The Bourgeoisie Had Bushy Beards

Nostalgia for the first Gilded Age in the middle of the second.

As we lament the dwindling American middle class and belatedly acknowledge the end of an era, pop culture has reached the lesser-known eighth and final stage of grieving: nostalgia.

We’ve spent forty-odd years pining for the postwar golden era, that unreal time when every Tom, Dick, and Harry could get a good-paying job; when LGBTQ was merely a game-winning Scrabble score; when ladies kept themselves chaste with some over-the-counter abstinence. But we’re getting over that now. Our most serious pundits and politicians are quick to tell us those jobs ain’t coming back.

And as Dinesh D’Souza can attest, resurgent virtue isn’t on the horizon, either.

So forget Ward Cleaver, forget Walter Reuther, and for the love of god forget Woodstock. In fact, forget most of the whole twentieth century. Dial it back around one hundred years, to the time when every president had a big bushy beard, and the transcontinental railroad was the real super-train.

That’s right — we’re bringing the Gilded Age back!

And by “we,” of course, I mean, “whoever is running the History Channel and gave the OK to its latest miniseries, The Men Who Built America.” This series promises to tell us about how, according to History, “John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan rose from obscurity and in the process built modern America.”

The trailers for the show are a bit misleading. Watching them, you’d think History had concocted a hybrid of There Will Be Blood and The Borgias — everyone’s yelling and hitting and smoking and doing their best Daniel Plainview impersonation. Sadly, no milkshakes are to be found, much less drunk. The show itself is what anyone who’s watched History would expect: unintentionally comic “reenactments,” wherein costumes and facial hair do most of the acting. Some talking head historians. Surprisingly few Nazis.

What you don’t see — and only hear speak of briefly, as if in passing — are the millions of workers who had something or other to do with these Great Men and their construction of industrial America. These workers are milling about in History’s nineteenth century somewhere, but it’s not too clear where, why, or how. As far as The Men Who Built America is concerned, the men and women who did the actual building don’t matter. I guess mangled limbs and Pinkerton clubs don’t make for good TV? (They so do!)

The show’s complete disregard for the actual men who built America makes sense, though, when you think about life in the Second Gilded Age. We don’t have Robber Barons of the First anymore, but we’ve got Job Creators (and even some Wealth Creators). We’ve got about as much inequality. Lord knows our unions are similarly reviled by capital. Last but not least, who could ignore the parallels between that era’s environmental catastrophes and the looming armageddon of our own?

Actually, when you line up the First and Second Gilded Ages side-by-side, the History Channel’s nostalgia begins to make sense. Say what you will about the tenets of Andrew Carnegie — but at least his machinations resulted in tangible goods that real people could use. Vanderbilt wasn’t mashing together various shitty IOUs into even shittier IOU monsters (a.k.a. CDOs) to unleash after pocketing his fees. J. P. Morgan . . . well, he actually was still pretty terrible . . .

Truth told, if we adjust for the vicissitudes of time, it’s hard not to give the edge to the working class of yesteryear, too. For one thing, their wages were actually growing and they had some real bargaining power. Their standard of living, while scandalously low when compared to The Men Who Built America, was on the rise. And working class political consciousness was burgeoning, fueling a genuinely radical challenge from below that prevented the ruling class from drifting into the defensive complacency that characterizes today’s one percent.

So maybe adding a shiny gloss to our memory of the late-nineteenth century isn’t that ridiculous after all. In fact, I’m reminded of another fading holdover from the Baby Boomer bubble, someone who also had to reach way back to find his long lost vitality. As Dylan put it,

She says, “You can’t repeat the past.”

I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, 
you can’t? Of course you can.”