An Objective Look at the Gilded Age

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The idea behind the cartoon is that big business controlled government during the Gilded Age. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons”, the name given to railroad company tycoons (and the businesses that made them possible, such as steel), pictured as bloated bags of money lording over the tiny mice of the senate. 

Photo Credit: The Bosses of the Senate cartoon, Joseph Ferdinand Keppler. First published in Puck, 23 January 1889, lithograph, colored: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

“‘I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.’” (Twain and Dudley Warner, location 2837)

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post taking a personal look at the era which I chose to place my Waxwood Series. This post is a sort of prequel to that. 

I love this opening quote from Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, published in 1873, as it personifies one of the main philosophies of that era – it was all about faking it until you made it. Indeed, the Gilded Age wasn’t so much about how much success or wealth you had as how well you made everyone think you had.

There is some dispute as to what timeframe constitutes the Gilded Age. Many historians and scholars agree the era began in the 1870’s (with the publication of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book). But as to its end, that’s up for debate. Some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push its end all the way to 1900. Bcause the new century brought about the Progressive Era and its backlash ideals of the Gilded Age, I prefer to consider the era as ending at the turn of the century.

Ironically, the title of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book wasn’t intended as a label (just as no one intended to put labels on our more modern eras, such as the Lost Generation, the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials). Since both writers were well-known humorists, the title their book is a tongue-in-cheek dig against the social and political events of the second half of the 19th century. But, like many humorists, their dig turned out to be wildly accurate. Twain and Dudley Warner observed what was going on around them and used it as fodder for their fiction, as many writers do. They had a keen eye toward not only toward the staggering opulence and excess of this period but also its more parasitic cousins, greed, graft, and corruption.

When Twain and Dudley Warner published their book in 1873, America had just gone through a rather heavy recession that ended in the Panic of 1873. Americans intended to bounce back, financially and politically, with full force, showing that the United States could compete with any other global power. The problem was that, in politics and finance, many used ingenious but dirty methods to do it. Well known was the political corruption of the Grant administration and the graft and crime prevalent in “Boss” Tweed’s administration in New York City, for example. If you’ve been reading my books, you know I am largely a San Francisco/Bay Area writer and San Francisco didn’t exactly escape these more devious characteristics in the Gilded Age. Many of the well-known San Francisco millionaires were made in the city during this time, such as “the Big Four” railroad barons Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. In addition there flourished of one of the most infamously sin-laden spots in America at that time, the Barbary Coast

This painting represents the kind of gaudy glitter and extravagance common among the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Hofball in Wien. Aquarell, Wilhelm Gause, 1900, Historisches Museum de Stadt Wien: Andrew0921/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old)

All this wheeling and dealing created a new class of wealth. Novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about “old money” families who were forced to make way for the nouveau riche. Interestingly, San Francisco was both similar and different in this respect. Gertrude Atherton’s book The Sisters-in-Law https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Law-Gertrude-Franklin-Atherton-ebook/dp/B0082SWSW0/, which I’ve mentioned on my blog before, gives an interesting snapshot of Bay Area aristocrats during this time and at the turn of the century who held on to strict codes of society (such as snubbing any woman who wanted to build her own business) but accepted more readily the nouveau riche because the youth of the west made old money families more scarce than they were in the east. 

The rich in America considered it their privilege to flaunt their wealth with lavish homes and summer homes, balls and social events, and an outrageously expensive lifestyle that most could only gape at. The very rich became very extravagant, sometimes ridiculously so, displaying their money and social power even in the face of the growing poverty and working class resentments that would explode into violence and social change herding America in the Progressive Era.

The Gilded Age, then, became notorious for gaudy, show-offish displays of the socially privileged. Shady dealings made millionaires out of people of humble origins who were eager to get into society and, in fact, one might argue the opulence of the age prompted this widespread corruption as making money became “the thing”. A notorious example of this sort of personage is Simon Rosedale in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Rosedale is rather aggressive, seedy character whose rags-to-riches rise to fame made him an unavoidable parasite in the New York social circle in which the protagonist Lily Bart moves. 

The more I write of the Waxwood Series, the more the realities of the Gilded Age come into conflict with who the characters are. This happens with Vivian, the unofficial protagonist of the series. She begins as a Gilded Age debutante of a wealthy San Francisco family (whose wealth was actually made well before the age) and gradually realizes the expectations put on her by her social status and the separate spheres conflict with her psychological reality and her journey through the last years of the century bring her to a different place in the world. Similarly, in my work-in-progress, Tales of Actaeon, Jake, Vivian’s younger brother, comes of age in a skewed and chaotic era when the meaning of masculinity was transitioning from the Victorian gentleman of honor, responsibility, and hard work to a more Teddy Roosevelt ideal of aggression, sportsmanship, and ambition.  

To read more about The Specter and order your copy, check out this link.

To learn more about the Waxwood Series, click here.

And if you’d like to get your hands on a short story that is all about Vivian’s revelations as a debutante during her coming out ball, sign up for my newsletter here.

