Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
Pp. 296. ISBN 0195147294
Reviewed by Mark Storey, School of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham
Edwards makes clear in her introduction that she is more interested in tracing the defining themes and narratives of this transformative period of American history – whether cultural, political, economic or social – than producing a coolly chronological procession of names and dates. This is the same approach taken by Alan Trachtenberg in this book’s most obvious predecessor, The Incorporation of America (1982), but what marks them apart is Edwards’ decision to emphasise the increasing racial tensions within society, frequently citing the diverse and often tragic experiences of European, Chinese and Mexican immigrants as well as African Americans and Native Americans. The book divides into three sections: the first deals with political and economic upheavals, with an understandable emphasis on the legacies of the Civil War, while the second traces developments in social and intellectual life, ranging from science and religion to sexual behaviour and youth culture. The final section focuses on the conflicts, both national and international, that troubled and sometimes threatened to consume America during the time. As is always the case, these themes cannot be neatly contained and there is a welcome sense that the author has not tried too hard to keep her chapter headings overly discrete; some issues, such as the dramatic development of rail travel, appear influential in a variety of issues.
Edwards’s central argument is that the latter part of the nineteenth century ushered in a fundamentally modern era in America, and in many cases initiated the social and cultural antagonisms that would come to dominate the explosive twentieth century. Her approach is frequently light-footed and anecdotal, with a narrative voice that revels in the characters and atmosphere of the time, yet she ensures it never becomes trivial by including some fairly arresting facts and statistics. She is just as keen to include tables that breakdown the data of school enrolment age, or describe the origins of factions within American Judaism, as she is to recount the story of a party thrown by the Vanderbilt family in their new $3 million home (roughly $43 million today), where they spent a quarter of a million dollars on food and decorations. Along with a readable and fluent writing style, the book is never less than engaging, and at times offers fascinating and illuminating accounts of the events and trends that marked the period.
The main drawback of such an approach, of course, is that the period itself – forty intensely eventful years – can become rather homogenised, and at times any sense of causal development or progression is lost. A more serious complaint for researchers is the lack of referencing: Edwards does not acknowledge her sources in footnotes or endnotes, frustrating any attempts to follow up on useful or interesting points, and quotes are frequently dropped anonymously into the text. There are, however, some useful suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter, and the book does have a superb accompanying website with a wealth of materials as well as some useful timelines, all of which goes some way in making up for these shortfalls. The inclusion of a ‘Questions for discussion’ section at the end of the book suggests this is a text aimed more at undergraduates, but its fascinating array of facts and Edwards’s ability to produce a lucid and occasionally compelling narrative from such an era of complex change means this book would be valuable reading for anyone with an interest in post-Civil War America.
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