The Gilded Age: The Emergence of Modern America

Fall 2002

The era between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I has been called “The Gilded Age,” the title of a novel by Mark Twain. Historian Allen Nevins describes this time in our history as a “period of currency inflation, widespread speculation, over expansion of industry, loud booming of dubious enterprises, base industries and political morals, and flashy manners.” In this get-rich-quick era, society focused on how much money people possessed rather than how individuals had amassed it. Twain describes the era as filled with audacious swindles, brazen corruption, illusionary riches, and naked greed. The Golden Age that the American experience had promised is thus gilded over with high-sounding phrases, pseudo-piety, and hypocritical gentility. However, some sought to see through the gilt to a harder and darker reality. Among this group are the writers of the books we will read in this series.

Do you want to explore this era and see through the gild to a sharper view of reality? If you want the stimulation of being exposed to the minds of five provocative and entertaining writers whose opinions often conflict with the golden facade, please join us for this “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma” reading and discussion series. Some of our country’s finest writers and greatest classics await your first encounter or a renewed one after the passage of years. Perhaps you might even find associations with events in our contemporary experience of being Americans. Does this era from the historical past sound startlingly similar to our time present as American ideals are subverted to the worship of large corporations and the protection of the personal interests of those who have power?

Oklahoma City University invites participants to make these issues come “alive” in the readings of this five-part series. At each session, a Humanities scholar will make a 30-40 minute presentation on the readings. Small group discussion will follow with experienced discussion leaders. At the end, everyone will come together for a brief wrap-up. Anyone interested in participating is encouraged to preregister and borrow the reading selections by calling Harbour Winn at 521-5472, emailing him at or dropping by OCU’s Walker Center 171. A brochure describing the series theme is also available.

The series will be held in Walker Center, Room 140, on the Oklahoma City University campus from 7:00 to 9:00 PM on Tuesdays, beginning September 3 and continuing on alternate Tuesdays through October 29. “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma,” a cooperative project of the Oklahoma Library Association and the Oklahoma Humanities Council, provides books, theme materials, and services for this series. Funding for this series is provided by a grant from the Oklahoma Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


9/3/2002 Mark Twain’s Huckelberry Finn

Perhaps the most widely read of all American books, Huckleberry Finn charts the mythical story of a boy growing up and lost on the Mississippi searching for a father. In the process Huck becomes aware of the rights of all Americans and the abuses of many; his struggle to come to terms with the hypocrisy of his society’s values leads him to an uneasy bargain with it. Chart your own growth as a person by noting your experience of this classic once again; contemplate why it still evokes both admiration and controversy.

9/17/2002 Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage

Rarely has the historical and psychological accuracy of the battlefield been thrust so glaringly before readers as Crane’s rendering of Henry Fleming’s impressions of war. Larger questions arise: to what degree can anyone distinguish between the personal and the objective? A masterpiece of realism and irony, The Red Badge of Courage ultimately goes beyond personal or political issues to universal questions about our place in the world.

10/1/2002 Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

Banned by many libraries after its publication and banished for decades, The Awakening is now widely hailed as the powerful vision of woman’s emancipation. Main character Edna, in search of self-discovery, attempts to throw off the fetters of an indifferent husband and the requirements for social conformity. In her continual rise to prominence since the 1950’s, Chopin dramatizes the emerging female consciousness and the struggle to establish an alternative identity.

10/15/2002 W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk

From his prophetic declaration that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” to his attack on unprincipled businessmen, Du Bose’s collection of inspired essays ranks as one of the most influential works in American literature. His concerns for the problems of American cities without civic virtues and for the destruction of more stable rural communities will seem like they were written today. His discussion of race will sound like the plight of the immigrant in the USA in 2002.

10/29/2002 Jack London’s The Call of the Wild

Although London did not bring any gold back from the Yukon, participating in the Gold Rush made him rich in stories of the struggle between humans and nature. This conflict can also reflect struggles at many levels—for riches, power, dominance, self-satisfaction, etc. A dark critique of the struggle for monetary greed in the “The Gilded Age,” The Call of the Wild reflects the hollowness of economic ambitions, the artificiality of urban mannerisms, and the dehumanization of labor.