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gilded age and the limits of the sentimental period drama
I have been meaning for a few weeks to put down some thoughts about The Gilded Age, a period drama from Julian Fellowes that aired on HBO Max. The show, as the name implies, is set in New York during the 1880s. The term Gilded Age comes to us, with some derision and biting irony, from Mark Twain. It was meant to capture some of the excess and superficiality that had come to characterize America during the booming post-Reconstruction years. It was a time of great social change as the nation grappled with wounds psychic, bodily, emotional, and economic in the wake of the Civil War. Old fortunes were dying and new fortunes were being born like fresh galaxies suddenly flaring to life in the night sky. All the while, America’s newly freed Black population began their journeys into industrial cities, where they hoped to make a life for themselves but also where they were met with white people’s simmering resentment over, well, you know, The Civil War. In short, the 1880s were a time when America was thirsty for new myths about itself. Part nostalgia, part fantasy. An interregnum of sorts, a time of furious myth-making between the twilight of The Civil War and the terrifying dawn of The Roaring Twenties, or you know, Jim Crow.
At the start of The Gilded Age, in Pennsylvania, we meet Marian Brooke, a young woman in dire straits as the death of her father reveals that they are broke. Their possessions are to be sold, the rented house to be turned over, and she is to be sent, where else, but to New York where she is to be taken in by her spinster aunts. On the way, she meets Peggy Scott, a black woman who is returning to her own family in New York…for mysterious reasons. After Marian’s ticket and purse are stolen, Peggy lends her money to pay for ticket where we witness white Marian among a crowd of black people in the shifting, dim train car. Peggy apologizes that Marian has to ride with them and Marian says nonsense, she’s grateful for the help, even as she coughs discretely into her handkerchief. In New York, Peggy is stranded when the Brooklyn ferry is halted due to a storm and Marian insists that Peggy come with her to the aunts’ home. And just like that, we’re off to the races.
At the house of Agnes van Rhijn, we meet Marian’s aunts Agnes and Ada. The family has been estranged because Marian’s father was a gambling cad and sold all of their family possessions. Agnes was married off to a seemingly terrible man who died and left her a great deal of money. Ada lives with her in their dotage. Agnes belongs to Old New York, which she is fond of explaining to Marian. Meaning of course, what Ward McAllister called The Four Hundred. The families and members fashionable New York society, made up often of the descendents of the original Dutch and English settlers. The irony of referring to these people as aristocracy lies in the fact that they were not noble at all. They were merchants and farmers and the castaway sons from larger, greater families who came to this country and made their fortunes in the commerce of their time: trade, wool, land, etc. And with their acquired wealth, they bought themselves influence and power, but their greatest claim to nobility was simply that that they had been rich for long enough that people kind of forgot that they’d once been scraggly Dutch farmers. It is from this perch that they look down upon the so-called New People, meaning of course the crop of newly minted millionaires trying to buy their way into elite society.
Many of the names we now associate with old American wealth—Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, Getty, Vanderbilt, etc—were once but gauche industrialists, so rich so suddenly that their wealth became something of a talisman of shame. Something of the vinegary stench of factory-fresh fortune. If your wealth was new, then it was not really wealth, the denizens of “old New York” seemed to say. Or so, we have this legend, repeated ad nauseam in The Gilded Age in the conflict between the upstart Russells and the established elite. The Russells are a newly rich family who have made their money in railroads and banks. They have just built a huge house on the Upper East Side, across the street from the van Rhijn house.
What Bertha Russell wants more than anything is to be accepted into the ton. She has emulated the fashions and styles of the day down to the last stitch, but there is something garish and offensive not only in her wealth but also her desire to be accepted. The elites of New York pay her in dust and ignore her, exclude her, refuse to know her. Bertha though is nothing if not determined and keeps wielding her money like a cudgel, waiting for the world to crack open. Bertha’s understanding of money is quite contemporary. That is, she seems to feel that there is no obstacle aesthetic, social, or spiritual that money cannot overcome. We understand that eventually, they will relent. That’s another mantra everyone on the show keeps repeating: “eventually, the new people will get into society. It’s only a matter of time.” Eventually the religion of money will triumph and will sweep the old order before it.
The tension comes down to whether or not one can use money to buy class or buy into class. And if not, does that imply that there is something to class which is not material. What they wanted was an American nobility, a real nobility, one that stemmed from a long tenure of occupancy in the highest reaches of American society. A means to differentiate themselves from the parvenu, the recently ennobled, meaning, obviously, the recently wealthy. This fear, I think, in America in particular, also stemmed from the fact that if all one had to do was have enough money, then, God Forbid, what if the Catholics or the Irish or the Italians or the, gasp, Black people amassed enough wealth. Would that mean that America’s Anglo-Dutch Protestant Elite would have to share power with people of dubious ethnic and religious origin? But if American nobility were a thing that had to be inherited in the blood, then it could also be protected, codified, and transmitted within an enclosed network of families.
