HL90 ER: Industrialization and Inequality

We’ve got more new HL90s to shop! Morgan Day Frank talks with us about “Industrialization and Inequality: From the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era,” some very weird delicacies from the Gilded Age, and a dentist we wouldn’t want to visit!

What inspired you to teach this class?

I love turn-of-the-twentieth-century American literature, that’s basically why I wanted to teach this class. I didn’t always love it, though. I used to be very dismissive of this period of literary history. To me, the great American authors were, like, Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass, who wrote earlier, during the antebellum period, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner, who wrote later in the twentieth century. I was convinced that, between the antebellum classics and the modernist classics, there was a cultural desert. Mark Twain was somebody they made you read in high school. Henry James and Edith Wharton were only interested in writing about the wealthy. In graduate school, I discovered that I had it all wrong. The turn of the twentieth century, far from being a cultural wasteland, was actually the most interesting and complicated period in American literary history. Here was a group of writers who witnessed the terrors of industrialization and were molded by this experience. In the words of one critic, Alfred Kazin, there is “a terrible estrangement in this writing, a nameless yearning for a world no one ever really possessed.”

The literature of the Gilded Age and the Progressive era is bizarre and despairing and gripping and often quite funny. I’m looking forward to reading this body of work with students and trying to understand its relationship to the historical conditions it emerged out of.

What can your class help us understand about our contemporary moment?

The Gilded Age was a truly appalling moment in American history. The decades after the Civil War were marked by dramatic wealth inequality, racial terrorism, nativism, environmental destruction, and the development of oppressive gender norms. On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, tuberculosis, typhoid, and dysentery ravaged immigrant populations living in the city’s tenements. At meatpacking plants in Chicago, the country’s sausage meat was mixed with dirt, sawdust, and spit, rats, rat feces, and rat poison. At Delmonico’s, a fancy New York restaurant, a common pre-dessert course consisted of Ortolan, a small songbird similar to the finch. Chefs fattened the bird, drowned it in Armagnac, roasted and flambéed it. Once the bird was cooked, diners ate it, innards and all.

Op-ed columnists and public intellectuals have described our terrifying contemporary moment as a second Gilded Age. In the seminar we will consider the connection between these two Gilded Ages and the role of culture in both. Can art fix the social problems we currently face? or is art part of the problem? How does literature challenge or naturalize racial inequality? gender inequality? class inequality? What makes one cultural object better than another? How is aesthetic value different from other forms of social value? These are the kinds of questions we’ll work through in class.

What are some of the texts you’re most excited about sharing with students?

There is a lot of stuff I’m excited to teach this semester. In the novel McTeague — one of my favorite novels of all time — the main character is a dentist who removes his patients’ teeth with his bare hands. With his bare hands! We’ll read Ida B. Wells’s coverage of lynchings in the South, probably the most important piece of investigative journalism ever produced. We’ll also read Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, one his late masterpieces. For all of its sophistication, this novel is really trashy and sordid — it’s about two people who try to con a dying heiress out of her money. And we’ll read an obscure novel written by an African American writer, Sutton Griggs, about a black secret society that plots to secede from the United States. A lot of good stuff!

To learn more, you can see the syllabus on Canvas, drop in during shopping period (Wednesday, August 19 from 3-5), or email Morgan.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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