Interviews June 2007

The Dark Side of the Gilded Age

Jack Beatty, the author of Age of Betrayal, talks about the poverty, inequality, and corrupt politics that marred America's past and set us on a course toward today

One of the things I think is unusual about your writing is that it blends history—which can be a dry pursuit—with real rhetorical spark and style. Could you talk about your writing process? How important is wordsmithing to you as you write? How would you describe your style?

From the archives:

In Memoriam: Peter Davison
A tribute to the Atlantic's late poetry editor by former Atlantic managing editor, Cullen Murphy.

History tends to be written—because of academic pressures—in a polished, professional monotone. I like a little more drama. At certain moments, intensification, foreshadowing, or dramatic juxtaposition. Also, you look for scenes, moments of action, that carry your theme: a racial massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, the gun battle between Pinkerton detectives and workers at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Mills. Little touches matter in a long book. Our late Atlantic colleague, Peter Davison, once told me that for a writer to use the verb "to be" is laziness. Ever since, I have tried to find better—livelier—verbs. I do not believe I use "very" or "astonishing" in the book—a record. I admit to using at least one "kind of" but no "sort of," an Englishman’s arch tic that has no place in American writing. And in general, though I love ’em, I pare away adjectives and adverbs. They’re for book reviewers, to display cleverness. Subject-verb-object—you can’t beat that formula in long-form narrative.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "A Great Monopoly"
"America," Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote in March, 1881, "has the proud satisfaction of having furnished the world with the greatest, wisest, and meanest monopoly known to history."

For drama, you also need representative characters. My characters include Tom Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest corporation in the world in the 1870s, and a "political capitalist"—a purchaser of politicians retail and wholesale. Even in an era when, as Henry D. Lloyd wrote in The Atlantic, "Standard Oil did everything to the Pennsylvania legislature, except refine it," Scott stood out. It isn’t every captain of industry who could bargain the White House for a railroad land-grant as Scott did in 1877. Scott’s feckless attempt to drive John D. Rockefeller out of business helped to precipitate the railroad strike of 1877, with its bloody climax in the streets and alleys of Pittsburgh swept by Gatling guns.

This is a book that’s almost unremittingly dark—the bloody racial carnage of the Colfax Riot, the violent strikebreaking in Pittsburgh. Was it darker than you thought it would be when you set out to write it?

It’s one of the darkest chapters in American history. Betrayal is among the most embittering experiences in life. "You said you loved me, but…" "You promised me…" "I thought we had a deal…" "I thought I could trust you." We’ve all heard or said such things. I sought to infuse some of the emotion of such personal experiences into my account of the age.

Some reviewers have said, "My God, this is so gloomy! You didn’t pay attention to Alexander Graham Bell!" But I couldn’t write in a lighter key and still tell the truth. The "Gilded Age" —that rubric obscures the moral facts: betrayal of emancipation, betrayal of democracy, betrayal of free labor. The book ends with our imperialist grab-up of the Philippines, a betrayal of our revolutionary birthright.

You can’t exaggerate how bad it was for blacks in the South after Reconstruction—the systemic violation of human rights. John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil-rights hero, once said, "My daddy didn’t vote. My granddaddy couldn’t vote. My great-granddaddy couldn’t vote." It was democracy denied, equality before the law denied: that happened here. White Americans did that and tolerated that.

And up until the 1960s—it’s amazing how long it went on.

It would have gone on forever if Southern blacks hadn’t put their lives on the line to force the federal government—and shame the nation—into pressing ahead with a Second Reconstruction to complete the work of the first. And if a great leader—a Lincolnesque leader—a century after Gettysburg had not sounded the call for "a new birth of freedom."

What made you focus on these fifty years?

Because it was the seed-time of today—government for the corporation—and I wanted to find out where we went wrong and why. In the textbooks and to a certain extent in American memory, this is the Age of Enterprise—of free-market capitalism, etcetera. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t like the official version of America spread by uplift historians who tell Americans what they want to hear. Good news history has weakened Americans’ critical faculties in the face of government and media propaganda. We’re living through a war that’s all about manipulation of public opinion—manipulating Americans’ hopes that their country is as good as the uplift maintains. Americans need less consolation from history and more truth, especially about juridical racism and the conflict between corporate power and democracy—my themes.

