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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Memory: Civil War Memory and American Nostalgia
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Memory
Text 1. Winslow Homer
Text 2. Hamlin Garland
Text 3. Joel Chandler Harris
Text 4. Jane Addams
Text 5. Robert G. Ingersoll
Text 6. Re-Union and the Railroad
Text 7. Visions of the West
Text 8. Owen Wister

Timeline: 1865-1913


Resource Menu

Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field
Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field, 1865

Topic Framing Questions
  •  In the aftermath of the Civil War, how did Americans look back and look forward?
  •  During this period, how did Americans promote the re-union of the nation?
  •  How did they reconceptualize their sense of national identity?

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1.  Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field, oil on canvas, 1865

We begin with a painting from 1865, well outside of the period under consideration but included to introduce the Civil War into the discussion. It is important to do so because the War and its memory influenced virtually every aspect of the era.

Winslow Homer was born in Boston in 1836 and grew up in Cambridge. He moved to New York in 1859 and lived there until 1883, when he moved to Maine where he lived until his death in 1910. Homer was intensely interested in the Civil War. In 1861 Harper's Weekly sent him to Virginia to create images of the War, which critic Robert Hughes has praised as "the most truthful visual record of the Civil War, outside of photography, that has come down to us." In The Veteran in a New Field, one of Homer's most poignant and evocative paintings, a former Union soldier—note the jacket and canteen in the lower right-hand corner of the picture—is harvesting wheat with a scythe. 1 page.

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2.  Hamlin Garland, "The Return of a Private," short story in Main-Travelled Roads, 1891

Hamlin Garland could have borrowed the title of Homer's painting for this story. Garland drew the material for his fiction from the Midwest, what he called "the middle border." His family moved from Maine to Wisconsin, where he was born in 1860. From there they moved to Iowa and eventually settled in South Dakota. Although the Garlands ventured steadily westward to find their fortune, Hamlin found mainly toil and dullness. As soon as he could, he fled east to Boston. An 1887 visit back home confirmed his early impressions and led him to dramatize them in Main-Travelled Roads (1891), the collection that includes "The Return of a Private." The story suggests some ambivalence in Garland's mind about the West and the life people lived there. At one point Garland gives us a Bierstadtian vision of "a beautiful symmetrical peak" glowing "like a beacon" in the "morning sun." Yet the rural Wisconsin life Private Edward Smith faces upon his return from the Civil War is a "daily running fight, with nature and against the injustice of his fellow men." Like Joel Chandler Harris, Garland asserts that in his protagonist we see a genuine American and not just a regional type. The story invites comparison with Homer's The Veteran in a New Field and with Harris's "Aunt Fountain's Prisoner." 14 pages.

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3.  Joel Chandler Harris, "Aunt Fountain's Prisoner," short story, March 1887

Like Garland's story, this one narrates the return of a Union soldier to a farm, only the soldier is a cavalryman, not an infantryman, and the farm is a plantation in Georgia, not a hillside plot in Wisconsin. Joel Chandler Harris, most famous for his Uncle Remus stories, was one of the numerous local color writers who dominated the American literary scene in the late nineteenth century. With the nation reunited, Americans satisfied their curiosity about the country's varied regions through stories that capitalized on local peculiarities. As perhaps the nation's most exotic locale, the South had more than its share of local colorists. Unlike other practitioners of the art, however, Southern local colorists walked a literary tightrope. On one hand, their regional loyalties prevented them from admitting that the South was wrong in taking up arms. On the other hand, they could not afford to be so unapologetic that they alienated their northern readers. While not disowning the South, they had to show that the South accepted its defeat and was now ready to be part of the Union once again. In "Aunt Fountain's Prisoner" Joel Chandler Harris walks this tightrope with perfect balance. In the story the South confirms its fundamental good sense by accepting the democratic equality and efficiency of the North, and the North confirms its wisdom by embracing the culture and grace of the South. All this mingling establishes the Trunion (true-union?) family on an old plantation in Georgia. If your students can handle the dialect, this might be a good story to use with them. 10 pages.

