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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
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
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Text 8. Southern Statis
Text 9. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago

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Reading Guide
Andrew Carnegie
Carnegie, 1913
Wealth and Weightlessness
- Andrew Carnegie, The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, 1920, excerpts
- Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age, novel, 1873, Ch. 7-8

Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermlin, Scotland, in 1835. His family emigrated to the United States in 1848, when steam-powered looms displaced his father, a master handloom weaver, from his job. The family settled in Alleghany, Pennsylvania, which later became part of Pittsburgh. A succession of jobs eventually landed Carnegie in the employ of the Pennsylvania Railroad as a telegraph operator, a position that made him privy to the professional dealings of the Pittsburgh business community and showed him the value of new technologies. The excerpt offered here picks up his life at that point. It suggests the vitality and opportunity that characterized American life as the nation industrialized. It also identifies a danger that typically accompanies times of heady and rapid change, the danger of losing touch with reality. For Carnegie that danger is embodied in the stock speculator, "the man whose mind is disturbed by the mercurial changes of the Stock Exchange. . . . What is not, he sees, and what he sees, is not."

Such a man is Colonel Beriah Sellers, the fast-talking huckster of The Gilded Age, the novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner that gave this period its name. The excerpted chapters comically dramatize what has been called the "weightlessness" of this period, the sense that America's newly dynamic capitalism was dissolving all that was solid, severing traditional ties, and blurring reality into unreality. We get a hint of this in the giddy astonishment that Carnegie and his friends feel when they discover that the making of money can be separated from the sweat of one's brow and, of course, in Carnegie's denunciation of Wall Streeters who make money on airy speculations rather than on solid manufactures. The chapters from The Gilded Age give new meaning to Whitman's assertion in "Song of the Exposition" that "Materials here under your eye shall change their shape as if by magic." Indeed, in the world of Colonel Sellers reality is quite slippery: fire gives no heat; furniture disappears overnight, and hogs and corn become "oceans of cash." A few hours with Colonel Sellers leaves Washington Hawkins, the novel's protagonist, feeling as if he were weightless with his world spinning "round and round" and all the objects in it merely "a dancing chaos." 15 pages total.

Discussion questions
  1. By what talents does Carnegie succeed?
  2. How do his skills differ from those exemplified in Horatio Alger, Jr.'s Ragged Dick? (See "People.")
  3. Using the techniques of portrait analysis suggested in the "Empire" section of the toolbox, critique the Carnegie portrait included in the text. What values does the portrait convey? What kind of image of the successful man does it present? Why would he have wanted to present himself this way?
  4. How do Twain and Warner develop the appearance-reality theme?
  5. Why is it significant that Colonel Sellers is trying to perfect an eye medicine?
  6. What do the worlds of Carnegie and Sellers have in common?

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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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