[Editorial note: The following essay by Wesley R. Bishop is adapted from a paper he presented at the June 2016 Midwest Labor and Working Class History Conference at Purdue University. The conference’s theme was “Social Justice for a Global Working Class,” and the panel focused on the question of periodizing the Gilded Age.]
The Shape of an Age: The historian’s use of periodization and the question, “Are we living in a Second Gilded Age?”
by Wesley R. Bishop
In the 1873 novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, the novelists Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote, “Beautiful credit! The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises?” The sentiment, and overall story, is of course, satire. Meant to mock the nouveau riche of the late 19th century, and their ability to influence politics, the book predated much of the period’s later issues with large scale industrial and corporate capitalism. The book is noteworthy because although the book was not well received critically, the title nonetheless went on to have a second life of its own, literally giving its name to the period of time from the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the reform efforts of the Progressive era.
Yet, despite this second-life, the book itself, since it was authored in the midst of the Reconstruction era, missed many of the important issues that would animate the late 19th century. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today was, therefore, unable to address the U.S. labor movement, widespread strikes, and the unabashed aggression of various governments which curtailed working class movements. Instead, the story focused on a series of loosely connected narratives dealing with the issues of land speculation, lobbying Congress, and attempts of people to make it rich in post-Civil War society. As such, some historians have argued that the term “Gilded Age” is a highly problematic one, a name predating the actual period of study, and that we should therefore consider retiring it. This is further complicated by others who have accurately detailed the problem in using such a term in the first place. As Alan Lessoff, the former editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era has argued, the very term “Gilded Age” presents a problematic teleos where the 19th century’s Gilded Age gives way to an ascension in the Progressive era. As a result, the Gilded Age, its actors, and the span of time it traditionally encompasses is seen only as a period of greed, corruption, and shallow material gains. Lessoff has argued such imaginings ignore the real reform and radical thought that existed in the period. Similar to the frustration over the term “Dark Ages” which many Medievalists and Early Modernist scholars have balked at, the negative labelling of these periods of time serve to establish the supposed victory of the Scientific Revolution, or the coming of the New Deal. Therefore, should we retire the term from popular use, and instead adopt a competing term, such as “Long Progressive Era”? Understanding this historical background is vital in order to answer the more pressing question in the present of “Are we living in a Second Gilded Age?” And, if we are living in a Second Gilded Age, what does that mean for our society? I believe these questions have a direct impact on both the way we think as scholars who study the late 19th century, and how we go about conceptualizing our own actions and activism in the various reform movements of social justice in the 21st. As such, the question “Are we living in a Second Gilded Age?” is not merely idle intellectual banter. It has the potential to radically alter the way we think and speak about our actions in the present.
The question itself has garnered no shortage of attention. Historians such as Richard Schneirov, James Livingston, Thomas Sugrue, Glenda Gilmore, and Alan Lessoff have all contributed widely to the debate arguing various well researched and reasoned positions. Likewise, the question has gained even more consideration outside of academic circles with Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty, and various journalists wondering, and answering, the question “Is our period a Second Gilded Age?”
Yet, before we can hope to answer such an inquiry we need to first understand what we are doing when we answer such a question. Who is the “we” in the question of “Are we living in the Second Gilded Age?” And, more importantly, as Lessoff has shown, what do we even mean by the term “Gilded Age”? Also, what philosophical assumptions do we make when we argue that there could even possibly be a repeated period?