History 426, History of the United States, 1877-1916

An Introduction to American Cultural Expression during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

These pages are intended primarily to provide links to websites that present major patterns in cultural expression during the years from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I. Each category begins with a brief overview of developments, followed by links.


Literature before the Civil War was usually characterized by a romanticism that included the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, the transcendental essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and the genteel poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell.

Though the Gilded Age saw some continuation of both romanticism and the genteel tradition, the more significant pattern was the gradual rise of realism, that is, a realistic--and sometimes quite critical--portrayal of life, replacing the romantic idealism characteristic of the pre-Civil War period, and producing works that significantly influenced the development of literature in the 20th century.

Among poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson led the way in rejecting previous poetic forms and introducing a new, less structured, psychological approach. Whitman, especially, also dealt with topics previously considered inappropriate. His Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855 and reissued in revised and enlarged editions until his death in 1892, stands as a major work in world literature. Though romantic in many ways, his poetry clearly abandoned the genteel tradition as it gloried in democracy, in the scenes and rhythms of New York City, and in the faces and forms of working people. He dealt, too, with topics often considered inappropriate for public print, including intimate relationships and the human body:

Have you ever loved the body of a woman?
Have you ever loved the body of a man?
Do you not see that they are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth?

If anything is sacred the human body is sacred,
And the glory and sweet of a man is the token of manhood untainted,
And in man or woman a clean, strong, firm-fibred body, is more beautiful than the most beautiful face.

Emily Dickinson, whose poetry was first published in 1890, after her death, rejected the formal structures of most previous verse, and probed depths of anxiety and emotion.

I can wade Grief--
Whole Pools of it--
I'm used to that--
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet
And I tip--drunken--

During the Gilded Age, American novelists increasingly turned to a realistic--and sometimes quite critical--portrayal of life, rejecting the romantic idealism characteristic of the pre-Civil War period.

The towering novelist of the era was Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), whose Huckleberry Finn (1885) may be read at many levels, from a nostalgic account of boyhood adventures to profound social satire. In this masterpiece, Twain reproduced the everyday speech of unschooled whites and blacks, poked fun at social pretensions of the day, scorned the Old South myth, and challenged prevailing, racially biased attitudes toward African-Americans. Twain picked up similar themes in his other novels and especially in his essays, which often made explicit the political messages that lay buried in his novels.

The novels of William Dean Howells and Henry James, by contrast, presented restrained, realistic portrayals of upper-class men and women. After 1890, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris sharpened the critical edge of fiction. Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) depicted how urban squalor could turn a young woman to prostitution. Norris's The Octopus (1901) portrayed the abusive power that a railroad could wield over people. Kate Chopin sounded feminist themes in The Awakening (1899), dealing with repression of a woman's desires.

Literature and the West

The West of the late 19th century achieved mythical status even before 1900 as popular novels, and later movies and television, used it as the setting for stories that spoke to Americans' anxieties as well as their hopes. The "winning of the West," as depicted in popular novels, art, and movies, usually begins with the grandeur of wide grassy plains, towering craggy mountains, and vast silent deserts. In most versions, the western Indians face a tragic destiny. They are usually portrayed as a proud, noble people whose demise clears the way for the transformation of the vacated land by bold men and women of European descent. The starring roles in this drama are played by white pioneers--miners, ranchers, cowboys, farmers, railroad builders--who struggle to overcome both natural and human obstacles. These pioneers personify rugged individualism--the virtues of self-reliance and independence--as they triumph through hard work and personal integrity. Many of the human obstacles are villainous characters: greedy speculators, vicious cattle rustlers, unscrupulous moneylenders, selfish railroad barons. Some are only doubters, too skeptical of the promise of the West to be willing to risk all in the struggle to succeed.

The novelist Willa Cather presents a sophisticated--and woman-centered--version of many elements in this story in her novels O Pioneers! (1913) and My 聲tonia (1918). The major character in O Pioneers! is Alexandra Bergson, daughter of Swedish immigrant homesteaders on the Great Plains. When her father dies, Alexandra struggles with the land, the climate, and the skepticism of her brothers to create a lush and productive farm. My 聲tonia presents 聲tonia Shimerda, daughter of Czech immigrants, who survives run-ins with a land speculator, grain buyer, and moneylender, only to become pregnant outside marriage by a railroad conductor. Dishonored, 聲tonia regains the respect of the community through her hard work. She builds a thriving farm, marries, raises a large family, and becomes "a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races." My 聲tonia explicitly presents another aspect of the myth. Jim Burden, the narrator of the story, grows up on the frontier with 聲tonia but becomes a prosperous New York lawyer whose own marriage is childless. 聲tonia, symbolizing western fecundity, is thus contrasted with eastern sterility.

Literature Links
(Many websites devoted to authors now include on-line versions of all the author's works that are in the public domain. 
For authors of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, this usually means all their works.)

Walt Whitman (The Whitman Project, Uni. of Virginia)

Emily Dickinson (Emily Dickinson International Society)

Mark Twain (probably the most elaborate of many Twain sites, with links to others)

William Dean Howells

Henry James (The Henry James Scholar's Guide to Web Sites)

Kate Chopin (PBS)

Stephen Crane (Stephen Crane: Man, Myth, and Legend; student project)

Frank Norris (Gonzaga University)

Theodore Dreiser (The International Theodore Dreiser Society)

Willa Cather (Harvard University; one of several websites devoted to Cather, with links to others)


Introduction | Art | Music | Photography | Architecture | Mass Entertainment | Expositions | Purpose, Sources, and Copyright Information

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[Parts of this text are adapted from Making America: A History of the United States, by Carol Berkin, Christopher L Miller, Robert W. Cherny, and James L. Gormly, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995 and 1999. All other parts Robert W. Cherny. These pages are intended primarily to provide links to websites that present information on major patterns in cultural expression during the years from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I. Each category begins with a brief and selective overview of developments, followed by links.

Music: Scott Joplin, "Solace" (1909), Sue Keller as released on Ragtime Press cd, Sue Keller/Ragtime Press.