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4.  Jane Addams, "Influence of Lincoln," Ch. 2 of Twenty Years at Hull-House, 1910

If Homer's Veteran and Garland's Private Smith carried the memory of the Civil War back to rural America, Jane Addams carried it back to the city. Born in Cedarville, Illinois, in 1860, Addams graduated from Rockford College in 1882. She began medical studies but had to give them up because of ill health. In 1887, on a trip to London, she witnessed the success of Toynbee Hall, an institution that provided education and social services to the poor. When she returned to the United States, she founded a similar institution, Hull-House, in Chicago in 1889. She was active in progressive politics and wrote widely on social issues. In 1931 she won the Nobel Peace Prize. She died in 1935.

In this chapter from Twenty Years at Hull-House Addams shows us how, during her childhood, the War wove itself into the fabric of daily life. It came to Addams through a living-room shrine honoring the "Addams guard," through stories of local heroes, and through the reminiscences of adults. Above all, however, it came to her through the image of Abraham Lincoln, "an epitome of all that was great and good . . . the conscience of his countrymen." Lincoln is not often seen as a symbol for the Progressive Era, yet, as Addams shows us, his personal characteristics and achievement made him one. Indeed, no less a progressive than Theodore Roosevelt embraced him as a model, holding him in such high honor that on his inauguration in 1913 he wore a ring containing a lock of Lincoln's hair. A good selection to use with students. 7 pages.

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5.  Robert Ingersoll, The Wall Street Speech, 1880, excerpts

As we have seen, some Americans, like Joel Chandler Harris, tried to put the Civil War behind them. Others, like Jane Addams, kept it alive in memory as a moral touchstone. Yet still others thrust it foursquare into the national consciousness as a raw and bloody wound. Manipulating the emotions of the War, politicians during this time were able to motivate citizens to remarkably high levels of remarkably loyal voting. One of the best examples of such manipulation can be seen in the speeches of Robert G. Ingersoll. The son of a Congregational minister, Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York, in 1833. His family moved to Illinois, where he was admitted to the bar and became a court lawyer. His service in the Union Army during the Civil War transformed him from a Democrat to a Republican, and within the party he became sufficiently prominent to nominate James G. Blaine as its presidential candidate in 1876. His own political career—from 1867 to 1869 he served as the attorney general of Illinois—was stymied by his fervent antireligious beliefs. One of the most powerful orators of his day, he became known as "the great agnostic" for his questioning of Christian orthodoxy. Ingersoll campaigned vigorously for Republican candidates and was one of the first to "wave the bloody shirt" of the Civil War to attack Democrats. We can sense some of the force of his rhetoric in the excerpts included here. Ingersoll died in 1899. 4 pages.

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6.  Re-Union and the Railroad
- Kansas Pacific Railway Co., Senatorial Excursion Party over the Union Pacific Railway, 1867, excerpts
- Does not such a meeting make amends?, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, engraving, 29 May 1869

Ingersoll's rhetoric may have been powerfully divisive, but it was up against some equally powerful uniting forces, one of which was Progress, ordained by God and here symbolized by the locomotive. In 1863, as civil war raged in the eastern states, construction began in Nebraska and California on the railways that would meet six years later in Utah, creating a 1776-mile span across the American west. More than an engineering feat, the first transcontinental railroad was a symbol of America's postwar promise—renewed vigor, shared vision, and redemption from civil war. In other words, re-union.

This view is evident in the readings presented here. The first includes excerpts of speeches delivered by U.S. senators while on a train excursion arranged by the Union Pacific Railroad through the plains states in 1867. The legislators lavishly express their awe of the railroad and their faith in Americans' ability to capitalize on its promise. Poignantly they exude relief in the shared future it offers to the nation whose unity, at that point, was maintained by force and occupation. Next we view an illustration published by a popular magazine several weeks after the completion of the railroad. While the drawing represents the geographical union of East and West, the metaphorical union it defines is that of North and South. 9 pages.

