A wonderfully entertaining if less than rigorous history of the Gilded Age, told through brief biographies of some 40 tree American characters from Horatio Alger, Jr., to Sojourner Truth. As in The Beechers (1981), Rugoff has set out to illustrate the vast and essential changes taking place in the American character during the 19th century--the displacement of "the unyielding Puritanism of a Cotton Mather with the flexible creed of a Henry Ward Beecher. . .the conversion of the Puritan into Yankee." Divided into sections on politicians, financiers, society, the frontier, the press, sexual convention, feminism, and social critics, many of these thumbnail sketches are superficial--but a distinct vision emerges. It is an unflattering but always fascinating group portrait, with "critics and Cassandras," including Mark Twain and Charles Eliot Norton--who questioned America's spiritual values--far outweighed in influence by such "Spoilsmen" as Sam Ward, the influence-peddling "King of the Lobbyists," and the "Money Kings": Vanderbilt, Jay Cooke and Jay Gould--whose manipulations of the economy would make today's insider traders seem timid. Though Rugoff's purpose is serious--here are the foundations of contemporary America, from the dream of the Frontier to the worship of success--he's nonetheless amused by many of his subjects, and peppers his work with anecdotes such as the one about the Mormon who "announced. . .a divine command to take another wife" and was told by his first wife "that she had a divine comman to shoot such a woman." American history lite, with bite.