Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: “THANKSGIVING DINNER [held by] OCCIDENTAL HOTEL [at] “SAN FRANCISCO, CA” (HOTEL)”, 1891, scan by New York Public Library: Fee/Wikimedia Commons/PD scan (PD US expired)

For those of us living in the States, Thanksgiving is a big deal. The spirit of gratitude and giving prevails, as well as a sense of patriotism and pride. Thanksgiving is traditionally a time when people don’t necessarily dine with their families, and those who do often times have non-family members at their table. It’s not uncommon to be invited to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, if you don’t have family close by or can’t get to your family for the holiday.

As most of you know, my Waxwood series is set in the Gilded Age (roughly, the last quarter of the 19th century). I’m always curious about history as it relates to the present day, so I was prompted to ask the question, “How would the Alderdices (the series’ wealthy San Francisco family) have celebrated Thanksgiving, if they celebrated it at all?”

It turns out the Gilded Age aristocracy did indeed celebrate Thanksgiving, but not in the way we do now. When we think of this holiday, we think of a large table crowded with food, fall colored table settings, lots of kids and grandparents and aunts and uncles. That is, we think of family. Rosy cheeks, laughter and family jokes and memories abound. Our vision of Thanksgiving is like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.

But the aristocrats of the Gilded Age, both “old money” and “nouveau riche,” weren’t quite so committed to the idea of a family Thanksgiving. In fact, the opposite seems to have been true — Gilded Age swells saw Thanksgiving as a time to go out and dine at the fanciest restaurants or hotels. It was not unusual for Gilded Agers to feast on non-traditional Thanksgiving fair, such as oysters, turtle soup, foie graise, prime rib, and Petit fours. The image above of the Thanksgiving menu at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco (one of the swankiest hotels of its day) hardly looks like the usual turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie most Americans feast on today.

We might be led to believe that wealthy Gilded Agers weren’t as family-oriented as we are today, but this need not be the case. As I pointed out in my blog post about the Gilded Age, people in this period in American history were obsessed with excess and an “over-the-top” feasting on life, especially those who could afford it. A family dinner at home simply did not fit in with their lifestyle. However, an extraordinary dinner at a fine hotel did, and many Gilded Agers used it as an excuse to show off their wealth and affluence, their lavish clothes and jewelry, and their ability to have a good time on a holiday.

If that sounds a little petty, keep in mind that the concept of a family Thanksgiving was foreign to the originators of the celebration as well — the Pilgrims. Pilgrims in the 17th century celebrated Thanksgiving with their neighbors and friends, often times without members of their families present, as many had stayed behind in England or had perished on the journey to America or in the coarse of their hard life on American soil. Historians have cited Prohibition in the 1920’s as well as the Great Depression in the 1930’s as reasons why the elaborate Thanksgiving festivities of the Gilded Age fell out of favor. That might be, but I’m guessing it was more about the post-World War II era in the late-40’s that made the concept of family more precious and more politically important to Americans. This is why Rockwell’s illustration became so much a part of the American psyche and thus, Thanksgiving became associated with an intimate portrait of family.

While Book 2 of the Waxwood series, False Fathers, takes place out of the holiday season, Book 1, The Specter, gives the reader a taste of how Thanksgiving was celebrated in the 1850’s. Interestingly, Penelope Alderdice, who is in Waxwood for the summer as a young woman, writes her mother about the holiday in April, not November. My research shows that the holiday started to appear at the end of the year in 1863, but I couldn’t find out why! Nonetheless, this winter holiday Americas are so used to is a spring holiday for Penelope in the book. Thanksgiving itself is perhaps less significant to Penelope than where she is spending it in the year of 1853 and with whom.

To find out more about the book and get in on a special Black Thursday/Cyber Monday discount (Amazon only), you can go here. To find out more about the Waxwood Series, this page will give you all the details.

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The Gilded Age Masculine Identity Crisis

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Photo Credit: Men of Progress, Christian Schussele, 1862, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Washington D. C: ~riley/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

The second book of the Waxwood series, False Fathers, is a coming-of-age story about the male protagonist, Jake Alderdice, transitioning from boyhood into manhood in the late 19th century. In doing my research on masculine ideals of the era, I came across an article that takes an interesting view at the subject. You can find the article here.

