The Gilded Age, as Mark Twain enduringly described it, sticks out like a sore thumb on the American historical landscape. It is a symbol of corruption, greed, extravagance, and exploitation, of a country gone wild with excess. It also serves as a yardstick to measure the indiscretions and inequalities of subsequent times, not least our own. Still, the Gilded Age has never received the scholarly attention lavished on Reconstruction or the Progressive era—the periods before and after—though it is generally attached to the latter as a way of explaining the eventual swing toward a long period of reform.
Richard White takes another approach. In his impressive new book The Republic for Which It Stands, the latest volume in the ongoing “Oxford History of the United States,” White links the Gilded Age with Reconstruction—the two “gestated together,” he writes—and, in so doing, casts both in a different light while raising new questions about a nation born in the cauldron of civil war. Indeed, there’s a sense in which White has the Gilded Age effectively encompass the Reconstruction era; both periods, he argues, were defined by ongoing, and often explosive, struggles over the fundamentals of society and state in postbellum America: Who would rule and be ruled, whose vision of political economy and social relations would prevail, and who would pay the price? White thus speaks of the “twins” that were conceived in 1865. The first was “the world [that Americans] anticipated emerging from the Civil War,” which “died before being born”; the second “lived” but was “forever haunted by its sibling.” The book’s prologue, “Mourning Lincoln” (acknowledging an important study of the same name by Martha Hodes), makes the case for the larger social meaning of Lincoln’s assassination and sets the tone for the many pages that follow. The Republic for Which It Stands offers a sobering and generally dispiriting view of the nation’s contested road from the end of the Civil War to its emergence as an industrial-capitalist power by the turn of the 20th century.
There are no small challenges to reconceiving the three decades of American history that White covers in his book, especially given the demanding standards of comprehensiveness to which the Oxford series is devoted. Readers will find a veritable kaleidoscope of subject matter, from electoral politics, political economy, and industrial warfare to popular culture, literature, and sports. They will find figures of political and cultural prominence as well as those who are now relatively obscure, but who at the time were consequential for their ideas and activism. And they will find geopolitical breadth, as White—drawing on his expertise in Western US history—makes sure that the trans-Mississippi West and its racially and ethnically mixed denizens figure significantly in the unfolding story. Holding the more than 900 sprawling pages together is a framework in which party politics and national elections are set as the chronological markers for a developing battle between the forces of liberalism and anti-monopoly, all carried along by the commentary of the novelist, editor, and critic William Dean Howells, whose intellectual journey in many ways mirrored the political drift of the times.