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Inequality: The New Gilded Age?

SAS Core Goals 21C (b); AH (p)

This new course has been developed by a number of faculty members in the English Department who are interested in exploring the cultural history of issues deemed to be of pressing global concern; we thus intend to look at how these issues are framed in local and global contexts today, but also at how they have been framed in various literary and artistic genres throughout time. The course aims to enliven student understanding of the fact that we live in a world made by the stories we tell about it—and, thus, that the arts not only represent the world, but make it too. The course will give students experience in the complex project of exploring the long history of contemporary issue. It will also take the very idea of interdisciplinary research as a main topic, helping students better understand the interaction between the ways issues are imagined, represented and produced in the arts and in other disciplines. The course will emphasize the significance of cultural history and the imagination in shaping the very possibility of issues that we might more often associate with new discoveries in science or the exigencies of capitalist economies. As has been said by enthusiasts of the genre of science fiction, in order to invent the future, you first have to imagine it. Students will develop a deeper appreciation for the present moment's continuity with the past, and in turn a better grasp of the particularities of the present. The course will offer students the opportunity to expand their horizons of analysis both with regard to the topic at hand and with the range of scholarly approaches available to them.

This semester, the course will focus on the topic of inequality, the stories we tell about it today, and the stories that have been told about it in the past. In our own time, the vast majority of these stories are statistical. The "Occupy Wall Street" movement popularized the growing wealth gap by telling a story about the 1%; Mitt Romney's presidential hopes in 2012 were largely dashed by a quip about the 47%; and a recent article in The Economist assures us that it's not the 1% we need to worry about, but rather the .01%, who have fared remarkably well in America since the 1980s. The most important recent economic text on the subject, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, written by the French economist Thomas Piketty, pioneered statistical techniques to argue that the wealth gap has returned to an all time high, a level not seen since before the early twentieth-century. Statistically, we're living in a "new gilded age."

But in the original gilded age—the period from the 1870s to early 1900s, remembered in American history by the rise of monopolies and robber barons, greed and corruption, rags to riches stories, and labor agitation and riots—the story of inequality was told differently. Instead of statistics, there was the "realist movement" in literature and the arts, waves of novels and paintings telling the story not with statistics but in narrative. The very term "gilded age" was coined in a novel published by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in 1873. And that novel was ensconced in the realist movement begun earlier in the century when writers like Dickens and Balzac, and painters like Gustave Courbet began make extreme inequalities in wealth the study of their fiction and art. In America, the realist movement dominated the cultural production of the gilded age, with novels dedicated to telling stories of the degradation of life in the iron mills and coal mines (Rebecca Harding Davis and Stephen Crane), of wars fought between train monopolies and wheat farmers in California and between unions and the police in New York (Frank Norris and William Dean Howells), of the plight of working girls on the streets of Chicago and wealthy debutantes in the pleasure palaces of New York (Theodore Dreiser and Edith Wharton), and of the impoverishment of immigrants and African Americans in the charged racial atmosphere of the times (Abraham Cahan, Charles Chesnutt, and W. E. B. Du Bois). In the visual arts, it saw the raw colors and valorization of the every-day in paintings by Thomas Eakins and the Ashcan School, and the pictorialized scenes of "how the other half lives" in the photography of Jaboc Riis.

This class, then, will ask a simple question. What happens when we go back and examine the primary texts of cultural history in which the story of inequality were told during the first gilded age? How do cultural materials from the national past set the parameters of public discourse in the 21st century? Is the comparison of our own moment of inequality to the gilded age apt? How have the terms of the debate shifted, or to what extent is the current global inequality crisis part of the same old story? And in what ways does storytelling, itself, shape the reality of our lived experience of the pressing global issue of inequality?

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