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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: Progress: The Meaning of the Machine
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Progress
Text 1. Memory and Machines
» Reading Guide
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Text 2. Brooklyn Bridge
Text 3. Human Machines
Text 4. Christine Frederick
Text 5. Thomas Eakins
Text 6. Thomas Edison
Text 7. Wealth and Weightlessness
Text 8. Southern Statis
Text 9. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago

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Reading Guide
Machinery Hall
Machinery Hall
Memory and Machines
- Walt Whitman, "Song of the Exposition," poem, 1881
- Machinery Hall, The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, 1876 (online exhibition)

The first section of this toolbox explored two images that dominated American culture during this period, the Civil War and nature. To those images we now add a third, the machine, material progress embodied in steel. Machines, the skills and values necessary to make and use them, and the changes they wrought were means by which Americans could put the War behind them and find unity once again. Whitman's "Song of the Exposition" is one of the most vigorous expressions of this idea. Whitman recited the poem at the opening of an industrial fair in New York City in 1871 and published it that same year under the title "After All Not to Create Only." Five years later he applied it to the Philadelphia Centennial and re-titled it. He made final revisions in 1881, and that is the version provided here. The poem would be a rich text for discussion, for it addresses many of the major themes of this period: Civil War memory, the presence of immigrants in the nation, the status of workingmen, the balance between the man-made and the natural in the definition of America, and the United States as an emerging world power.

The Free Library of Philadelphia's web version of the Centennial Exhibition provides superb photographs and explanations of the buildings and exhibits visitors saw at the nation's 100th birthday party. Especially impressive is the magnificent photo of the Corliss engine, the fifty-six ton behemoth in Machinery Hall that dominated the event. 10 pages total.

Discussion questions
  1. How does the memory of the Civil War figure into this poem?
  2. Why is Whitman so struck with the experience of the foreign at the Exposition?
  3. How does he view immigrants?
  4. How does he relate workingmen to the wonders on display at the Exposition?
  5. What is the balance between the man-made and the natural in Whitman's vision of America?
  6. What does Whitman see as the role of machines in American life?
  7. What, for Whitman, defines American identity during this period?
  8. What does the Exposition's architecture say about the organizers' vision of America?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Americans of this period define progress?
  •  What did progress mean to them?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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Revised: May 2005