New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905
by Rebecca Edwards
For the classroom, reading groups, and individual readers, the following questions are designed to stimulate thought and debate about the book.
1. New Spirits tells, in brief, the stories of many famous and ordinary Americans who lived between 1865 and 1905. Identify two or three such individuals who strike you as interesting or compelling. What themes or ideas do their lives represent for you? Do they exemplify the era, and if so, how? Did you find any heroes in this book? If so, what qualities in them did you find heroic, and why?
2. The Civil War cast a long shadow over the decades that followed. Mark Twain called it an “ennobling war” (see the introduction), while JosÚ MartÝ described it as a “corrupting war” that bred a “habit of authority and domination” (see the introduction to Part III). To what extent do you think each of these views was accurate, and why? What legacies, both positive and negative, did it leave for Americans who came of age after it ended?
3. Economic thinker Joseph Schumpeter famously described capitalism as a process of “creative destruction.” In what ways did such processes operate in the United States between 1865 and 1905? How did they impact work and daily experience? Women’s rights? Sexuality and family life? Religion and culture? Politics? In what ways do you see this “creative destruction” as having positive or negative consequences?
4. What kinds of violent conflict did Americans engage in between 1865 and 1905? What were the sources of this violence, and how did it shape relationships among Americans and between America and the world? (Note: See a timeline of conflicts. It covers only public, large-scale episodes of violence; other forms, like domestic violence, were more hidden, but you may still want to take them into consideration.)
5. In the introduction, the author explains where the term Gilded Age came from and why she refrains from using it. Here and elsewhere she suggests alternatives, such as the “long Progressive Era” and the “paleotechnical era.” She also employs several metaphors to describe the period, including the theme of fire in the introduction; Henry George’s wedge in the introduction to Part I; and the telephone exchange in the introduction to Part II. Which of these terms and metaphors seem most useful? What would you call this era, and why?
6. Thomas Frank is one of many American commentators who have described the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century as a “new Gilded Age.” Does such a comparison make sense to you? Why or why not? (You may see no parallels—or see them in very different ways than Frank does—but for his comparison see “The New Gilded Age,” in Commodify Your Dissent, ed. Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland [New York, 1997], 23-28.)
7. New Spirits emphasizes the racial and cultural diversity of the American working class, which was drawn from the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia and included people of many colors, religions, and languages. What were the consequences of this diversity for the labor movement, for the economy, and for society and culture? What are its legacies today? If you have an interest in world history, you might want to do some additional reading and compare societies where the workforce has been largely imported (for example, Brazil and the United States) with those having highly homogenous, indigenous populations (for example, Japan and Scandinavia). How has immigration—whether forced or voluntary, or both—or lack of immigration shaped the histories of these nations?
8. Former US diplomat George Kennan, an iconoclastic thinker, has remarked that he has “a great distrust of the monster nations, where there is the exertion of political authority over millions of people from a given center…. I think they are dangerous to themselves, as well as to everybody else. … You lose all real, intimate connection between the source of national power and the people themselves. For this reason, I feel that our own country has to be decentralized.” Kennan proposes that the United States be divided up into “something like a dozen constituent republics.” (“The Provocateur,” The New Yorker, November 13, 2000, p. 100.) Using Kennan’s idea, imagine a counter-history of the United States in which the Confederacy had maintained its independence and additional republics, perhaps starting in the West, had also broken away. Would the political, economic, and social results have been beneficial or harmful, and to whom? How might slavery have eventually ended? How might these “constituent republics” have responded to events in the 20th century? What relations might they have with one another today?
© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press