Works Cited

Twain, Mark and Warner, Charles Dudley. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Project Gutenberg, 2006 (original publication date: 1873). Kindle digital file.

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How Small-Town California Inspired Waxwood, The Series

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The old Southern Pacific train depot in Benicia. It used to be the entrance of the town and the last stop before passengers boarded the ferry that took them to the East Bay and San Francisco. I was told in the visitor’s bureau that the depot was placed there in 1902 and was functional until the 1940’s, when cars began to replace train travel in that area. Personal photo.

Last year, I was able to visit the San Francisco Bay Area, one of my favorite place of all time. During my trip, I saw Benicia, a small little town that I had researched quite extensively and I wrote a blog post about it here.

At the time, Benicia was the inspiration for the location of my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries. What I didn’t realize until after I started to revise my upcoming book The Specter, was that parts of Benicia had infiltrated into my idea of the town of Waxwood, the town on which my Waxwood Series is based.

Element of Benicia make Waxwood a character as much as any other of the human characters. It’s a small, quiet, little town with the kind of slow-paced rhythm you would expect from small-town America. Right on the Carquinez Straight, it has a small pier where you can walk and enjoy the view of the hills and the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. People are laid-back and friendly. There’s a rich art community there with local artists displaying their work in small shops down First Street. 

Here’s Vivian’s first impressions of Waxwood from The Specter:

By the time Vivian stepped off the train at the Waxwood station, early afternoon had settled in. She saw immediately what Mrs. Moore meant about there being “nothing there.” Compared to the city, Waxwood was half-deserted and nearly pitiful in its emptiness. She could see only the train tracks trailing a bay whose size was paltry compared to the one bordering the city. And yet, Vivian was at ease in this small village with its slowly moving waters and nearly deserted street. Even the station agent’s expression seemed bucolic as he smiled at her from his caged window.

Not an auspicious view for a town, perhaps!

As I mentioned above, Waxwood is a character in the series. It’s not just the place where the Alderdice family goes for their summer vacation, or the place where other characters in the series end up. Waxwood is as alive and changeable as the characters themselves. 

The Waxwood Vivian visits in Book 1 of the series, which takes place in 1892, is not the same Waxwood she sees six years later in Book 2. Like all of America in the Gilded Age, Waxwood goes through some rapid changes. It becomes more commercialized, more touristic, less quaint and quiet. It has its own ominous presence and ghosts, much like the characters in the series. In this way, it mirrors the evolution of the characters, especially Vivian. 

Why did I name the town Waxwood? The idea of the wax wood trees (which do not exist in real life, as far as I know) intrigued me. In The Specter, Vivian encounters the forest with another character, Ruth:

The hill they had ascended, though not so very steep, was crowded with tall trees with umbrella tops and a strange, glossy wood. Vivian slipped off one of her gloves. Her hand moved to touch the shiny tree. The matted sheen felt almost rough to the touch and a little sticky. 

“The surface softens with the sun and hardens with the moon,” Ruth said. “It’s why they call them wax wood trees.”

Certain elements have always fascinated me and wax is one of them. Wax can be both pliable and unyielding, it can be creative, molded and shaped into anything you like. And it can be dangerous, as when a candle tips over with the potential to set a curtain or a room on fire. The wax wood forest has its own significance in the series, which is the subject for another future blog post.

To find out more about The Specter and pick up your copy at a special preorder price, you can go here.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, go here.   

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COVER REVEAL!!! The Specter (Waxwood Series: Book 1)

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Photo Credit: Portrait of Sonya Knips, Gustav Klimt, 1898, oil on canvas, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria: Aavindraa/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100  

The cover for my upcoming book The Specter is here!

For most authors, every cover has a story behind it. For me, my fiction is all about the characters and my covers are all about people. My fiction is also all about people in the context of their time grappling with their own past. I wanted a cover that would reflect this. 

When I started coming up with ideas on how I could convey this about The Specter, the idea of featuring a woman in a pink dress came to mind immediately. The pink dress and the woman with red hair relate to a character in the book and the painting I used reflects a portrait of that character mention in the book and its effect on Vivian Alderdice, the main character of the series. I can’t give away more than that just yet – you’ll have to read the book to make the connection.

I’ve always adored old paintings and old images and this one by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt caught my eye right away. On the one hand, the woman (identified in the title as Sonya Knips) is the picture of late 19th century womanhood in her pretty in pink dress, her right hand clasping a pink handkerchief demurely at her knee, the picture of innocence. On the other, there is a defiance in the way her eyes stare directly at you, the way she is leaning forward a little with her left hand grasping the arm of the chair in which she sits. Some of this isn’t visible in my cover but you can see the full painting and learn more about its background here.

Ironically, Klimt was known more for his later work as a symbolist painter which is vastly different from this painting. Symbolism was a movement that led into surrealism and the idea of making the real unreal relates to my newsletter this month, which will be sent out at the end of this week.

The buy links will be up on my website very soon. For now, you can read more about the book if here and more about the series here. You can also read an excerpt from the book here

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