The second class meeting begins with discussion of essays on “the Gilded Age: a modern nation?” Students outline their essays orally, or circulate print copies. Then there’s debate. To some students the politics seem very modern: corruption, civil rights and liberties, taxation, eventually a small foreign war. To others, politics was antique: no mass or social media other than newspapers and the post, speeches that a large part of the exclusively live audience couldn’t hear…

The sheer crassness of the Gilded Age and modern wealth strikes students. (Some have found the real estate price page of the Sunday Times the only truly obscene part of that newspaper.) Then we move on, introducing the upcoming readings on “New Americans and a new century: immigration, industrialization, urbanization…” Again textbooks speak of masses, statistics, trends. But what did it mean to be an individual, perhaps newly arrived from abroad, facing pioneering in the rural West, or equally testing times in new and/or growing

Willa Cather’s heroine in O Pioneers suffers, struggles, eventually triumphs, and truly loves the land. Her fellow immigrants to the Great Plains include those who fail, die, reveal their unpleasant nature, live in the past, move on… all the possibilities of pioneering life. Upton Sinclair’s protagonists wrestle with retaining customs yet reshaping lives in the new American urban environment. But that’s not what made The Jungle famous. It’s also a horrific expose of the newly gigantic meat-packing industry, where labor relations, cruelty to animals, and unhygienic (to say the least) processes and products are appallingly detailed. Reading and discussion lead, inevitably, to more writing: “Essay Two Since the early 1600s American history has been a story of immigration. At the turn of the 20th Century, immigrants were building and filling the growing cities, developing the expanding farmlands. Consider and compare the troubles and rewards of each sort of pioneering immigrant.”

All essays, once discussed with fellow students and blue-penciled and tentatively graded by the instructor, may and should be revised and re-submitted. It’s a vital part of writing well. Meanwhile, history moves on. By session four, this week, we’ll be thinking about “The Great War”. What did it mean to go “over there”? Or to stay home, for that matter?

David R Jones continues to enjoy history.

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