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The Gilded Age Unravels

GILDED CITY Scandal and Sensation in Turn-of-the-Century New York; by M.H. Dunlop; William Morrow: 288 pp., $25

THE NEW GILDED AGE The New Yorker Lokks at the Culture of Affluence; Edited by David Remnick; Random House: 432 pp., $26.95

April 01, 2001|STEVE FRASER | Steve Fraser is a fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library and is writing a book about the cultural history of Wall Street

The dot-com(eth) and also goeth away. As the "new economy" sinks beneath the horizon and those stock options vaporize, it may be time to trade in the Lexus for something, let us say, less showy-perhaps even knock a wing or two off the blueprints for that 7,500-square-foot houseleum in the hills. Wall Street trembles. The Nasdaq is in free fall. Indices of economic gloom gather like ghosts at a funeral. Portents are everywhere that America's latest Gilded Age may be coming to an end.

Mark Twain invented the notion of a gilded age. At least the phrase has passed down to us from his first novel, "The Gilded Age" (which he wrote with his good friend Charles Dudley Warner). Published in 1873, it was an instant bestseller. A year later, a dramatic version opened on Broadway, where it became a smash hit that then toured the country. People found it uproariously funny, and it still seems that way now. Twain captured the ridiculousness, the cant and the pretentiousness of a post-Civil War America in which "the air is full of money, nothing but money, money floating through the air."

Like all good satire, "The Gilded Age" carried a high-voltage moral charge. Twain and Warner sought to skewer a society that Walt Whitman at just that moment condemned in "Democratic Vistas" as "cankered, crude, superstitious, and rotten...," overwhelmed by an insatiable greed for money, land and power. Money lust and the strange tragicomic behavior it elicits have excited the imaginations of historians, memoirists and novelists writing about that and subsequent gilded ages ever since. Two recent books, "Gilded City" and "The New Gilded Age," are no exception. But the novel that originally gave this social obsession its enduring name actually had a rather different, if related, preoccupation. "The Gilded Age" was much more about the depraved condition of public life and in particular about the profound corruption of democratic government than it was about the moral depravity of private life. In an era also aptly known as "the Great Barbecue," practically everyone from vice presidents to city aldermen, from cabinet members to state assemblymen conspired, often in broad daylight, with rapacious financiers and industrial Napoleons to convert the public treasury and the nation's resources into their own exclusive reserve. Twain and Warner zeroed in especially on that relationship. It was a novel about Washington and the hinterland, not New York (the city gets a walk-on role). It was a story of money and democracy, not just money.

It would be unfair to say that M.H. Dunlop's splendidly described "Gilded City" or the interesting collection of essays packaged by The New Yorker magazine as "The New Gilded Age" are merely about the mores, not so much the morals, of the monied classes. But it is fair to say that politics has largely dropped out of the gilded age equation. If the reigning view no longer considers democracy relevant, let that stand as evidence of the triumph, however ironical, of the culture of glitter and narcissism. That civic self-consciousness which Twain could take for granted scarcely disturbs the introspection of the postmodern sensibility. Indeed, reading "Gilded City" and "The New Gilded Age" together becomes an enlightening exercise in psychic disequilibrium. These books not only confirm the kinship we all implicitly assume but also suggest its opposite: That these two gilded ages, separated by a mere century, are light-years apart, not only in their sense of the commonwealth but also in their moral and cultural predispositions.

The recent March madness on Wall Street reminds us all, if anyone needed reminding, that no one is immune to the power of Gotham. The $4.6 trillion lost in a single week is greater than the entire publicly-held federal debt. Imagine scrapping the country's auto, steel, electrical machinery and oil industries and you begin to take its measure. With 50% of American families invested in the market, middle-American truckers, mailmen and bakers are as likely to feel the pain as are dot-com billionaires living it up in high-rent districts on either coast.

*

A century ago, long before it exerted this kind of brute economic omnipotence, New York's gilded panache riveted the country's attention. Dunlop is a gimlet-eyed observer, precise and meticulous in her descriptions, witty and remorseless in her interpretations of what she (or her publisher) has chosen to call in the book's subtitle "scandal and sensation in turn-of-the-century New York." The world she gives us is funny and painful to look at. It is, in part, Thorstein Veblen's world, full of the most outrageous displays of invidious social competition and emulation: lavish costume balls, titles of nobility purchased by the yard in Europe, the fashionably exhibited body of the Society grande dame entombed in iron-like lingerie, slumming expeditions to the urban demi-monde, sexual predation behind the locked doors of exclusive men's clubs.

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