In the 1880s, America was still healing from the Civil War. This is obvious, but it bears repeating. The Civil War was a cataclysmic and apocalyptic event. The effects were not merely constrained to the South. An entire generation of people—soldiers and civilians alike, white and black, men and women, rich and poor—was annihilated. Not only that, but those who survived had their horizons of possibility irrevocably altered. America was never the same after the Civil War because how could it be? The nation had gone to war over the institution of slavery, which was at its heart a conflict over who got to be a fucking person. But it also constituted a total reconfiguring of the American economy and turbocharged the industrial revolution in this country.
Black people, who were formerly considered property, suddenly had the capacity to own their labor. To own the means of production. They could own property. Start businesses. Schools. They suddenly were faced with the notion that they might begin to figure out what it meant to be a black citizen of this country. I mean, in theory. Of course, what it really meant was that the systems of stealing black labor and disenfranchising them were merely reconfigured and redeployed. But in theory! Black people went from property to being agents in the American project, which was significant!
All period dramas are projects in nostalgia. But it is a curious form of nostalgia, a sentimental nostalgia. The period drama is a sentimental form. The word sentimental I borrow from the critic Leslie Fiedler, who in Love and Death in the American Novel describes the sentimental as a fusion of Protestant and Bourgeois values that places at its center the preservation of the chaste pure maiden from the horrors of seduction and vulgarization. In the sentimental novel, a young woman takes flight through a world of terrifying temptations and is confronted with a Faustian bargain that she must, if she is truly a young maiden, rebuff. The sentimental novel affirms our Protestant values and flatters our Bourgeois sensibility in that it is essentially a conformist tale. In the end, all is well because the vulgarians remain outside the gates and the world inside continues as it always has. The emotional key of the sentimental novel is always pitched high—the swooning, the reeling, the gasping, the panting. Feeling triumphs over all, but in the end, good feelings are rewarded and bad feelings (lust, greed, etc) are punished. In this way, the Protestant moral axis is maintained. Sentimental literature is often a literature of allegory.
What makes a period drama sentimental then? A period drama presents a detached, stylized view of the past that is at bottom only concerned with gratifying our contemporary bourgeois sensibility. A period drama’s primary theme is the satisfaction of its contemporary audience and flattering their moral security. A period drama has nothing to do with history, not really. It is only ever directed at its contemporary audience, giving them pleasure in its illusory past. This is sentimentality. The Gilded Age is not concerned with how America convulsed and contorted in the wake of the Civil War or the ways both beautiful and terrifying it chose to stitch itself back together. Instead, it is concerned with the petty microdramas between two feuding sects of rich people. It is concerned not with how people lived in any real or substantial way. It is concerned only with our perception of the way people lived. Whenever the show gestures toward some horrifying historical injustice, it reveals the ricketiness of its project.
Consider Peggy. There is a scene in which Marian goes to visit Peggy’s middle class family in Brooklyn. She brings pairs of old shoes thinking that Peggy must be poor. When Marian arrives with the bag of shoes, she realizes her mistake. And goes to leave, but not before we see Peggy and her mother look on horrified as Marian reveals her plan to give them her old shoes. Now, I am not saying that this is not historically accurate. What I am saying is that it is funny. It is funny because this scene is primarily for the benefit of a contemporary audience. It has nothing to do with the way people were living then. It has nothing to do with the stakes of their lives. It is a microaggression. I want you to imagine that. The idea of a microaggression befalling a black person in the 1880s. Think about that. If that doesn’t make you laugh, I don’t know what will. Maybe this. In the scenes we get with Peggy’s family. We also see that they have a maid. A black maid. That is, there is a black maid in this house. Do you think that character gets lines or gets an interesting back story? No. You know who does? The white servants in the van Rhijn. So we get this whole storyline in which Marian drops off some shoes and does a microaggression to the black characters, meanwhile, the character who is a maid in the black household doesn’t even get real lines. No development. She’s just a tertiary character.
