Mark Twain managed to name the Gilded Age almost before it had begun. The contentious decades that followed the Civil War have carried other names—the Age of Innocence, the Age of Reform, the Brown Decades. But the title of Twain’s novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, co-written with his friend and neighbor Charles Dudley Warner and published in 1873, captured a fundamental ambiguity in how the period is remembered. While the Gilded Age has come to be associated with the fashionable sporting society or “gilded youth” of Newport and Saratoga, as portrayed in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James, Twain meant the phrase ironically, to describe the hucksters and cheats who ushered in not a golden age, that pastoral dream of social harmony and material abundance in ancient Greece, but only a gilded one, concealing the dross beneath.
“Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust,” Twain wrote, “of unlimited reliance upon human promises?”
That is a peculiar condition of society which enables a whole nation to instantly recognize point and meaning in the familiar newspaper anecdote, which puts into the mouth of a distinguished speculator in lands and mines this remark:—“I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.”
While the period was conspicuous for its unregulated boom-and-bust economy and the mushrooming new fortunes of men like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie—what the historian Jackson Lears calls the “galloping conscienceless capitalism of the Gilded Age”—it also featured an unsavory war with Spain in Cuba and the Philippines; the “winning of the West” (the title of a popular book by Theodore Roosevelt) and the almost complete finishing off of the “vanishing” Indian; two severe depressions; the armed suppression of strikers demanding an eight-hour workday rather than the customary twelve; and so many vigilante murders of innocent black men that Mark Twain, in 1901, proposed renaming the country the “United States of Lyncherdom.”
For many historians, the figure who best embodies the conflicts of the period, a man “gilded” in both senses of the word, is the blustering trust-buster and Rough Rider himself, Theodore Roosevelt. His steep ascent from Harvard-educated amateur historian and advocate for the “strenuous life” to public servant as, successively, police commissioner in New York City, assistant secretary of the navy, cavalry officer in Cuba, governor of New York, vice-president, and then, after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, a popular two-term president seems to reflect the possibilities for self-invention during the volatile Gilded Age.
Roosevelt has inspired later politicians, most recently John McCain, who claims his …