The Gilded Age in American history was the period of rapid economic growth and increased migration to the United States after the Civil War and during the time of the Reconstruction Era. The name originates from the book of Mark Twain and Charles Warner The Gilded Age, which reveals the weak sides of new differentiated American society.
It was the time when American literature and journalism proclaimed the priority of a proven fact over all other artistic values. In that time, newspapers became the fourth power in the social life of communities because they were revealing evil sides of the new economic environment. Basing on the cherished American ideal of democracy, leading independent reporters and writers were affecting the public opinion and legal response.
The new movement of “Muckrakers” was started with an objective of depicting, revealing, and proving the facts of different social injustices such as monopolization, customers’ fraud, unfair wages, children’s labor, and others. Social activity was stimulated by the formation of trade unions and social clubs. Women started working in larger proportions and started expressing their social position more openly and precisely.
Historic Background of the Gilded Age and Reconstruction Era in the USA
The Gilded Age was based on industrialization, especially on the development of heavy industry: in establishment of new factories, railroads, coal mines, etc. (Valentine & Baker 54). During this period, steel production in the United States exceeded the total production in the steel industry of Great Britain, Germany and France. The First Transcontinental Railroad in the US was opened in 1869, which made it possible to deliver cargo and passengers from the east coast to the west within six days. The total length of American Railroads tripled between 1860 and 1880, and by 1920, it increased three times more. The need to finance large industrial enterprises and railways stimulated the consolidation of capital on Wall Street. By 1900, this process led to the formation of new large corporations, monopolies, and trusts in most industries (Valentine & Baker 34).
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Mechanization of industry during the Gilded Age allowed hiring low-skilled workers who performed the same simple operations under the supervision of experienced craftsmen and engineers. Skilled workers were in demand for engineering plants. Thefore, a number of wage workers, both skilled and unskilled, and their salaries grew.
The growing need of industry for skilled labor initiated the creation of engineering colleges. In large corporations, there was a system of career growth, and employees at relatively high positions had an income equaled to the profit of owners of small businesses. Thus, the modern American economy was built in the era of the Gilded Age.
Industrialization in the US North accompanied the urbanization. Large industrial enterprises needed workers, who settled near them. The population growth was accompanied by changes in architecture and urban transport, which gave the cities a modern look. Louis Sullivan was a pioneer in the construction of skyscrapers. Railroads, subways, and trams gradually replaced horses on the city streets. For example, Elia Peattie depicts the realism of the streets in Omaha by showing a sharp difference in the level of life in areas of the rich and poor immigrants. (Peattie 29)
Newly arrived immigrants settled in the poorest urban areas. There flourished crime. Standards of living in these areas were low. Families lived in overcrowded homes. Peattie described the burning of the Polish church in one of her reportages and implied that the people were hardworking and eager to see some positive changes. However, the life conditions and the language isolation of the neighborhood stipulated the limits for the activity of people and children with curious and lively eyes (Peattie 34)
Trade unions in the Northeast, created after 1870, were urging the owners to increase wages and improve working conditions; they often resorted to strikes. The US scandals in the earlier era of Reconstruction originated from corruption of higher officials, massive bribery, and shady deals in the distribution of government contracts. Corruption in government caused a split in the ranks of the ruling Republican Party and advocated the reforms supported by a Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland.
The public was inclined to believe that government intervention in any economic activity inevitably led to corruption, favoritism, bribery, inefficiency, and waste of public funds. The ideal of the Gilded Age was a free market. Democrats opposed the US imperialism and demanded a reduction of taxes, adoption of a government policy of non-interference of the state in economic life, and termination of foreign expansion.
The Reflection of American Reality by Muckrakers
In the second half of XIX – early XX century, most of the public information came from newspaper reporters. The genre of reportage became very popular in the US press at that time (Valentine & Baker 46). The ideas of positivism in the second half of XIX early XX centuries originated from the cult of scientific knowledge, caused by the success of natural sciences. It helped to shape perceptions of objective journalism. Objectified and depersonalized reportages were presenting facts, which was an innovation.
Development of the journalistic practice contributed to the formation of different styles of reportage. They became more and more subjective, free in style and composition. In the 1890s, an interview was already a common genre in the newspapers of New York. Journalists could interview politicians, Pope, members of the British and German cabinet ministers, or foreign visitors. In 1902, a famous British journalist William Stead called the interview “a typical American invention” (Valentine & Baker 55). Application of the interview genre, built on “questions and answers”, caused a change in the status and reader’s perception of a journalist and a newspaper because the readers’ attention was drawn not only to the interviewee but also to the identity of the interviewer. An earlier impersonal journalist identified the reader with his/her newspaper and became a public figure.
New journalistic investigations and revelations, which occurred at the turn of the century, generated a considerable resentment of the Americans and Europeans. Powerful associations and groups that were controlling entire sectors of the national economy were formed. It led to a restriction of free competition. Activities of large corporations and trusts were often accompanied by violations of laws, consumer fraud, and bribery of public officials.