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7.  Visions of the West
- Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, oil on canvas, 1836
- Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Mountains, oil on canvas, ca. 1870
- Frederic Edwin Church, Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford in 1636, oil on canvas, 1846
- Albert Bierstadt, The Oregon Trail, oil on canvas, 1869

In the early nineteenth century visual artists began to define American national identity through landscape painting. Lacking such markers of ancient heritage as ruins and castles, Americans defined themselves through the nature they saw all around them, finding distinction and prominence in their forests, mountains, canyons, and cataracts. At first, of course, artists focused on the landscape of the East, but by the 1830s that Eden had been lost to industry. After the Civil War, once the issue of nationhood had been resolved, the West became the locus of the national soul. To explore what this shift from east to west meant for representations of national identity, we invite you to compare two sets of thematically related landscapes, one painted before the War, one after.

Born in England in 1801, Thomas Cole and his family immigrated to Philadelphia in 1818, where he taught himself to paint. In 1825 he moved to New York and found a market for his landscapes and sketches. Cole introduced the sublime and the idea of the picturesque landscape to America. In his work he tried to capture a vanishing arcadia. The View from Mount Holyoke is typical. It depicts a sunlit, placid valley and a silvery oxbow lake swept by a thunderstorm.

When Cole died in 1848, the mantle of American landscape painting passed to his student Frederick Edwin Church. His Hooker and Company is the first representation of Manifest Destiny in American art. Thomas Hooker, a Puritan divine who escaped persecution in England by fleeing to Massachusetts, left Massachusetts in 1636 over a dispute about voting. He founded Hartford, which became the nucleus of the Connecticut Colony. The painting shows him leading his congregation through a bright pristine wilderness.

If Cole introduced Manifest Destiny into American art on a minor chord, Albert Bierstadt carried it to a crescendo. Born in Germany in 1830, his family came to New Bedford, Massachusetts, when he was two. At twenty-three he returned to Germany to study art and upon his return claimed the West as his subject. To considerable popular acclaim he offered his audiences paintings like Storm in the Mountains—grand, melodramatic views of Rockies and other Western peaks. On one of his Western excursions he encountered a party of German immigrants making their way to Oregon. So moved was he by the experience that he captured their journey in The Oregon Trail—men, covered wagons, horses, cattle lumbering across a valley floor lit by a resplendent golden sunset. According to critic Lee Mitchell, his paintings assert "a transformative power for a distinctly national landscape identified with the Far West." The vogue for his style was short-lived. Reaching its zenith in the mid 1860s, it waned by the mid 1870s. 2 pages.

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8.  Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, 1902, Introduction, Ch. 1-3

Wister was born in Philadelphia in 1860. Educated in this country and abroad, he graduated from Harvard in 1882 and took a law degree there in 1888. He practiced law in Philadelphia before embarking upon a career as a writer. In the early 1880s poor health prompted him, like Theodore Roosevelt, to seek renewal in West. On the basis of his visits there he began to write short stories, which eventually led to The Virginian. Even if you have never heard of it, The Virginian will seem familiar, for it established the template of the western. Its characters and situations reverberate through every horse opera you have ever seen. Set in Wyoming between 1874 and 1890 but published in 1902, it demonstrates the progress the nation had made toward reunion. Readers would have recognized the stereotype Wister deployed—the Virginian as cool, haughty, natural aristocrat—hardly an all-American type. Yet when relocated to the wide-open West and transformed from cavalier to cowboy, the novel's proud and prickly Southern protagonist, old enough to have fought for the Confederacy, could not only be embraced as a hero but hailed as an avatar of the American character. 17 pages.

Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field, 1865. Oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 38 1/8 in. (61.3 x 96.9 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876-1967), 1967: 67.187.131. Permission pending.

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