- New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865–1905
When describing the period in American history between the end of the Civil War and the nation’s entry into World War I, historians generally divide it into two sections—The Gilded Age (roughly 1865 to 1890) and the Progressive Era (1890 to around 1920). The first is characterized by rapid economic growth, the rise of big business, and instances of government corruption, while the latter is seen as a period of reform and increased government activism. In her engaging and highly readable book New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, Rebecca Edwards seeks to shift the focus away from this dichotomy and instead emphasize the continuities of this period. By examining the broad themes across these decades, Edwards offers strong support for her contention that this period should be viewed as a “long [End Page 858] Progressive Era,” as well as her main argument that the latter part of the nineteenth century ushered in a fundamentally modern era in America.
Designed as a textbook for upper-level undergraduate history courses, New Spirits is divided into three sections. The main theme of the first section (“The Wedge”) traces the economic changes of the period, and includes chapters on the legacy of the Civil War, the rise of big business, the changes experienced by workers, and the growing gulf between rich and poor. The second section (“The Exchange”) examines how economic growth affected America’s youth, and led to new attitudes toward sexuality, family life, and religion. The final section (“The Fires”) focuses on the depression of the 1890s and its aftermath, and addresses the growth of reform movements and populism, and the rise of an American empire. Written primarily from a social and cultural perspective, New Spirits is filled with information on a wide array of topics within the broader themes, and overall the material is strongly substantiated and presented so that the connections and continuity over time are clear to the reader.
Although written primarily for college students, Edwards’ fluid writing style and especially her extensive use of engaging anecdotes and stories make this book of great interest to experienced scholars seeking a fresh perspective on this critical period in American history. Of particular interest are the chapters focused on the social and cultural changes, which incorporate the latest scholarship and present the material with a thoroughness and insight not found in similar surveys. Similarly, Edwards goes beyond the traditional discussions of race and class to include the experiences of ethnic groups (including native Americans, Chinese, and Mexicans), and in doing so includes the entire nation in her narrative—not just the industrial North.
One drawback of trying to address the multitude of changes that occurred in this forty-year period in just over 300 pages is that some topics receive more attention than others. This unevenness of coverage is evident in Edwards’ treatment of big business. Chapter 2 examines this subject, but does so by focusing on improvements in transportation and communication, and primarily from the perspective of how this affected different social groups. The reasons for the rise of corporations are dealt with only nominally, and discussion of the need for government regulation is addressed briefly at the end of the book. While adequate for the target audience, advanced students of business history will find the overall treatment wanting. Another issue is the lack of citations, which makes it difficult to follow up on particular quotes or of interesting points. This shortcoming, however, is mitigated by a useful list of suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter, and a companion website filled with [End Page 859] additional material and useful timelines by topic and decade. Overall, these concerns do not outweigh the contributions that New Spirits brings to our understanding of the late-nineteenth century, and it is a worthy addition to the list of “required readings” for students and scholars interested in this period.