What’s the official version of the Gilded Age? The robber barons and their glamorous careers?

I think so. This year, a big biography of Carnegie was published. A couple of years ago, there was an 800-page biography of Morgan by Jean Strouse. In 1998, there was a big biography of Rockefeller. There was recently a big biography of Henry Ford—seemingly the 900th biography. A biography of Andrew Mellon was just published. Reviewers say, "This biography of Carnegie gives us the age." Would a biography of Bill Gates convey the essence of our age? I see these books and think, This can’t be it. This can’t be the only face of the Gilded Age Americans get to see. So I wrote the book to show a more representative face, to retell what usually is told as an economic story as a moral one.

During this era, New York Governor Roswell P. Flower commented, "In America, the people support the government. It is not the province of the government to support the people." These days, not even a conservative Republican could get away with saying that. Could you talk about how the expectations for the government have changed since the Gilded Age?

Maximalist government for the corporations and minimalist government for the people—that was the rule in the age of betrayal. The leader who changed that was William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1896, and, at thirty-six, the youngest ever. Breaking with the sterile anti-statism of his party, Bryan said that government should be active on behalf of the people. That’s the turn in the Democratic party. Essentially, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and the rest followed where Bryan led. Government should act to protect the people against private power, through anti-trust. It should act with old-age pensions, and with workers’ compensation, and the like. Bryan is often rendered as a backward-looking pastoralist. But in fact, he began modern politics, because he introduced the populist impulse into the Democratic party—the idea that government should support the people. It was always something that Southern Democrats were uncomfortable with, because they saw where it led. Government would start acting for the black people, as it eventually did.

The strong parallels between the Gilded Age and today are an undercurrent of the book. Could you talk about some of those parallels?

The main parallel is the role of organized money in politics and how that increases the other parallel with the Gilded Age: inequality. In 2008 we’ll see the first billion-dollar presidential campaign—between them, the two presidential nominees will raise and spend a billion dollars. Money is speech, and the next president will listen to the money that has bought them the White House.

Complacent observers say, "At worst money gains access. It doesn’t determine votes." Tell that to Hillary Clinton. When she was first lady, Congress passed and her husband looked set to sign a bankruptcy "reform" bill. But Elizabeth Warren, a young Harvard law professor and a student of bankruptcy proceedings, persuaded Hillary the "reform" would hurt people who lose their health insurance and can’t pay the bills for catastrophic medical care. Hillary lobbied Bill. He vetoed the bill. The same bill came before Congress after Hillary was elected senator from New York. She voted for it. Same bill, same harm to the vulnerable Americans she professes to care about. What changed her mind? She got $150,000 in campaign contributions from the credit card industry. Case closed on whether money buys votes. Meanwhile, the people who change the bedpans and sweep the floors—their voices aren’t heard.

And what about the concentration of wealth? Are we back to where we were during the Gilded Age?

The concentration of wealth is not quite at the Gilded Age chasm, but we’re getting there. Back then Americans could not imagine a fairer society; inequality was continuous with the unequal past. Today we can remember a fairer past—the New Deal era from the 1940s to 1970 saw real family incomes double, high marginal tax rates on the rich, and unions representing more than a third of the private-sector workforce. Memory is a radical organ in today’s America. Between 1950 and 1970 for every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution, the top .01 percent earned $162. Today, the top .01 percent earn $18,000. Gilded Age Americans lived before equality. We live after equality. Outrage over business rule and the un-American concentration of wealth and power spurred the early twentieth-century reform movement known as Progressivism. Corporate contributions to political campaigns were outlawed. Monopolies were broken up. Progressive income and inheritance taxes were passed. Will history repeat itself? The Gilded Age has repeated itself; why not the Progressive Era? That should be the question decided by the 2008 election.

Presented by

Katie Bacon, formerly the executive editor of The Atlantic Online, is now a freelance editor and writer living outside of Boston.

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