What Did Mark Twain Mean By The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age is a term attributed to American writer and satirist Mark Twain, who coined the phrase in a novel he wrote to describe the period beginning in the late 1800s and ending just prior to the turn of the century in 1900. The term “gilded” was used to refer to a thin layer of gold that covers an otherwise base metal, and it is generally used to describe a time period covered in an artificial glitz, glamour and wealth.

During the Gilded Age, the advancements of science and technology revolutionized the U.S. economy, allowing for the rapid expansion of big businesses and corporations and the development of the first billionaires in America. The industrial revolution spurred huge amounts of social and economic changes, including new immigration patterns from around the globe, and a massive shift from rural to urban living. By the end of the Gilded Age, social elites had accumulated substantial wealth, creating a “wealth gap” between the top 1 percent and everyone else.

For Mark Twain and his contemporary writers, the term “gilded age” was meant to represent the overestimated veneer of luxury, prosperity and grandiosity that was masking the actual problems in society caused by the economic and social disparities that had developed. Twain was known for his witty and often critical rejoinders of the social, economic and political issues of the period. He wrote in great depth about both the glitz and glamour of the era as well as a the darker side of America including the violence of the labor movement and the terrible economic disparities that the country was experiencing.

Twain, along with a number of other writers of the time, wrote vividly about both the corrupt nature of the politics of the era and the impact it had on the nation, but also about the advancements in science and technology, new “consumer culture,” and the cultural and political contributions made by the large influx of immigrants. Many of the writers of the period were highly critical of the large, influential figures of the Gilded Age and the impact their influence had on society.

Mark Twain not only wrote about the problems and struggles of the Gilded Age, but he also championed many progressive causes and provided a social and moral commentary that resonated with many citizens of the period. He was an outspoken critic of government and business corruption, racial injustice and the use of excessive military force as well as a vocal advocate of voting rights and political freedoms.

Though Twain was certainly not alone in his criticism of the problems of the Gilded Age, his biting satire and powerful imagery have kept his assessment of the era fresh and relevant to this day.

Impact of the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age not only brought wealth to the privileged few, but it brought drastic social, economic, and cultural change to the entire nation. The issues of the period brought about massive population shifts as millions of Americans moved from the countryside to the more populated cities. This change created a power and wealth divide between the rural and urban populations, the result of which can still be seen today in the economic, social and political empires of the nation.

The Gilded Age also brought with it a shift in the concept of work. The period saw the decline in farming and the expansion of large industrial works that necessitated skilled labor. It also saw the shift of men being the primary workers, while more and more women began to enter the workplace. This period of industrialization also saw the rise of labor unions and the beginnings of the nation’s modern social welfare system, as well as a broadening of the civil rights struggle with the fight for women’s suffrage.

The legacy of the Gilded Age can still be felt in the policies, institutions, and political landscapes that we see today, and the issues that the period raised – from social and economic inequality to the power of large corporations – are still debated and contested today.

Social Movements during the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age was not only a period of expansion and technological advancement but also a time of social movements fighting for economic and social reform. The period saw the rise of a number of labor organizations and protest movements, including the forming of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Knights of Labor, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). These organizations fought for better pay, working conditions and more workers’ rights, and many of their insights and arguments laid the groundwork for the labor struggles of the 20th century.

The period also saw a rise in the civil rights struggle as well. African-Americans in the south struggled against segregation and protested the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, while in the north black activists launched their own civil rights movements, including the Niagara Movement, launched by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1905, and the NAACP, founded in 1908. Women activists launched their own struggle for suffrage, culminating with the passage of the 19th Amendment granting national suffrage in 1920.

The Gilded Age saw millions of immigrants crossing the oceans to America in search of opportunity and a better life, and many were met with xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. Though these sentiments remain in some parts of the nation today, the Gilded Age saw the beginnings of a thriving, vibrant and diverse society.

Political Climate

The Gilded Age was marked by enormous political corruption and scandal. This was in large part due to the rise of massive industrial conglomerates that saw their power and wealth expand at a phenomenal rate. Politicians and government workers were often appointed and elected due to the financial support they could give to the wealthy industrialists, leading to a serious lack of accountability in government and eroding trust among citizens.

This period also saw a number of reform movements, including populism, which aimed to promote progressive policies for farmers and workers, and the progressive movement, which sought to reform the financial systems and business practices of the era. Despite the efforts of these reformers, the political system remained largely monopolized by the wealthy elites of the Gilded Age.

Mark Twain’s Views

As mentioned before, Mark Twain was one of the most outspoken critics of the era and its corrupt nature. Twain’s view of the Gilded Age was negative, as he saw it as a veneer of wealth and luxury that was masking the deep economic and social issues of the period. He argued that the nation’s leaders and the wealthy had a moral obligation to use their power and influence to improve the lives of the less privileged, a view that was not shared by the wealthy elites of the time.

In addition to his views on the economic and social issues of the time, Twain was also highly critical of the militarization of the United States, particularly its involvement in foreign wars. Twain argued that a militaristic government was dangerous and did not serve the interests of the people, and he was an early proponent of the anti-imperialism movement.

Legacy of the Gilded Age

The legacies of the Gilded Age are still with us today in many ways. The rise of industrial empires and the consolidations of wealth in the hands of the privileged few have left the nation with an immense wealth gap and high levels of economic inequality. The labor movement and civil rights struggle of the time have left their mark as well, with workplace laws, social welfare policies and voting rights more closely reflecting the needs of the individual than the desires of the powerful.

The era also saw the rise of modern consumer culture, with the rise of new technologies, transportation, and goods as well as the explosion of advertising and entertainment media. This period of technological, cultural, and economic advancement also saw the beginnings of the current globalized economy, with goods and services being traded between different nations and cultures on a massive scale for the first time in the history of the world.

Mark Twain and the other writers of his era provided a vivid and eloquent comment on the issues of the Gilded Age, one that still resonates today with its themes of corruption, inequality and the power of corporate elites. Twain’s satire and wit provide us with a powerful insight into the times and serve to remind us of the struggles that we still need to overcome in order to make sure that the same problems are not repeated in the future.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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