The Spanish-American War of 1898

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This is a very touching image showing that, while the Spanish-American War may have only lasted 4 months, Americans took it very seriously.

Photo Credit: Farewell Arch in South Framingham, Massachusetts, where Massachusetts troops departed for the Spanish–American War in 1898, from Reminiscences of Company F, Second Regt. Massachusetts Infantry, U.S.V., First Brigade, Second Division, Fifth Army Corps, Of Gardner in the War With Spain, With Historical Data, 1906, author unknown: Kges1901/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0

When talking about historical fiction, time matters. Even specific years matter because history has shown that what can happen from one year to the next can rapidly change the world. This was my thinking behind setting the Waxwood Series in the last decade of the 19th century. Book 1 of the series, The Specter, takes place in 1892, and Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, takes place six years later, in 1898.

Authors always have to consider what events occurred outside of the text in the time period in which the book is set and whether to incorporate those events or ignore them (as Jane Austin largely ignores the Napoleonic Wars in much of her fiction). My approach is primarily to focus on the psychological reality of the characters as they live within their time, so outside events may or may not play a role. I am not a fan of historical fiction that includes copious amounts of information dumps about historical events and people in order to create an atmosphere of the past for readers. I believe the specific details of life, especially social and psychological, makes the historical context more real than any detailed description of a historical event that may not be relevant to the characters’ conflicts and journeys.

However, this doesn’t mean that historical events don’t have a place in my fiction. In fact, in False Fathers, the Spanish-American War plays an important role in the story, not so much the events of the war itself as its meaning to Jake Alderdice, the protagonist of the book, and other male characters in the book.

The Spanish-American War stands out in the annals of American history for several reasons. First, it was a very short war. War was officially declared on April 21, 1898 and the fighting ended on August 13, 1898 (though the war officially ended four months later). America involved itself in this war for both financial and humanitarian reasons. And the consequences of the war for the United States helped to push the nation toward one of the greatest changes that occurred during the Gilded Age — it hurled the country onto the world stage.

The war involved fighting in Cuba, a colony of Spain at the time. Spanish rule was oppressive to Cuban insurgents, and they had been fighting three years prior. The brutal treatment of the Cubans by the Spanish gained a lot of sympathy in the United States, thanks to the yellow journalism popular at the time. It was very much on the minds of Americans. Author Gertrude Atherton, in her novel Senator North, published in 1900 and set a bit earlier, shows Washington society discussing the war constantly at their dinner parties and picnics, and outlines some of the great debates going on in the Senate about whether America should or should not enter the war. The thing that pushed America to declare war on Spain was the sinking of the battleship USS Maine, which newspapers played up as having been caused by either mines or torpedoes fired by the Spanish army (though it was never established whether this was really true, or whether it was some kind of technical error having nothing to do with the Spanish). 

A major player in the war was Teddy Roosevelt, who left his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in order to join in the fighting with a group of soldiers known as the Rough Riders. This short war made Roosevelt a hero and cemented his emerging political career at the turn of the 20th century. The nation insured independence for Cuba (which helped with political and financial trade) and gained control over the Pacific, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The war also allowed the United States to declare Hawaii its territory (though Hawaii wouldn’t become a state until 1959).

In False Fathers, which takes place during the summer of 1898, the war is very much on the minds of Waxwood’s resort guests. In one scene, Jake and Stevens, a father figure who guides Jake throughout the book on his journey to manhood, are watching Stevens’ cousin Roger and his friends play billiards, and the subject of the Spanish-American War comes up:

They were, Jake realized, not completely ignorant of all but their tight little world of games and touching the edge of vice. They discussed with some seriousness the war in Cuba, bringing forth different opinions peppered by the usual boyish attitude of having taken words out of the mouths of their fathers or uncles.

“— Says we ought to pull out while the getting’s good,” said Norris Harrington. “It’s not worth the lives already given for it.”

“And let Spain take over?” Andrew Trent scoffed as he spilled two balls in the pocket. “We’re not there for fancy, boy. We’re there so all can see we are a power.”

For these young men who are coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, the war symbolizes the potential for bigger and better things, not only on a national level, but on a psychological level for them as young men going out into the world. The idea of power expands both in the public and private spheres. 

You can find out more about False Fathers here and more about the series here.     

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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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