The Fear of Sinking: The American Success Formula in the Gilded Age

By Collins, Ross | Journalism History, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The Fear of Sinking: The American Success Formula in the Gilded Age


Collins, Ross, Journalism History


Kilmer, Paulette D. The Fear of Sinking: The American Success Formula in the Gilded Age. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996. 230 pp. $30.

The distant mirror of last century's end reflects an obsession with wealth not unlike the driving force of this present age. The comparison does not escape Paulette Kilmer. In her work on what she calls the "success archetype" in Gilded Age America, she sprinkles wry reflections of the present: "Greatness rarely receives public appeal, because most people spend their lives goosestepping to the drumbeat of economic necessity." And she concludes, "In the 1990s, abuses of the success prototype are forcing citizens to abandon unhealthy goals that are focused on the acquisition of things and the exercise of power."

Could it be otherwise, considering the Gilded Age legacy in popular culture examined by the author? Kilmer makes a careful analysis of literary works published between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, books usually ignored by historians and literary critics. Included in the forty-six books she lists in the appendix are children's books, dime novels, mysteries, religious books, romances, westerns, and generally the kind of books hugely popular then but mostly ignored today.

As Kilmer explains in her chapter on methodology, she makes an "extreme analysis" of each plot for "narrative skeletons," using that analysis to show how the success archetype permeated culture then, "which is the meaning of prosperity today. …

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