Tuesday, December 6, 2016
December 6, 2016: Fall 2016 Reflections: Honors Seminar on the Gilded Age
[As another semester comes to a close, I’ll reflect on some of my fall courses and conversations, focusing this time on moments and ways that they were relevant to our own moment. I’d love to hear your Fall 2016 reflections as well!]
What three under-read Gilded Age literary works can help us analyze in 2016 America.
1) The Squatter and the Don (1885): Back in September, when it was still possible to see Donald Trump as something of a joke, I wrote this piece for the Huffington Post on why Trump should read María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s historical novel. Now that the joke is entirely on us, it’d be that much more important for our president-elect, and all Americans, to read a novel that can help us engage with the longstanding histories, stories, and oppressions of Mexican American communities. That’s not just because Trump has promised so many policies that would target Mexican Americans and Mexico in various ways, but also and even more importantly because works like Ruiz de Burton’s remind us that America has always included such communities, such diversity, such multi-lingualism, such a cross-cultural mixture. Her book, that is, not only highlights some of our darker and more discriminatory (and sadly still all too salient) histories, but also helps us remember how vital all our communities have been to the nation’s greatness.
2) “An Experiment in Misery” and “An Experiment in Luxury” (1894): File this entry in the “lifelong learning” category, as I had never heard of, much less read, these two interconnected Stephen Crane short stories until I assigned Broadview’s edition of Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893) in last year’s section of this course. While I still like Maggie for its raw and gritty realism, I think the two “Experiment” stories—in which an unnamed youth lives for a time first as a New York homeless man and then as part of the city’s uber-wealthy—are even more unique and compelling. For one thing, they engage with their respective communities with a great degree of empathy and humanity, allowing Crane to move beyond the types and stereotypes that often come along with our images and narratives of class at either extreme. Yet for another, “Luxury” does not let its rich characters off the hook—even taken on its own terms, the story allows the protagonist to understand how wealth can warp one’s social perspective; and in tandem with “Misery,” the lesson is even clearer and more vital.
3) “In the Land of the Free” (c. 1900): As I detailed in that post, Sui Sin Far’s short story offers an ironic and tragic window into Chinese American lives, histories, and settings in the Exclusion Act era; as we contemplate new exclusion acts of our own, we would do well to better remember that Gilded Age law and its effects. But like all great literary works, Far’s story isn’t limited to that particular context, and also has a great deal to tell us about the conflict between exclusionary and inclusive narratives of American identity. That’s a conflict I’m increasingly certain has defined our country from its origins, and one that has returned with a vengeance in this post-election moment of hateful rhetoric and bigoted violence. Even New York’s wonderful Tenement Museum has witnessed xenophobic outbursts, many directed at the museum’s images and stories of Chinese American arrivals. Whether we see our moment as a new Gilded Age or a period with unique conflicts all its own, there’s no doubt that we need to read Far’s story, and all these Gilded Age authors and works, to engage with where we find ourselves today.
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Reflections you’d share?