According to the author, John Robert Van Slyke, the Gilded Age brought about a crisis in the definition of masculinity for men. I have mentioned in my blog post about the Gilded Age how the chaos and the excesses of the era changed the way in which Americans saw themselves, socially and psychologically. We know how this was true for women, as the Victorian idea of the “angel in the house” was breaking down in the face of suffragism and the new American ideal of womanhood represented by the New Woman.

But many changes were going on for men as well. For Van Slyke, this was represented by “a shift from the term ‘manliness’ to ‘masculinity’” (pg. 2). These may seem like the same or similar, in terms of meaning,and perhaps in our modern way of thinking about gender, they are. But for the 19th century, they were very different. Manliness was a Victorian ideal rooted in abstract realities, a “‘honorable, high-minded’” idea that required “sexual restraint, a powerful will, and a strong character” (Van Slyke, pg. 3). Masculinity, however, was a concept emerging into the new century that implied “‘aggressiveness, physical force, and male sexuality” (pg. 3). So while the qualities of what made a man in the Victorian era (looking back from the Gilded Age) were intangible, those qualities of the 20th century (looking ahead) would be required to be more tangible and measurable.

One reason for this was that America was moving into a more “doer” century, where one’s deeds rather than one’s values would be the measure of one’s character. For men, success in the public sphere was imperative in the Gilded Age, and their worth was judged by their achievements. America was becoming bigger, richer, and more powerful on the world stage. Competition was becoming fiercer. Therefore, a more forceful, physical presence was necessary to succeed.

Van Slyke brings in a nice example of this from the business world. Many men in the 19th century began their business success by getting loans and gaining credit from the bank with which to build their companies (much as entrepreneurs do today). In the mid-19th century, a man could get a loan or credit based on his character. If he proved himself to be a reliable, upstanding, dependable citizen, a hard worker and moral man, those were enough. However, by the Gilded Age, this was no longer possible. It was a man’s prospects and his assets that determined whether he would be given a loan or credit.

This crisis of looking back to manly virtue and looking forward to masculine physicality presented problems for young men in the Gilded Age. Success in the public sphere was still the name of the game, but the means with which they achieved it were no longer based on their fathers’ and grandfathers’ manly virtues. They were based more on how aggressive they could be in business, how wily and cunning they were, and how much interest they had in commercial success.

This crisis is one Jake faces in the book. His artistic nature makes him more contemplative and dreamy, the opposite type needed to become a business titan like his grandfather, and this is contrasted by other male characters his age in the novel. One reason why he accepts Harland Stevens, a middle-aged man who befriends him during his summer in Waxwood, as a surrogate father is because Stevens seems to present the balance between Victorian manliness and Gilded Age masculinity. 

To read more about the book, coming out in December, go here. To read more about Jake and Stevens, take a look here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can do so by joining my readers group here.      

Works Cited

Van Slyke, John Robert. “Changing ideal of manhood in late-nineteenth century America” (2001). Graduate Student Thesis, Dissertation, & Professional Papers. Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana. 

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COVER REVEAL for False Fathers (Waxwood Series: Book 2)

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Photo Credit: Portrait of a Young Man, Ferdinand von Wright, 1860s, portrait, oil on canvas, Finnish National Gallery: BotMultichill/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

Yes, it’s cover reveal time! And here’s a little bit of background on the cover for Book 2 of the Waxwood Series, False Fathers.

I talked a little bit about the evolution of the title of the novel here. When I was searching for a way to approach the cover for this book, the first thing that came to my mind was to feature a father and son. Since I love using old paintings and images, I tried looking for something that would fit the time frame of the book (late 19th century), and would feature a paternal figure guiding a younger man. I couldn’t find anything that really suited my taste.

So instead, I went with the idea of being consistent with the cover for The Specter, Book 1 of the series. If you recall, that cover featured a woman in a pink dress holding a pink handkerchief with lovely auburn hair and pale features. As I mention in this blog post, the intent was to provide an inspirational portrait for Vivian Alderdice, the protagonist of that novel, and also allude to the other main character in that book, her grandmother Penelope Alderdice. So I went with the same concept here.

