Janet R Stafford

The Gilded Age




I am getting closer to publishing SEEING THE ELEPHANT. While I’m still not completely satisfied with the dialog in a few places, I will be giving my beta readers copies to peruse and comment upon. So we’re getting there, and if all goes well, the book will finally be published in September. It’s a big son-of-a-gun, so have your reading glasses on hand.


Now, on to the conversation of the day.


In 1873, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published a book that became the name of an era: The Gilded Age.  This period, generally believed to be between 1870 and 1900, was marked by rapid industrialization, economic growth, and immigration, most notably in the North and West. While wages for the average worker rose, there was nonetheless also a remarkably unequal distribution of wealth.


Twain and Dudley’s book is set in the United States at the very beginning of the Gilded Age. Marvin Felheim[i], who wrote the introduction to my yellowed paperback copy of the book, notes that the story’s primary criticism was focused on “the greed and lust – for land, for money, for power – of an alliance of Western land speculators, Eastern capitalists, and corrupt officials who dominated the society and appreciably altered its character.”[ii] He goes on to say:


The “Gilded Age” was a “peaceful” era following the horrors of the Civil War. The North, industrialized and righteous, had won. One consequence was the westward extension of institutions representing its victorious value system. Expansion was in the air. Capital was available and bankers were looking avidly for investments. The West, with all its rich potentialities, both of wealth and adventure, lay ready to be exploited. Colonel Sellers’ [a principle character] ambitious schemes were not merely the idle dreams of a satirist’s euphoric imagination: they represented the hopes and beliefs of a nation.[iii]


However, there was a dark side to all this growth and expansion. It was an alarming disparity in income and wealth. According to Steve Fraser:


By the midpoint of the Gilded Age about 4000 families owned as much wealth as the remaining 11.6 million. Two hundred thousand individuals controlled between 70 and 80 percent of the nation’s property. The arithmetic of dispossession and the descent of into the new American proletariat went like this: while 87 percent of private wealth belonged to a privileged fifth of the population and 11 percent to the next luckiest fifth, the bottom 40 percent had none at all. Multimillionaires (another invention of the Gilded Age) owned one-sixth of the country’s wealth. The richest 1 percent owned 51 percent of all real and personal property, while the bottom 44 percent came away with 1.1 percent. Most workers earned less than $800 annually, which wasn’t enough to keep them out of poverty. And most of them had to toil for nearly sixty hours a week to make even that much.[iv]


If all this sounds familiar it may be because we in the early twenty-first century are in another Gilded Age of sorts. How it will all play out is still anyone’s guess. But I can identify with the impetus behind Twain and Dudley’s satirical novel.


So what’s this got to do with SEEING THE ELEPHANT? After all, the book takes place December 1863 through May 1864. It’s hardly the time of the great industrialists. While some northern manufacturers, like Maggie’s brother Sam, benefited from producing goods for the war, we know that the Civil War did not influence the Union’s economy quite the way that World War II gave the nation a badly needed economic shot in the arm. Still, the boom of the Gilded Age had to start from somewhere, and I believe it was during the 1860s. Imagine how delighted I was to find the following comment in the middle of Twain and Warner’s book. “The eight years in America from 1860 to 1868 uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.”[v]


The changes described by Twain and Warner also show up in SEEING THE ELEPHANT, and they can be bewildering to the characters – everything from emotional and psychological issues, to a change in the Smith family’s social and economic status, to an awareness of the treatment of factory workers, and to the arrival of a wealthy industrialist intent on changing Blaineton from a “quaint little town with pleasant people” to “a center of industrial and financial power.”


The war, of course, had a considerable psychological impact on our national character both historically and in the context of my family saga. Eli, who is suffering from recurrent nightmares, worries about his condition and wonders about the soldiers in the hospital for the insane, some of whom share the same symptom. He wonders if some were "casualties of the war as much as those who returned home missing arms and legs and hands and feet. The difference was their suffering was located in the mind, and not evident to the casual observer. But did being wounded in the mind make them ‘mad’?”

Later Dr. Stanley, the superintendent of the hospital for the insane, observes that he has treated women who had not even been on or near a battlefield, but were worried about or mourning the death of a loved one. Such emotional and psychological issues were confounding. These good nineteenth-century folk did not about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One hundred and sixty-some years later, we know so much more about it but are struggling to find effective methods of treatment.


In addition, people of nineteenth-century America were shifting away from chaining up and locking away the mentally ill and developmentally challenged. While the generally benevolent policies of the Moral Treatment Method were later abandoned, the treatment did point to a significant change in approaching mental illness and developmental issues, even though it took, and is taking, over a century to change attitudes and understandings.


The story also highlights the treatment of wage laborers. It may be a bit early for Eli to be a reform-minded newspaper editor, but the problems and concerns about wage slavery and income inequality were not born fully matured in the 1870s. They had actually been on-going since the very beginning of the factory system when young women and children first found employment in New England mills. However, what makes the industrialist Josiah Norton, different from his contemporaries is that he is a harbinger of the acquisitive and power-hungry industrialists of the later nineteenth-century. His businesses, wealth, and “empire” are growing, and he likes it very much. However, it may be that his reach has exceeded his grasp.


Today’s excerpts include the first conversation Eli ever has with Josiah, followed by Eli’s response to an invitation, and finally a confrontation between the two men.


P.S. I love the fact that Grandpa O’Reilly has suddenly become a fiery little radical. He is NOT in love with or tolerant of inequality!


[i] Marvin Felheim (1914-1979) was the Joe Lee David Distinguished Professor of American Culture and Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan from 1948-1979. University of Michigan, Faculty History Project. http://um2017.org/faculty-history/faculty/marvin-felheim. (Downloaded 29 July 2016)

[ii] Marvin Felheim, “Introduction,” The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1969), 8.

[iii] Felheim, 8-9.

[iv] Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015), 66.

[v] Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age, 137-138.




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