Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The New Gilded Age

During this research project, I have repeatedly encountered the phrase "the new gilded age" as a desciptor for the contemporary world. Paul Krugman, a Princeton professor and columnist for The New York Times, has used this term in various articles (most notably this one from October 20, 2002), in his most recent book, and in his new blog of the same name (The Conscience of a Liberal). Other pundits and commentators such as David Remnick of The New Yorker and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz have used this term as well. Although the phrase is often associated with the period of the 1990s, Krugman and others make a persuasive case that rising economic inequality continues to be the defining characteristic of the contemporary era (in particular, see the introduction to Krugman's blog).

A somewhat overlooked but important footnote to this ongoing conversation on blogs and in the conventional print media is the fact that the phrase "the gilded age" originates in literature and, in particular, literature that speaks clearly to the contemporary world. According to Wikipedia, the term "Gilded Age" comes from Shakespeare's King John (1595): "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily... is wasteful and ridiculous excess." Subsequently, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner re-worked this image in their satirical novel,The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today(1873). Historians subsequently borrowed this term to describe the latter quarter of the 19th century in the United States, situated between Reconstruction and The Progressive Era. The Gilded Age was an apt phrase for historians to use since showy displays of wealth and excessive opulence were characteristic of both this time period and Twain and Warner's novel.

I call attention to this footnote because it highlights the historic role that literature has played in providing people with useful insight on the contemporary world. Twain and Warner, in their typically satirical manner, embrace this notion that literature speaks tellingly to the contemporary world in the preface to The Gilded Age: "we do not write for a particular class or sect or nation, but to take in the whole world" (note the choice of language here; they knew that some people would be "taken in" by their writing and fail to see their humor and exaggeration). Underlying this research project here, then, is the notion that the historic connection between literature and the world ought to be made more visible to both young adult and adult readers.

Many people today--like Paul Krugman--are fascinated by charts and tables and statistics and data because they provide us with such useful perspective on the contemporary world; indeed, we might say that this is the age of the policy wonk, given the popularity of texts such as Freakonomics, The Tipping Point, and The World Is Flat. However, literature remains an enduring additional source of insight and perspective on current public policy debates and issues. In particular, young adult literature is an exceedingly useful resource for this kind of thinking since, by definition, it focuses on the contemporary world and responds directly to the questioning that adolescents as a group undertake with regard to moral, social, and political values. Given the focus on the contemporary world and the emphasis on social, moral, and political questioning, its not surprising that so many young adult writers follow directly in the footsteps of Louisa May Alcott, Joseph Heller, Ray Bradbury, and other American satirists and social commentators. Young adult literature is arguably the best medium for writers to remind readers of what the world looks like and what we might do to make it a more habitable place for all.

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