Portraits of a young man in the 19th century weren’t hard to find, since, at that time, photography was a rare and complicated thing, especially in the early part of the century. So having a painter do a portrait was quite common. It was a matter of finding the right young man who would inspire the character of Jake Alderdice. He had to fit not only Jake’s age (since Jake’s coming-of-age is paramount to the story), but also his personality and social status.

After quite a lot of searching, I came upon the image that you see above. I liked the clean-cut countenance on the young man with his smooth blond hair and the clean-shaven face that makes him look almost boyish. I also liked his aristocratic manner and the dark suit that accentuates his poise. But what struck me most were the eyes. It’s not only that they are blue, which fits the eye color of the Alderdice family, but they are also intensely gazing right at the onlooker. The mouth, also, is very serious and contemplating. This fits Jake’s personality perfectly.

The book will be out on December 28, 2019. If you want to know more about it, you can go here. You can also find out more about the first book in the series here and the series itself here. And if  you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can do so if you join my readers group.    

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What’s in a Name: Title Change Reveal for Book 2 of my Waxwood Series

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Photo Credit: The Last Day in the Old Home, Robert Braithwaite Martineau, 1862, oil on canvas, cropped, Tate Britain: Enciclopedia1993/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

It’s an old cliche: “What’s in a name?” The same might be asked of a book title (or the title of a song, a film, a painting, etc). Are titles really all that important to readers and authors? For readers, it might be just a way of identifying the next book on their to-be-read list. For many authors, titles are more than just identifiers. They are a way to situate the book (for themselves and the reader) and reveal a little something about it, even before the reader opens the book.

I try to put as much thought and creativity into my titles as I do in the rest of the book. Throughout the writing process, from first to last draft, the title becomes a part of the way I think about the book and its characters. Since my writing revolves around stories that come out of characters and their psychological reality, I often times explore several titles that relate to some important aspect of the book or main character that I find relevant and revealing. As I write and revise the book, it reveals itself to me, and I often end up changing the title.

This happened with the first book of the Waxwood Series, The Specter. The idea for the book emerged when I wrote a short story about the funeral of Penelope Alderdice, Vivian’s grandmother, and its effects on the family and others. I felt that story needed to become a full novel to set the stage for the deterioration of the Alderdice family that takes place over the course of the series. That short story was titled “After the Funeral,” and I originally planned on keeping that title for the novel. But as I wrote the book, the idea of the specter became front and center in Vivian journey to discover who her grandmother was (and, by consequence, how the past affects her and her family). Thus, the title of the book changed to The Specter.

With Book 2, the title change came was a little more complex. For Book 1, the idea of what happens after Penelope’s funeral was less significant than the idea of the specter that haunts Vivian’s psyche, so it was an easy decision for me to change the title. With Book 2, there were more conflicts.

The original title for Book 2 was The Order of Actaeon. This title was the name of a secret society that plays a role in the novel. Secret societies and fraternities were a big deal in the 19th century, something I go into in this blog post. I also conceived of the myth of Actaeon as a metaphor for Jake Alderdice, the main character of the novel, and his fate in the book (something I’ll talk about in a future blog post). That title stayed with the book for a very long time. When I started revising that draft, it occurred to me the idea of Actaeon as a metaphor could be expanded into some subplot ideas I had. At that time, I planned on creating two parts to the book that reflected different aspects of the Actaeon myth, and so I changed the title to Tales of Actaeon

But, as I mentioned above, my process in writing my books is an act of discovery, and the novel often times tells me what it’s about rather than me dictating to it. And the novel was telling me that, while the Actaeon metaphor is indeed a part of the story, it’s not what’s in Jake’s psychological reality. His entire psychological make-up has to do with the fact that he grew up without his biological father. Jake is a young man coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, where, as I mention in the blog post about secret societies, the definition of masculinity was in flux and fraught with confusion, as America was being hurled into the new century. So personal and collective history plays a role in Jake’s destiny. In the story, Jake is guided by several father figures. Though their intentions are honorable, their motives and ideas about modern masculinity may not be the best suited for the sort of character Jake is.