At that time, the United States reporters formed the direction of journalism. They set out to fight against social evils by investigating abuses and bringing them to public attention. They called themselves Muckrakers (Valentine & Baker 61). According to them, exposing the evil could help people understand the essence and root cause of their problems, encourage openness to change, and create social prerequisites for reforms that would put an end to the tyranny, corruption, and fraud. They considered that the ideals of justice and honor have a social force multiplier-effect. Muckrakers were the journalists and writers who were not related to any single ideological program or political party but were united by a common struggle against corruption as well as a moral decay of the state bureaucracy and the business community.
On the pages of popular magazines, Muckrakers exposed the criminal methods of formation of many large business entities in the US, which that had been put together by means of deception, murder and intimidation of competitors, bribes to authorities, fraud, and robbery of workers. One of the consequences of such publications was an intensification of the social movement for the improvement of labor legislation.
Many Muckrakers focused on exposing the actions of large companies and cases of cheating customers and consumers. For example, they revealed the illegal activity of the railway companies, meat trusts, insurance agencies, and distributors of proprietary medical potions. Another consequence of large-scale muckrakers’ revelations was the adoption of the law on rail regulation, a legal “Act of clean foods and beverages.” (Valentine & Baker 77).
The publications of the magazine “Cosmopolitan” and other magazines raised the topic of child labor. Featuring the terrible conditions in which children were forced to work triggered an establishment of civilian groups advocating for legal prohibition of child’s labor. Under their pressure, a relevant bill was sent to the Congress.
A realistic exposure was the purpose of the Muckrakers’ careful work. A meticulous search, analysis, verification, and documentation of facts were mandatory. It was not only the preparation for the possible defending in court in response to allegations of defamation. Muckrakers sought to assert their creativity to strict ethical standards in journalism and that way distanced themselves from an unscrupulous practice of “yellow journalism.” (Valentine & Baker 79).
Cooperation with editorial boards of mass magazines, who inherited many of the traditional features of literary magazines of the past, required the new realism excellence. The work of many literary workers varied thorough literary treatment. In conjunction with unconditional social significance, it contributed to the transformation of the best works of modern classical writers in investigative journalism and revelations.
Depicting Realism in the novel The Gilded Age
The novel The Gilded Age was one of Mark Twain’s early experiences in the field of social satire. In artistic terms, almost all what the author created in that period was characterized by the dominant role of American humor (Fulton 21).
American humor, born from folklore, reflected the life and customs of the primitive, mostly farming civilization and originated from the harsh struggle for existence. The folk music reflected rich grotesque images of cruelty and savagery depicting real life. The humor, based on the same basis, was “cruel” as well. Impudence of literature and journalism of that time reflected the impudence of the surrounding life, licentiousness, and bourgeois, who were exercising the right of the strong. The optimism was aggressive and sharply individualistic. Farmers, artisans, merchants, and miners were colorful hobo people of the American West. They lived in hope of success, which was about to come. Explosions of the coarse laughter mitigated the groans and complaints of the weak people, dying in everyday struggle for life. It is sufficient to say that, in the poetics of American humor, murder was a source of comic situations.
Two popular techniques of the narrative dominated among the American humorists. The first was grotesque exaggeration – hyperbole, tending to the comic absurdity. The second was a blatant omission developed on the comic effect of a mismatch. A character of one of the stories of early Twain, who was not pleased with watchmaker, triumphantly told: “I’ll reveal his skull and bury him at his own expense. ” Another example is the following line: “I killed him like a viper, and ripped off his scalp with pleasure” (Fulton 66). It was a bootblack. Neither the watchmaker nor the bootblack deserved such a cruel punishment, and the narrator was bloodthirsty blowhard in those passages (Fulton 67).
Neither by education nor by the circumstances of life, was young Twain prepared to become a critic of the bourgeois society. He created the image of “American simpleton,” in which a democratic trend combined with an uncritical view of bourgeois ideals reflected the ideological difficulties of the young writer. He could not still distinguish a democratic position of the bourgeois American workers from the point of view of the American capitalist entrepreneurs.
The novel The Gilded Age appeared as a joint work of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, a lawyer and a writer of liberal direction. In those years, the latter was a more famous and accomplished author than young Twain. The proportion of Twain’s and Warner’s contributions to the novel were about equal. Twain described the Hawkins family story and their convergence with Col. Sellers, the collapse of navigation on the Columbia River, Union Laura and Col. Sellers Senator Dilworthy, and a satirical picture of the American capital. He also depicted the backstage intrigues and machinations in connection with the fictitious bill of Negro University. Finally, a wide panorama of political mores in the United States also belonged to Mark Twain (Fulton 67).
The main effect of The Gilded Age developed in the late 60s and early 70s of the XIX century. After the Civil War, the United States became an example of unrestricted and encouraged by the government business. The private capitalist enterprises showed to the world unseen patterns of political bribery and commercial robbery. Getting to the novel, Twain was no longer quite a novice in the political satire. Back in Nevada, he ridiculed the failure and corruption of local politicians. In San Francisco, he denounced the abuse of municipal authorities and the police.
