- The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America
Ten years ago, Charles W. Calhoun edited a collection of fourteen synthetic essays that provided a broad analysis of the major political, economic, and social trends of the Gilded Age. His new anthology, which reprints most of the original essays along with three others that consider the impact of technology, race, consumerism, and intellectual life in the late nineteenth century, is even more comprehensive. Although the subtitle of the new edition of The Gilded Age substitutes "perspectives" for "essays," Calhoun's viewpoint remains the same, namely that historians have too readily accepted the contemporaneous caricature of the era first offered by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. According to Calhoun, historians fail to appreciate the period as one of "substantial accomplishment," an era that had "a lasting impact" on the emergence of modern America in the twentieth century (pp. 1–2).
Calhoun's positive spin on the era's achievements is at times at odds with the conclusions offered by the contributors. For example, in his summary of Eric Arnesen's essay "American Workers and the Labor Movement in the Late Nineteenth Century," Calhoun notes the problems that working people in America experienced as a result of the introduction of large-scale, mechanized production, in particular their greater dependence on the wage system of labor. Nevertheless, he concludes that acceptance of the "bread-and-butter" unionism of the Samuel Gompers–led American Federation of Labor (AFL) over the earlier "reformist" response of the Knights of Labor presaged labor's greater success in the twentieth century. For Calhoun, all's well that ends well.
Arnesen's account of the human and social costs of capitalist industrialization is not so sanguine, however. He argues that the AFL's exclusionary tendencies favored skilled white workers at the expense of immigrant, black, and women workers and that even though the AFL scored significant advances at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, workers in the dynamic industrial core remained unorganized. Citing the battles fought and lost by Eugene V. Debs and other labor radicals during the 1890s, Arnesen suggests a less rosy future than does Calhoun: "As long as the fundamental sources of workers' grievances persisted, the labor question that claimed so prominent a place on the nation's agenda in the Gilded Age remained unresolved" (p. 70).
The collection's view of the Gilded Age as a time of tremendous progress is no more positively conveyed than in W. Bernard Carlson's essay, "Technology and America as a Consumer Society, 1870–1900." Carlson begins the piece by invoking Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward: [End Page 274] 2000–1887 as an example of the embrace of technology and progress by late-nineteenth-century Americans. Although Bellamy celebrated efficiency, he was convinced that free-market capitalism was undermining American democratic society, and his vision of a technological utopia required a fundamental alteration of the prevailing social and economic arrangements of late-nineteenth-century America. Although Carlson concedes that in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873 and the great rail strikes of 1877 Gilded Age Americans may have become aware that "their world was being radically altered," in the end they remained optimistic, concluding that "technology was not the cause of their troubles but rather the solution to their problems" (p. 48).
Yet, in recounting the many "improvements" wrought by new inventions and the new business organization, Carlson minimizes the loss of skill and the danger in the industrial workplace and, even more, the classic battles that made the era a contested terrain. Finally, one is left wondering how it was that, if everything was as well-managed and efficient as Carlson recounts, Frederick Winslow Taylor, the "father" of scientific management, found the workplaces of late-nineteenth-century America controlled by what Taylor termed "systematic soldiering," or workers' output quotas.
Even if I hold a somewhat more pessimistic view of what happened in America during the...