so long for women to gain the right to vote? Read this to understand the mindset of those who opposed it. Parkman declares women are unfit by nature because they are always sick. This is the height of gall coming from a hypochondiac who suffered from many maladies of his own (and quite possibly all psychosomatic in nature). Nonetheless, it is a good example of the anti-suffrage position written by an oterwise very intelligent man.

7. Josaih Strong, Our Country (1885). Nothing captures social Darwinist thinking as well as this work. Strong ties a trait to every race (all of the bad of course) and makes a case why they should not be admitted to the United States.

8. Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890). Riis, a Danish immigrant, lugged his bulky camera through the slums of New York City snapping photographs of the urban poor in their dingy tenements, at work, drinking, in the midst of crime, and other scenes that would have shocked the American middle class. The photographs dwarf the text and always make good discussion points in the classroom. This book should be paired with Stephen Crane's, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1896) for extra umph.

9. Mark Twain. Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). It is hard to pick out a Twain novel for this list, as they all have a claim. Not to mention that the era acquired its derogatory name from the title of one of his novels. I selected this one because the Gilded Age celebrated its inventors, and, in this work, Twain questions technological improvement. Even Bellamy sees technology as a positive force, but Twain is one of the first to question it, in his own unique way.

10. Mark Twain. "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895). In this North American Review article, Twain savagely mocks the literary style of America's first great novelist. I like Cooper (as I do Twain) and I still find this work to be hilariously funny. Yet, it captures the rebellious spirit of the naturalist and realist authors of the latter part of the Gilded Age.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Top 10 histories of the GAPE (Gilded Age and Progressive Era)

Inspired by a series in the Guardian, which I stumbled across this past weekend, I am initiating a series of my top 10 lists. Granted these will reflect my own interests and make no attempt at providing a definitive list all historians could agree on. Still, I would love to hear any feedback you have. If there is something I missed, please let me know so I can check it out.

I tried to create a separate list for each era, but kept stumbling over those histories that crossed the period. Thus, I decided to make one list. It was not easy. In the future I will make a separate list for biographies, African-American, and environmental history.

1) Alan Dawley, Changing the World (2003). This is one of my absolute favorites. I like how it places World War I at the center of the story, instead of at the end, as is done in most books on the subject of the Progressive Era. He argues that the Progressives sought social justice, a revitalized public life, and an improved world. It was an ambitious and global movement. World War I presented certain challenges and opportunities, and, as Dawley argues, it led to significant changes within progressivism, which emerges, in his words, tougher and leaner. Of course, the meat of the book is an excellent history of how this happened.

2) Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955). Still love this story of a reform movement driven by middle class angst. If nothing else, it should be read to understand the subsequent historiography of the period, which is often a response to Hofstadter.

3) James Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory (1986). This deep, sweeping transAtlantic study connects emerging progressive politics and emerging ideas centered on pragmatism in such an impressive way. It was a tough call as James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution (1994) and Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings (1998) are also excellent works in the same category.

4) Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent (2003). McGerr sees progressivism as a radical movement that while focused on the needs of individuals, sought to transform society.  While there were numerous success stories, the movement ultimately failed in its bold mission.

5) Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (2001). There are a ton of good books that examine the emergence of modernism in the late 19th century. Menand shows how the Civil War shaped the thought of such important figures as William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Their thought (and that of many others I did not mention) subsequently became the prevailing conventional wisdom. The key part is that they did not shape their ideas in solitude; instead, they debated, discussed, and often disagreed with one another. As a side note, I do like this theme of the Civil War casting a long shadow over the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and feel it could use some additional work. On this theme, I recommend Richard Bensel, Yankee Leviathan (1990), on the growth of the state, and  Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation (2009) on how the understanding of the war as violent regeneration shaped the society and politics of the GAPE.

6) Sidney Miksis, Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy (2009). Miksis makes the case that the Progressive Party was a real political movement (meaning it was not a vanity campaign by Theodore Roosevelt) and played a critical role in breaking down party loyalty and ushering in the era of issue politics. I would pair this with Peri Arnold, Remaking the Presidency (2009), which discusses how Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson governed in this period of transition from party rule to issues.

7) Roy Rosensweig, Eight Hours for What we Will (1983). I admit I am not not very big on social history, but this book speaks to me. What is freedom after all? If you think it includes having your own free time that you alone control, this books will speak to you as well. The concept of "Eight hours for what we will" (with 8 for sleeping and 8 for work to round out the 24 hour day) is critical to the emergence of the consumer economy, which was one of the major changes to emerge from the GAPE. Rosenzweig also touches on such themes as immigration, urbanization, and politics.

8) Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers (1992). Skocpol traces the origins of the welfare state to the post-Civil War pension systems and the manner in which benefits were expanded in terms of scope and eligibility. Contrary to Western European paternalist systems that provided benefits to working men, the United States developed a maternalist system that sought to provide benefits to mothers in need.

9) Mark Wahlgren Summers, The Era of Good Stealings (1993) and Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion (2000). Ok, I cheated by naming two, but I could not make up my mind. Summers deals with Gilded Age politics better than anyone else. In the first title, he exams the role of corruption in the Gilded Age political economy, and argues that it was more stated than real. In other words, better to slander your enemies with than to prove. The second is one of the best campaign analysis I have ever read.

10) Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order (1967). Still a favorite of mine. Wiebe describes how urbanization, the railroads, industrialization, and an emerging middle class transformed the United States from a series autonomous localities, to one nation, and one marketplace.

Honorable Mentions:

1) Gregory J. Dehler, Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age Politician and President (2007). Ok, it is my book, but it is also my blog.

and more seriously:

2) Burton Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism (1976). Bledstein shows how the growing professionalization, standardization of practice, and education improved the delivery and quality of services. This ranges anywhere from historians to medical doctors to civil engineers. It was one of the more important trends of the Gilded Age, as quacks were driven out of practice, and a greater reliance on science dramatically improved lives. This is always a big part of my lecture on the Gilded Age.