Peggy wants to be a journalist. She briefly interviews Clara Barton of the Red Cross. She writes up a piece on the unveiling of the lightbulb. She has banter with a very handsome man who is an editor for the Black newspaper. She and her mother meet clandestinely in a couple cafes full of black people. Occasionally, she and Marian are on the street or in a store, and white people look askance at her. Yet, despite the fact that Peggy is our view into the world of the “black elite” of the nineteenth century, it is a mostly silent world. Glimpsed from the speeding train of the show’s…well, plot, I guess is what you’d call it. This kind of signaling is very common among the beige culture writers who really want you to know that black people can also experience social class. They are very passionate about the historicity of black bourgeois values. That the history of black people in America isn’t just servitude and oppression, that some of us owned things. And people. And, like, I kind of understand that in a very Obama’s 2000s sort of way. Like, I understand why one would want to dispel the shame still lingering from the enslavement of one’s ancestors by saying Look! We used to have capital! They don’t teach that in the schools! And, like, okay, sure. But why that impulse?
I think a lot of beige and Northern negroes especially fall into this trap of trying to argue for our humanity by pointing out our excellence or exceptionalism or our wealth. It’s a very American notion, the flip side of the usual capitalist morality. To have capital is to be worth something. To own something is to be worthy and good. Therefore, we weren’t just property, we had things too. But of course that’s a fool’s errand. One’s humanity is always sufficient. But this fixation on the historical Black Bourgeois does lead to some funny moments in The Gilded Age. But one that makes me baffled is that these people….like. People who are Peggy’s age, and Peggy herself, is a first generation free-born person. And, yeah, maybe they don’t want to talk about the horrors of slavery. But that is no excuse for the show to be so dumb about slavery and The Civil War. Like, yes, I’m sure it would be veiled and euphemized, but for characters like Peggy’s father, whose brother was literally sold!, and the young able-bodied middle-aged black men on the show, they would have fought in the war. They would have been harrowed by it. And if not them, their families. Their friends. Their loved ones.
American period dramas are exercises in self-delusion, always evading the twin horrors of colonization and enslavement. The reason is simple: the history as it happened is too horrifying to turn into a rosy bourgeois narrative. There are no good guys to root for. No way of affirming Protestant sexual and social values in a way that flatters contemporary audiences. That’s why every period drama is ultimately a confection. Because to tell the truth how it really was, how it truly was, would be too much. Implicating. The closest we’ve come to a real definitive American period drama is Roots. And even that was kind of sentimental.
So what do we need? A gothic. Fiedler tells us that the gothic is inherently anti-bourgeois. It seeks to shock and to startle and to disrupt the audience. It introduces discomfort as a way of exteriorizing the psychological evils of a nation and country. The gothic is also inherently about the past. About history and its wounds. Where the sentimental is only ever contemporary, subject to whims and taste.
The other thing about The Gilded Age that I found amusing is that George Russell, played by Morgan Spector who is…so hot, definitely looks like a quadroon. So there is this weird racial subtext to the way that old money families reject him and his family. It feels as though they reject him because there is implied blood taint there. Which would actually make a lot of sense and would do something interesting with race. But instead, we get a story line where a previously enslaved man literally steals his daughter’s only child and sends him away. My theory is that Peggy’s husband was a white man. It’s the only thing that makes sense!
The other other thing about this show that makes me laugh is that we’re supposed to be rooting for Peggy being a freelancer, but Plessy v Ferguson is right around the corner? Also, like, the laws that were challenged in Plessy v Ferguson were put into place…in the 1880s, so, like??? Also Jim Crow is on the way? Night Patrols coming? Like, while Peggy writes her little articles, the country is about to dip into a period of racialized terror on black people? The likes of which still persist today? But I’m excited she published a short story? It’s too much.
That’s what really sets me off re: the sentimental period drama. Because as a form, the period drama has to end in a way that gratifies us, right? Like, the good people achieve something, the bad people get punished, everything is kind of bittersweet, we feel closure. But for the black people in this period drama and many others, the nightmare is…just getting started. So it is inherently…Gothic, not sentimental, yet the show is sentimental, so it's just a real tonal mindfuck. In the end, you have to buy into this idea that things will be better for the characters just as they’re about to get really bad! And the only way you feel closure is if you don’t know anything about history, which of course ties into the fact the bourgeois as a class tend to have an ahistorical view.
But there are good things about the show. Carrie Coon! Morgan Spector! Denée Benton! Christine Baranski! Morgan Spector’s George Russell is the only erotic thing on television at the moment. When he made those terrified men get on the floor and kiss his shoes and beg him to save them? GOD! What a man. There are also many dead things about the show, mainly the plot and the slightly menacing homosexual Oscar.
In the end, I watch the show because I love the gowns. I love the era. I love the idea of period dramas. I’m just unsure if American history can be squared to an inherently sentimental form. Especially at a time when American history is being whitewashed and papered over. It feels quite dangerous and almost reckless. Morally bankrupt. Perhaps even corrupt. But it’s not Julian Fellowes’s fault.
American history has always an exercise in branding and spin.