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New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905

by Rebecca Edwards

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In New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865 – 1905, Rebecca Edwards synthesizes the work of other historians to argue that the Gilded Age was more optimistic than it is traditionally portrayed. She writes, “This optimistic spirit has not gotten its due from historians. On the whole, they tend to depict late nineteenth-century America as dominated by corruption, political stagnation, and malaise. New Spirits approaches the era from a different angle, exploring the mixed – often positive – experiences of Americans at the time. Technological change was obvious: the era ushered in such familiar tools as telephones, electricity, bicycles, and cars, not to mention such inventions as the dry martini. The civil rights, environmental, and women’s rights movements emerged in their modern forms, as did literary realism and many other modern initiatives and ideas” (pg. 5). She continues, “Though historians sometimes describe the late nineteenth century as an era of laissez-faire when government was weak, that notion would have baffled most Americans at the time – especially Liberals. These advocates of smaller government were responding to what they saw as a central government exercising extraordinary and unprecedented power” (pg. 30).
Discussing economics, Edwards writes, “Mexico became a model for American corporate expansion in many parts of the world Copper and rubber from Mexico joined the stream of commerce along with California cattle and fruit, Minnesota wheat, Georgia cotton, Cuban sugar, and Brazilian coffee. By the 1890s dozens of U.S. corporations had become multinationals” (pg. 43). Further, “The United States was a gambler’s paradise, holding out the allure of jobs, money, and mobility but filled with mortal dangers for working-class women and men. Like the railroads that helped drive its growth, the country’s economy astonished onlookers with its power and pace. Except during years of severe depression, manufacturers could boast faster production, higher outputs, and larger sales almost every year” (pg. 57). Finally, “The fabulous and corrupting power of money was late nineteenth-century Americans’ great obsession…From the icy streams of western Dakota to the plush executive offices of Standard Oil, men and women bent their energies to the search for money. Finance, enterprise, speculation, and extremes of wealth and poverty all became critical topics of public debate” (pg. 100).
Discussing the American Empire, Edwards writes, “While Europeans sought colonies overseas, Americans waged ferocious battles for control and development of what the nation had already claimed. The 2 million-square-mile West yielded most of the raw materials European powers sought abroad: gold, silver, copper, coal, oil, old-growth timber, and land that could support cattle, sheep, grain, and semitropical crops” (pg. 76). Edwards continues, “The wars of incorporation were racial conflicts in at least some of their dimensions. In the West they pitted whites against American Indians and Mexican ejidos; in the South struggles between landowners and laborers often broiled down to white versus black; and across the country hostility toward the Chinese fueled violence and exclusion” (pg. 85). In discussing gender, Edwards writes, “If anything made the Gilded Age ‘gilded,’ it was a sense that sexual privacy and intimacy were being polluted by money and greed” (pg. 141). In religion, fundamentalists and liberal Protestants diverged. Edwards writes, “Fundamentalists, though they did not yet go by that name, denounced modern secularism and defended the literal truth of the Bible, while adopting marketing techniques that helped them build gospel empires. Liberal Protestants, on the other hand, made common cause with one another and with progressive Jews and Catholics in the Social Gospel” (pg. 160). Edwards writes of awareness of social problems, “The most vibrant social movements in late nineteenth-century America sought to address, in some way, poverty and inequality. Public understanding of those problems was fostered by a new cadre of journalists, who ventured into tenements and slums to report with pen and camera” (pg. 194).
Edwards concludes, “The very genius of corporate capitalism was to obscure the distant origins of rubber, beef, and sugar and whisk them to customers as if by magic. To an unprecedented degree, Americans could enjoy the fruits of the global marketplace without guilt or thought. Just as state legislatures and courts had extended ‘limited liability’ to investors and executives sued for acts committed by their corporations, consumers enjoyed a kind of psychic limited liability of their own” (pg. 240). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Dec 11, 2017 |
This book serves as a strong survey of the least-studied period of American History (approx. Civil War - WWI).

The main critique is that it doesn't perfectly function as a textbook – it lacks the organization of a standardized text, and works more as an independent survey.

That said, the book does a good job of taking the reader into the period studied, especially focusing on the social changes for Americans in the latter half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. ( )
  MarchingBandMan | Apr 6, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195147294, Paperback)

New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 provides a fascinating look at one of the most crucial chapters in U.S. history. Rejecting the stereotype of a "Gilded Age" dominated by "robber barons," author Rebecca Edwards invites us to look more closely at the period when the United States became a modern industrial nation and asserted its place as a leader on the world stage. Employing a concise, engaging narrative, Edwards recounts the contradictions of the era, including stories of tragedy and injustice alongside tales of humor, endurance, and triumph. She offers a balanced perspective that considers a number of different viewpoints, including those of native-born Anglos, Native Americans, African Americans, and an array of Asian, Mexican, and European immigrants. Beginning with Emancipation and ending with the first deployment of U.S. troops overseas, New Spirits traces the roots of today's diverse and conflicted nation. Organized around major themes, the text consists of three parts. Opening with the legacies of the Civil War, Part I focuses on the era's political and economic transformations. Part II explores upheavals in family life, scientific thought, and religious faith. Part III follows the depression of the 1890s and its aftermath. The book reveals a world of hopeful immigrants and striving professionals; generations in conflict with one another; a new West and South; and religious, political, intellectual, and sexual experimentation. Offering a fresh, sweeping narrative, New Spirits is ideal for readers seeking an introduction to this critical epoch, and for undergraduate and graduate courses on the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and 20th-century U.S. history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:16 -0400)

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