Sunday, July 15, 2018

Three Views of the Gilded Age

By Jeff Burns

I’ve recently read three interesting books of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Gilded Age or the late Victorian period. Each was very interesting in its own way, and each focused on a different aspect of the period.

The Wilderness of Ruin by Roseanne Montillo, is the story of Jesse Pomeroy, a fourteen-year old Boston boy, convicted of brutal attacks and murders of local children in the 1870s.  The story behind the crimes and the criminal himself is very interesting, but that’s not the entire book.  Montillo paints a very vivid and detailed picture of Boston in the 1870s, the lives of several of Boston’s leading citizens including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Herman Melville, and the penal system of the time. 

Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man is an original way of looking at the time that hadn’t occurred to me.  John Kasson, the author, selects three men - escape king Harry Houdini, the first professional bodybuilder Eugene Sandow, and  king of the jungle Tarzan – to explore how the modern age affected white men in America and Europe and their perceptions of what it meant to be the perfect physical specimen, the perfect physique, the “perfect man.”  He deftly relates these changes in perception to racism and imperialism in a unique way. 

The Last Days of Night is one of the best historical novels I’ve read in a while.  It’s about the Current War between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, a war to determine which electrical system, AC or DC, would power the world. Throw in real characters like Nikola Tesla, J. P. Morgan, and opera singer Agnes Huntington, and you’ve got a very exciting story.  Moore also starts each chapter with a quotes from scientists, engineers, inventors, or businessmen.  Most of the quotes are from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  Their use really encourages the reader to make comparisons among the men of the late 19th century and early 21st centuries. The book  whetted my appetite for biographies of Tesla and Edison, especially Tesla.

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