Contesting the Past, Reconstructing the Nation: American Literature and Culture in the Gilded Age by Ben Railton
Jeffrey NobleHIST 300-B01Book ReviewContesting the Past, Reconstructing the Nation: American Literature and Culture in the Gilded Age by Ben Railton Contesting the Past, Reconstructing the Nation: American Literature and Culture in the Gilded Age by Ben Railton takes an observatory position of the United States from the 1876 Centennial Exposition. The Exposition itself is regarded as a “celebration of America’s material progress and prowess,” throughout the first 100 years of the American nation (page 1). The authors thesis lies within the last paragraph of page 5 and the first of page 6. It says, “All four of these issues, which I call for simplicity (echoing the period’s language) the woman question, the Indian question, the race question, and the South question, were present in some form on the Centennial Exposition’s grounds; together they constituted a much more dialogic vision of American history than those comprised by the Exposition’s materialist exhibits or voiced in its ceremonial texts” (pgs. 5-6). Essentially, the main point that Railton is trying to prove throughout his book is that the 4 issues presented were a much bigger deal within the active culture of the United States than the Exposition first made it seem.
The key argument that Railton used to support his thesis on the part of race question had to do with an argument within an argument. He uses a debate between Alexander Crummel and Frederick Douglass. Both of these men were African-American political and philosophical activists during the 19th century, but they had differing opinions about certain aspects of their race. Specifically, “the past could play in such otherwise similar philosophies: depicted as an earlier, lesser stage of life to be moved past and triumphed over, in Crummell’s articulation; or as a critical element in the formation of African American identity to be remembered and even stressed in the current debates, in Douglass’s reply” (pg. 24). Next, Railton addresses the “Indian question” as stated on page 5 of the book and the argument that he uses to show the importance of the Native American aspect is a story from the American west. Essentially, the story is about how Americans struggled to communicate effectively with Native Americans. The title itself is pretty telling of this argument, “If We Had Known How to Write, We Would Have Put All These Things Down, and They Would Not Have Been Forgotten” (pg. 71). Regarding the 3rd part of the Railton’s thesis, he uses an argument that attempts to show the overlooked importance of the woman’s suffrage movement during the Gilded Age in America. In this is his attempt to answer the “woman question.” The argument stems mostly from the evidence of all the works of women during the time in question. And finally, for the final part, in chapter 4 Railton attempts to tackle the “south question.” For this argument, he again uses literary works, but the most compelling use is the use of, “romance of reunion.” “A novel in which (typically) a Northern man and Southern woman forget the divisive history of slavery, sectionalism, and Civil War, set aside their divergent and extreme views, and find love and a shared national future” (pg. 163).