The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) between the industrial North and the agricultural, slave-owning South was a turning point in American history. The innocent optimism of the young nation gave way, after the war, to a period of exhaustion. Reconstruction grew out of this fatigue–it was as if the American political system was not going to try to solve its problems. Before the war, Idealists and Romantics championed human rights, especially the abolition of slavery; after the war, Americans increasingly idealized progress and the self-made man. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau remained as icons of inevitable American progress. However, many philosophical changes were in the air. This was the era of the millionaire manufacturer and the speculator, robber barons and trust busters, when Darwinian evolution and the “survival of the fittest” seemed to sanction the sometimes unethical methods of the successful business tycoon. Naturalism grew naturally out of the fertile ground of social Darwinism. This so-called â€œGilded Age,â€ a term coined by Mark Twain, was an age of thoughtless excess.
Business boomed after the war. The new intercontinental rail system, inaugurated in 1869, and the transcontinental telegraph, which began operating in 1861, gave industry access to materials, markets, and communications. The constant influx of immigrants provided a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive labor as well. More than 23 million foreigners — German, Scandinavian, and Irish in the early years, and increasingly Central and Southern Europeans thereafter — flowed into the United States between 1860 and 1910. American business interests imported Asian contract laborers on the West Coast. This created tensions that remain in America even today. In 1860, most Americans lived on farms or in small villages, but by 1919 half the population was concentrated in about twelve cities. Problems of urbanization and industrialization appeared. From 1860 to 1914, the United States changed from a small, young, agricultural country to a huge, modern, industrial nation.
America, however, was full of problems. The differences among people groups were immense and growing larger. It was to this world that men like Stephen Crane wrote. He attacked social problems. American literature openly discussed significant social problems. Previously American fiction was entertaining and didactic, but not evaluative. Characteristic American novels of the period Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jack London’s Martin Eden, and later Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy depict the damage of economic forces and alienation of the vulnerable individual. Survivors, like Twain’s Huck Finn, Humphrey Vanderveyden in London’s The Sea-Wolf, Hemingwayâ€™s Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms, and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, endure through inner strength and, above all, individuality. No longer is there a hint in American literature that there is a loving, caring God. The world that Anne Bradstreet knew is dead . . . Research the Gilded Age and write a three page explanatory essay on this important era.
A particularly popular writer of the Gilded Age social history was Sinclair Lewis. Lewis brought late 19th Century Americans into the small towns and bedrooms of American homes all over the land. Why not read one of his books?