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Gilded Age Literature

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Gilded Age Literature

The Gilded Age was an era whose name itself came from literature. The vast disparities between wealth and poverty in the period became the focus of its novels. The realities of life replaced the sentimentality and romance of previous eras. How did literature not just entertain but illuminate the social issues of the Gilded Age? Let's explore this fascinating stage of American literature.

Gilded Age Literature, A color photograph of a first edition copy of the novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Tomorrow, StudySmarter

A First Edition of The Gilded Age/Wikimedia Commons

Gilded Age Literature Period

By the 1870s, the spread of the railroads, urbanization, and industrialization had created unseen wealth in the United States. What were worse, very few people concentrated this wealth. With this great wealth came new levels of materialism and political corruption. The term "Gilded Age" was coined as the title of a novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, in 1873. The novel dealt with political corruption and the influence of the industrialists. Twain and Warner were saying with the title that only a thin layer was covering up what was going on in society.

Gilded:

Covered with a thin layer of gold to cause an object made of a different material to appear as made of gold.

Gilded Age Literature Authors

Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Dean Howells were three of the most influential authors of the Gilded Age, but they were by no means the only ones. Many authors of the period told tales of the regions they lived. These glimpses into other parts of the country often were not romantic as had been the case in the previous generation but told of the harsh realities and social problems in even idyllic communities.

Gilded Age Literature, A black and White photography of Mark Twain and John T Sellers StudySmarter

Mark Twain with an Actor from The Gilded Age Play Adaption/Wikimedia Commons

Mark Twain

Despite the dark themes of The Gilded Age, Twain was known primarily for writing humor and stories for boys. His most well-known books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, dealt with the area around the Mississippi river where he had grown up. Other works like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court veer into Fantasy. Twain was the most widely popular author of his day and continues to be read and influence new writers.

Did you know?

Mark Twain was just a pen name for the author, whose actual name was Samuel Clemens.

Henry James

Henry James contrasted Mark Twain, an urban writer who created work that was beloved by critics yet had less of a mass appeal. Although born in New York City, James spent much of the Gilded Age living in Europe. Where Twain told of boyhood adventure, James delved into the complexities of women in society. Some criticized that James wrote in such a high-minded, technically perfect, and artistic way that his works began to lose touch with human realities. Two of his most famous novels are The Portrait of a lady and Roderick Hudson.

A black and white photograph of William Dean Howells StudySmarter

William Dean Howells/Wikimedia Commons

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells was a prolific writer and the editor of Atlantic Monthly, the most respected magazine of the time. He wrote many realistic works that highlighted social and political issues of the day. His novel A Modern Instance centered on the controversial topic of divorce. The Rise of Silas Lapham dealt with the moral questions of wealth in a story about the rise and decline of the title character's fortune.

Did you know?

William Deal Howells was a mentor to Henry James, even publishing some of James' first works.

Gilded Age Literature Novels

In the eighteenth century, the novel had been controversial and primarily viewed as a lesser form of literature. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the novel had reached respectability. The ability of the form to illuminate the issues of the day through characters that felt real was an essential element of Gilded Age literature. Novels touched on political scandals, social movements, and other causes.

The Red Badge of Courage

In The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane tells the story of a young soldier in the Civil War. Despite not having seen combat himself, Crane wrote incredibly realistic battle scenes. The novel dealt with the young soldier's hope, fear, and courage and was applauded by veterans for its realism. As a result of the novel's success, Crane was later sought after as a war correspondent.

I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship."

Extract from Little Women1

Little Women

Louisa May Alcott wrote the novel Little Women, which told the tale of four young girls growing up with their mother while their father was off in the Civil War. Alcott's work dealt with the era's struggles while still maintaining hope. Extremely popular, two sequels followed the novel to continue the characters' story.

Looking Backward

Edward Bellamy wrote Looking Backward as an explanation of his socialist political ideas. The novel is about a man who falls asleep and wakes up in 2000 when the United States has become a socialist paradise. Much of the book is about the main character discussing the socialist system of this new world and contrasting it with social issues of the Gilded Age. The book was one of the best-selling books and extremely influential on socialist thought.

Did you know?

The novel did predict many future innovations such as warehouse club stores and debit cards.

The Jungle

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is the story of a recent immigrant who goes to work in Chicago factories and the bleak brutality of life for the working poor. Sinclair had spent months working undercover in the kind of factories he wrote about and collected the many stories he put together in the novel. The story was published to bring the plight of the working class to greater public attention. Despite his intentions, the most extraordinary public outrage the novel created was mainly about the food safety implications of Chicago meatpacking facility operations, as revealed in the story.

Gilded Age literature, Color photography of first edition copy of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair StudySmarter

The Jungle By Upton Sinclair/Wikimedia Commons

Gilded Age Literature Themes

If one theme is most central to the Gilded Age, it is realism. In contrast to earlier novels focusing on romance and emotion, works of the Gilded Age could be bleak in their illumination of social conditions and overt in their political messages. Even more fantastical works, like Looking Backward, often served as vehicles to express contemporary social issues. Many heroes in these novels were from the lower classes or faced other hardships. The influence of this literature filtered into journalism, with the Muckrakers who began focusing on unearthing political corruption and bringing to light social problems of the day in newspapers.

Gilded Age Literature Critics

The novel The Gilded Age is itself a product of literary criticism, as Twain and Warner set out to write the work after discussing their disdain for contemporary American novels. The authors of the Gilded Age were often critics themselves, but of social issues. Literary criticism was a novelty at the time. The British critic Mathew Arnold, concerned with what literature could do to instruct and inform on social issues, is the model of the modern critic and was essential for American critics of the time like William Brownell and Stuart Sherman.

While critics still appreciated the perfectly constructed sentences of authors like Henry James, they were also interested in what issues were illuminated within an author's work, not only their intellectual tradition but the social context, which genuinely illumines literature.

Gilded Age Literature - Key takeaways

  • The term "Gilded Age" was coined as the title of the novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.
  • Authors often focused on social and political issues.
  • Many works revealed the poor conditions of contemporary life.
  • Prominent authors included Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Dead Howells.

Frequently Asked Questions about Gilded Age Literature

The most common theme of Gilded Age literature is exposing social problems. 

The Gilded Age is known for materialism, corruption, social issues, and a wide gap between the rich and poor.

The most popular author of the Gilded Age was Mark Twain.

The main idea of the Gilded Age is that literature should reveal social realities, not just emotions. 

The Gilded Age is important because literature shifted to focus on illuminating social issues. 

Final Gilded Age Literature Quiz

Question

Who wrote the novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today with Charles Dudley?

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Answer

Mark Twain 

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Question

What was a main theme of Gilded Age literature?

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Answer

Realism

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Question

What was meant by the words "Gilded Age"?


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Answer

It was a reference to gold gilding, where only a thin layer of gold-covered an object. It meant that something else was below the surface of society.  

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Question

What did William Dean Howells write about in his novels?

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Answer

Social and political issues 

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Question

What was the novel Looking Backward about?

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Answer

Socialist political ideas 

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Question

What was The Red Badge of Courage about?


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Answer

A Civil War soldier 

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Question

Why was The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today written?

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Answer

The authors were unhappy with current American novels.

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Question

Who was the most popular author of the Gilded Age?


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Answer

Mark Twain 

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Question

What novel was about the conditions in Chicago factories?

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Answer

The Jungle 

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Question

What group of journalists later carried on the social conciousness of Gilded Age novelists?

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Answer

Muckrakers 

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