THE INCORPORATION OF AMERICA: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age by Alan Trachtenberg

THE INCORPORATION OF AMERICA: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In this latest addition to the American Century series, Professor Trachtenberg (American Studies and English, Yale) attempts a synthesis of current thinking as regards the ""effects of the corporate system on culture, on values and outlooks, on the 'way of life,'"" from the end of the Civil War to the early 1890s. ""By the incorporation of America,"" he adds, ""I mean. . . the coming into being of a new version of America itself."" The result is an example of cultural history as a shredding-and-compacting machine. In 230-odd pages, one cannot intelligently explicate the historical reality, ""cultural myths,"" and selected interpretations of: the Westward Movement; mechanization; the conflict between capital and labor; the rise of the metropolis; high culture, middle-class culture, and popular culture; and realist fiction--each of which, capped by a discussion of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, occupies a chapter here. What we are presented with is a blur of argumentation (an effect heightened by Trachtman's sprawling sentences and often page-long paragraphs), constantly recoiling on itself, from which can be extracted certain standard motifs: in the section on the ""contradictory meanings and implications"" of the machine, the recurrent business crises of 1873-96, the celebratory world's fairs, utopian vs. cataclysmic visions, the mechanization and standardization of daily life, the specialization of knowledge. Cultural criticism, per se, does contribute its insights: re dime novels of technological fantasy--""Their volcanic effects suggest deep-seated and widespread anxieties sublimated in the pleasure of making terror into play""; and, crucially--""The fear of cataclysm implicit here is not so much technological as social: the fear manifest throughout the popular media after 1877 of uprisings and insurrection, of a smoldering volcano under the streets."" The second point is Trachtenberg's closest approximation to a coherent, defensible theme--reiterated, for example, in his discussion of Melville's Billy Budd. (In conclusion, he offers a highly problematic reformulation of the conflict between ""corporations"" and ""workers"" as a conflict, also, between ""a notion of culture as pleasing prospect"" and a ""still emerging but older notion of culture as solidarity."") A chore to read, and largely unedifying (though the bibliography, by itself, could be useful).

Pub Date: March 1st, 1982
ISBN: 0809058286
Publisher: Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giroux