So the idea I had for myself, to give myself some reading structure is based on finding a review for this history and adding some fiction to supplement it.
I love the Gilded Age, and I think it’s incredibly weird and interesting of a time period. We know a lot about the world and culture of the Gilded Age because it’s the same world that inhabits all the Wild West novels and movies, it’s the world post-Civil War, and it’s the cultural ethos that leads to Nationalism present in the Chicago World’s Fair. So even works like The Devil in the White City and Bioshock: Infinite so heavily from this time period.
But other than Teapot Dome Scandal, how much history can you think of right off the top of your head about it?
So my plan is to take this Oxford US History series and read it and then read a book that occurs in this time period and one written from within this time period. And then also review the history book itself.
The structure of the book is mostly a broad perspective and focusing on large government policies, largescale events, and preseidents. Then at times, it narrows down to individual stories as representative of these broader themes. It also focuses on wider themes to group events. Each of the 23 chapters begins with a several page introduction that distills the main push of the chapter or defines the concept.
So this book starts with Reconstruction and talks about it from within the South and West of the Mississippi as two distinct versions of the same push…the rebuilding and expansion of the Union after the Civil War. This book would not work for you if you can’t truck with the idea that the US talks a big democratic game without walking that game too.
One of the more interesting things I came across in the early section of the book is that the rhetoric discussing what to do with freed Blacks and poor Whites in the aftermath of the Southern surrender is eerily similar to the discussions about White economic anxiety versus Social Justice for Black and Brown people in the US. The same kind of rhetoric, the same kind of talk, and the same basic (fake) anxiety.
All in all a few threads showed up that were really interesting….even though I ended up skimming chunks of it…I will explain later….one, there’s a real push to always frame the feelings of white America over anyone who isn’t.
This book is a synthesis of many sources, as all histories are, but more so this is a history of histories. And as I found myself familiar with more than a few of the source books (Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Limerick and Destiny of the Republic by Candance Millard among others) I was going over well-tread ground, and because the author kept going back to what felt like odd choices as backbone text like a William Dean Howells biography for one, I kept getting a little bored. It was weird to keep checking in with Howells about every little thing. If you are well-versed, not in history exactly, but in westward expansion and New Americanist texts, this book might be too familiar. Otherwise, it’s thematic spirals into progressive history might work for you. It’s not bad at all, to be clear.
So the first of XXXXXX representative texts:
Showboat by Edna Ferber 3/5 stars
Showboat is a weird book. It was written in 1924 and one dumb reviewer called it a “Gone With the Wind” wannabe…an impressive feat given that it came out a decade before…the two books do have parallels (spoiler alert – this book is better). Both deal with a a reeling South after the war, both deal with a panoply of roguish characters, and romance and soapiness. But only one is a mouthpiece for vile racist bullshit…I forget which one though….and one, while being truly vile has the temerity to be 1000 pages….I forget which one though. Showboat isn’t devoid of weird little racist moments, but it does have the self-respect to put those in the voice of characters instead of mainly the narrator.
This book is a classic kind of three generations of a family in a particular field being a way to tell the story of a time and a place….the Mississippi river in the decades after the Civil War through the experiences and geographical positioning of Show Boat performers/crewspeople. There’s not much of a story, so much as a cast of characters, and the story is mostly soap opera. That’s ok. It has charm. It’s interesting.
What it most reminds me of, in much less Gothic ways is “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn and “Swamplandia” by Karen Russell, neither of which I am the biggest fan of, but it has the same kind of plot structure. It wouldn’t surprise me if Dunn had this book in some kind of mind when she wrote hers, and Russell definitely stole everything she could from Dunn, so she can get credit too.