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Monday, November 16, 2015

Which Gilded Age?

"Was it not them who were buying legislatures, cutting wages, and getting a great deal richer than was right or good for any mortal man in a free, democratic country?"

That sentence is near the end of "The Johnstown Flood" (1968) by Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough. Reading it, is anyone else struck by the parallel to our current reality? I was, although the sentence is referring to the culpability of several wealthy industrialists for an 1889 disaster that claimed over 2000 lives. Those Gilded Age golden boys escaped totally unscathed. Ring any bells?

McCullough is less polemic than I and, as always, his writing is balanced yet incisive. In his excellent account, he points out many factors - including a shortsighted belief that nature will act according to plan (sound familiar, again?) - that contributed to this wholly preventable tragedy. And he skillfully profiles the others - aside from the fat cats - who acted irresponsibly as well as the many who acted heroically while the flood decimated most of what was in its path.      

As perturbed as I got with parallels to our own Gilded Age and our deranged hubris intervening with nature, damn the consequences, that is not what will most remain with me, rant aside. What I'll remember are the individual stories of the citizens of Johnstown - victims and survivors alike - that McCullough skillfully weaves into his narrative. For that reason, I feel confident saying those of you who enjoyed "Zeitoun" (2009), Dave Eggers' non-fiction account of Hurricane Katrina, "The Johnstown Flood" is a pretty safe bet.     

1 comment:

  1. Very well said, Pat. I hadn't thought about the similarities between the Gilded Age and our current one, but there are amazing parallels, including that fact that so few were "gilded" while so many others were covered with coal dust. Preserving the riches of natural world took second chair to enriching the few at any cost. What have we learned? I haven't read this one yet, but am a huge fan of Zeitoun, so will look forward to reading the Johnston Flood soon.