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Guilded Age Essay, Research Paper

During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, a period known as the Gilded Age, every man had the potential to become wealthy, to advance into the esteemed social class of the ?well- to-do?. While this may have been perceived as true by the wealthy, it was little more than a concept of idealism. In reality, while the rich may have ?worn diamonds, [most] wore rags.? New immigrants and rural Americans flooded into urban areas searching for opportunity. They were welcomed by long working hours, low pay, and tenements teeming with violence and filth. Consequently, this forced more than 11 million families? of the total 12 million in the nation- to scrape out a meager existence with wages well below the poverty line. Fed up with the corruption of society and the extreme oppression of the poor, writers such as Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James, along with painter George Bellows, began to depict the reality of urban life. These realists depicted urban American society as if viewed by a ?spectator,? neither favoring nor despising it- committed only to delivering ?a world truly reported.?

Realist writers and artists saw through the pretenses of society. They looked behind the glittering fa?ade of the wealthy and through the grime and tatters of the poverty-stricken. These realists shared a common theme, to depict American life as they saw it ? an oppression of the poor by a society that had been debased by the corruptness of the government and the wealthy. Mark Twain presents this fact to the public in 1873 with the publication of The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, written in cooperation with Charles Dudley Warner. This book, although fictional, is a ?critical examination of democratic politics, and corruption in the United States.? The main characters, Colonel Beriah Sellers and Senator Abner Delworthy, are linked together by a ?government railroad bribery scheme.? Through the events that occur within this novel Twain and Warner depict an American society that, ?despite its appearance of promise and prosperity,? is laden with corruption and scandal. Twain, a journalist at 27, was, like most other realists, born with the ability to step back from the events about which he was writing. He maintained a balanced view of the new urban culture, contemplating and depicting both ?sides? within his writing, never sympathizing with either, much like the writings of William Dean Howells.

Howells, born with the instincts of a journalist, ?revitalized the realism of the day and opposed the prevalent sentimentality and idealism.? His intellectual gifts, like Twain and James, of ?detachment and insight? permitted him to disassociate himself from the hubbub of activity about which he wrote. In Howell?s novel A Chance Acquaintance (1873) he depicts a young Bostonian in love with an island girl. Through this novel Howell criticizes urban society with its ?meaningless class distinctions? a product of idealism.? Throughout the novel, this young man constantly patronizes her, yet she sees beyond this and continues to love him. With his arrogance and disdain for the ?less superior? he constantly, although sometimes unknowingly, oppresses those he considers ?beneath him?. He is the epitome of the wealthy ? wrapped so thoroughly within himself he doesn?t see the worthiness and intelligence of those around him. In the end, their roles are reversed. The man, finally humbled and able to overcome ?his ingrained provincial snobbishness?, sees that he has played an ?ignoble and vulgar part? in the play of life.

Henry James, although born an American, died a British subject. Due to his schooling abroad during the years between 1855 and 1860, James spent much time with French and Russian realists that influenced his style. He believed that Europe provided the natural environment for the writer: ?The American writer who went abroad came to see himself as a detached spectator of American life. When he came back, he was changed?(American Heritage 13). This enabled James, like Twain and Howells, to analyze and portray American life as it was without outside influences. He felt no attachment to the poor, nor any reason to lend them any favor. Likewise he felt no compassion for the wealthy. For these reasons he was able to produce coldly realistic novels including The Ambassadors published in 1903. This novel and many of his other novels, portrays James? ?ambivalence about the character of modern, industrial society- and about American civilization in particular? (Brinkley 653).

This attitude and criticism of society was not confined to the realm of written work alone. It also found roots within the paintings of artists such as George Wesley Bellows, a member of the Ashcan School (?The name derives from that ubiquitous urban image: the garbage can.?). Bellows sought to paint ?real life and urban reality.? He remained a spectator of American life, like Twain, Howells, and James, he held no bias toward any aspect of society. Bellows, along with the other artists of the Ashcan School painted the gritty urban scenes and the ?poor and disenfranchised in America.? George Bellows managed to capture this variety and vigorous energy of city life within his paintings. In the attached painting, ?Stag at Sharkeys?, Bellows depicts the ?controversial event of prizefighting?. Through this image he conveys the ?vigor and violence? of the urban society, in its own way a social criticism of the time. This violence was happening within the city as well, not just for entertainment. The ?crazed, hollering crowds? that are shown watching this fight, are the reality of the urban culture. They were the faces behind the grime and glitter of society.

The art and literature of the late nineteenth century and earlier twentieth century delved into the reality of urban culture with a balanced and distant look at society. Realism offered the answer to many writers and artists of the time including Twain, Howells, James, and Bellows. It offered them a way to focus on the reality of society, freeing them from the restraints of idealism and romanticism. Their works functioned as social criticism of the time depicting all aspects of society, favoring neither, just delivering a world truly reported.

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