Because of this, fathers, and not always sincere father figures, became an important element in the story. I felt the idea of Actaeon was no longer appropriate for the title and hence, I came up with a new title: False Fathers.

I was intrigued by the idea of falsity, because it implies not only something that isn’t true, but something that presents itself as true but really isn’t. Coupling this with the idea of father, or, paternal figures, as they appear in the book, I felt readers would appreciate the significance of the new title when they read about Jake’s plight.

To learn more about False Fathers, please go here. I also have an excerpt from the book in my readers group. To find out about Book 1 of the series, you can check out this link. And if you want to know more about the series in general, you can go here.      

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Knowing Characters: Inside and Out

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Photo Credit: Procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s Plays, Unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard), 1840, oil on board, Yale Center for British Art: DcoetzeeBot/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired  

In any kind of fiction, for authors to know their characters is essential because stories are (duh!) about characters. Plot, setting, themes, and narrative are all important, but they come out of who the characters are. The process authors take to know their characters really varies from author to author.

New authors are often told to create or find online a character dossier or character questionnaire like this one which forces them to create a character down to the last detail. There is sometimes, I think, an expectation that authors know these things about their characters even if they never make it into the actual book. An awesome writer’s group I belong to on Facebook recently had a series of posts related to these sort of character details, posing questions like “What’s your character’s favorite color?” and “What’s your character’s favorite drink?” These questions can certainly be helpful for an author to know a character, specially if that character is running through a series where he/she will appear many times in many books. But I often think they don’t tell the whole story.

My fiction is about characters who face their past so they can find their future. They face their personal past and their collective past, the historical era in which they live. I talked about this in my blog post for this year’s OWS CyCon blog tour. Because there are deeper issues that my characters have to face on their journey to finding their future through their past, I have to be selective about the sort of details that make up their character and discover who they are through the process of writing and rewriting.

Therefore, I rarely do character dossiers or questionnaires. When the posts went up in the Facebook group, I honestly couldn’t comment on them because I don’t know what drink or color Vivian Alderdice (the unofficial protagonist of the Waxwood Series) prefers. These details were simply not important in my construction of Vivian as a character for the series. They may become important for the series later on and if they do, they will come up on their own. Vivian herself will tell me, in the writing and rewriting process, the answers to these questions if they become vital to the story and to her character. But until then, I feel like trying to impose this sort of detail onto Vivian  as a character would feel artificial and contrived.

Author Anais Nin wrote about this sort of selectivity in details in her book on writing, The Novel of the Future. For Nin, such details as what the character drinks or what he or she has in her closet do not add to the reader’s knowledge of the character and, in fact, take away from it. She describes here an example from one of her books:

“A reviewer said when I wrote Stella (novelette included in the collection Winter of Artifice): ‘Stella is not real because she does not go to the icebox for a snack.’ This kind of reality I take for granted and would distract me, the author or the reader, away from some other more important observation.” (Nin, location 846)

For Nin, authors need to use the sort of selectivity with character details that I spoke of earlier. It’s not about quantity, but quality:

“A concentrated lighting thrown on a few critical or intense moments will illumine and reveal more than a hundred details which dull our keenness, weary our vision.” (Nin, location 496-502)

So discovering who the character, whether over the span of one book or several, is, for authors and readers, a process of selectivity and focus.

From a more psychological perspective, it took me quite a few drafts to get to know Jake Alderdice, the protagonist of Book 2 of the Waxwood Series, Tales of Actaeon. I did several rewrites (not just editing and tinkering with scenes, but actual “throw most of it out and do it again” kind of rewrites) of the novel, all based on the kind of character Jake was evolving into. The details of his plight in coming of age during the last years of the 19th century come not only from his position as a twenty-one year old young man in 1898 but from who he is, what his psychological reality is, how he was raised, what he’s discovering about his beliefs and values, and what his relationships are. Small, concrete details do matter, like the fact that he’s an artist who favors wooded landscapes as his subjects. But, like Nin, I include less of the details that would prove to be irrelevant to who he is in the story, like what drink he prefers or what his favorite color is.

To find out more about Tales of Actaeon, due out in December, go here. And you can find out more about the series itself here.   

Works Cited

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.

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