In 1868, Twain spent some time in Washington, working as a secretary of a senator from Nevada, William Stewart, and wrote, “As I was elected governor, I saw the true story of the great beef contract” and other stories in this series. Later, in a letter to his wife on July 8, 1870, Twain said that he visited Washington again: “I went to the Senate, and sat there until half past ten, had just returned to the hotel. I have material for the whole book. The rich live!” (Fulton 69). Political Biography of Senator Pomeroy of Kansas, whom Twain met this time in Washington, was useful for the intended Senator Dilworthy.
The reliability of socio-political material raised by Mark Twain was not in doubt. A scam with the construction of a non-existent city of Napoleon as well as a bill to the mythical Negro University depicted in The Gilded Age were the typical examples of countless American financial frauds in those years.
American Realism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Fill
On the title page of the first edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it is stated: “Time of action is forty or fifty years ago.” (Fulton 72). The book captures the life of the American 40-ies of the XIX century; it was published in two decades after the Civil War.
Huck Finn, a homeless beggar, a well known friend of Tom Sawyer, ran away from St. Petersburg. He escaped from Finn’s father, who battered him, and a gracious Widow Douglas, who decided to convert Huck to civilization. The boy ran away together with Negro Jim, who flew from a landlady intending to sell him and forever separate from his family. Huck and Jim planned to get to Ohio on a raft and then go to the North, to the “free states” where Jim would get freedom. Along the way, they experienced many adventures.
However, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were deprived of the effulgence of Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Spiritual purity of the characters was shaded by the gloomy pictures of life of the society around them. A sharp antithesis of the story, the opposition of the poor, and disinterest of Huck and Jim to the rapists and rascals made the poetry of the great river dirty “as tar” towns on its coasts. The book revealed the emergence of new critical views on American life, both on its past and its present.
The problem of slavery, which the story revealed, was so important due to the fact that Huck hided a black servant. Twain knew the psychology of slavery from inside from his early childhood and transmitted it in a single stroke, unmistakably:
“- Lord has mercy! Anybody hurt?
– No, ma’am. A Negro was killed.
– Well, it’s lucky you are not. And sometimes that hurts someone” (Twain 48)
A small raft on the Mississippi, on which a homeless beggar and a slave float ran away, became a focal point of truly human relations in the midst of environmental hypocrisy, cruelty, and deceit.
One of the central episodes of the story related to the scam, which involved Grounded Huck and Jim on their raft and two rogue, “King” and “The Duke” as they call themselves. In an unnamed town on the Mississippi, they acted as self-appointed heirs of the deceased tanner Wilkes. In the center of the action was a bag of gold. However, those were not the gold coins that were associated in the book of Tom Sawyer with the game of boys who were enchanted with the search for treasure. That gold was the knot of bourgeois property relations. It created deception, sorrow, and tears.
Autobiographical material in the book about Huck played a significant role, although less significant than in the book about Tom. In the XXI chapter, Twain broke its social panorama and concluded the book by invention of a new game called “Escape from Slavery”(Fulton 88). Jim, in fact, had already received his freedom but did not know about that and believed himself to be a fugitive.
Both Huck and Jim Negro’s artistic characteristics belong to the best creations of Mark Twain. Satire and humor in the book about the adventures of the beggar and slave implied much social and psychological content. In the image of the national life and the American nature, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” written by Mark Twain in the popular language was an outstanding achievement of American literature and largely determined the development of realistic journalism in the muckrakers’ movement.
Since the mid of 1890s, Mark Twain experienced bitterness and despair, which sharply contrasted the existing for a long time laughing and humorist tone of the author. It turned out that he became one of the truly tragic figures of the American culture. In those years, Twain accumulated destroying judgments about the bourgeois way of life, religion, and morality. He started the preface to his Autobiography with the words: “From the grave.” (Fulton 94). The views and sentiments of the late Twain were not surprising. They had been developed in the light of his personal experience and under the influence of social and political facts surrounding his social life.
Originating from the poor, after the success of The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain married Olivia Langdon. She was a daughter of wealthy colliery owners, and in that way Twain joined the circle of American “respectable” bourgeoisie. It helped the young writer to take the first steps in an unusual for him role of a wealthy man. In later years, he was involved in a lifestyle that required ever-increasing income (Fulton 91).
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Gradual earnings from books ceased to satisfy Twain, and he began to look for an entrepreneurial activity that promised big profits. He founded his own publishing company, which was successful the first time. He also invested a lot of money in a printing press, which was presumed to have been a coup in the book business. However, Mark Twain failed to oppose his natural disgust of the bourgeoisie and materialistic values of the Gilded Age.
American literature had never seen such a broad satire teeming with bright, convincing, and detailed pictures of predation in private capital sector and the expansion of political power in the United States. The title of the novel The Gilded Age spearheaded against unbridled capitalism. The end of the 70s and early 80s of the XIX century were an important milestone in the history of the United States and in the American public life. A deal of the northern capitalists with the propertied classes of the southern states sharply limited the general democratic achievements of the Civil War and formally brought the proclaimed equality of the Black. The American city and the American village increasingly experienced the oppression of capital. Twain’s position in those years was not anti-capitalist, but it initiated a steadily growing critical attitude towards the bourgeois system and the sprouts of muckrakers’ movement, which led to a new realism depiction of the most prosperous times of the American economy development.