Reverend Beecher and Mrs. Tilton: Sex and Class in Victorian America

Reverend Beecher and Mrs. Tilton: Sex and Class in Victorian America

Reverend Beecher and Mrs. Tilton: Sex and Class in Victorian America

Reverend Beecher and Mrs. Tilton: Sex and Class in Victorian America

Excerpt

Since 1873, when Mark Twain andCharles Dudley War ner published the novel whose title, The Gilded Age, gave a name to their generation, attempts to understand American life in the late nineteenth century have been hampered by the dominance of powerful and usually negative stereotyped images. In the popular mind—and among many historians as well—the post-Civil War period was perceived as flawed by crass materialism and greed, by political corruption and scandal, and—worst of all—by cloying sentimentality and hypocritical moral pretentiousness.

It is significant that the most extensive and probing studies of the political, social, and cultural history of the Gilded Age have focused on the minority who stood outside the mainstream or resisted its dominant currents: critics and skeptics like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Henry Adams; quixotic political reformers like E. L. Godkin; isolated creative figures like Albert Pinkham Ryder and Kate Chopin; humanitarians like Jane Addams and Jacob Riis; or—at the other end of the spectrum—the anonymous masses who struggled for survival and a decent living against great odds. In short, historians have tried to salvage the Gilded Age for us by focusing on its redeeming qualities and its leavening minority.

Twentieth-century perceptions of what makes relevant history have dulled our sensitivity to the issues arresting the attention and concern of Americans living in the Gilded Age. Historians have chosen to study economic development and political reform because these things seemed most important to them. These issues did capture the attention of some segments of late nineteenth-century American society and they certainly deserve careful historical investigation, but our exclusive concentration on them has left us with a lopsided picture of the era. When it comes to the social and cultural contours of the era, we have studied the fringes, the atypical, the nay-sayers, but we have not yet penetrated the life of the majority to its core.

This book is an effort to correct the balance somewhat: to explore—on . . .

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