Gilded Age/Progressive Era History Top Ten Booklist
Creating a Top Ten List for the Gilded Age/Progressive Era is challenging. There are an extraordinary number of outstanding books on this period. These books are a selection of our favorites. Most of these books are focused on trying to define this era as whole, instead of focusing on a single issue. In other words, several of these books are seeking to create a grand narrative of the era to help their readers understand it.
Admittedly, the border between the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era is somewhat murky. There are not any of the easy starting and stopping points that can be pointed to for defining eras such as Colonial America, the American Civil War, Reconstruction or the Cold War. Arguably, even the term Gilded Age is somewhat archaic and perhaps the era should be renamed. In a way, this listed is focused on the last thirty years of the Nineteenth Century and the implications of those decades on the start of the Twentieth Century. Many people have pointed to similarity of the issues between the Gilded Age/Progressive Era and our present America (technology, income inequality, immigration, expansion of government, big business, extreme wealth, etc.).
As with all of our booklists, if you disagree with this expert booklist you can create a new and better one.
Richard Hofstader, The Age of Reform (Vintage Books, 1955) - Richard Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize winning was the best synthesis of the Populist and Progressive movements when it was published in 1955. Hofstader focused on the ideas that drove social movements that defined the era. It showed how people's ideas guided the reform organizations that sought to remake America.
Nell Painter, Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 (W.W. Norton & Company, 1987) Award winning historian Nell Irvin Painter's book describes how America began to shift from an agrarian to an urban society. Painter focuses on the lives of working people and wonderfully integrates African Americans and women into her narrative. Her book is a beautifully written synthesis of this era.
Charles Postel, The Populist Vision (Oxford University Press) The Populist Vision is probably the best single volume narrative on the creation of populism. Postel describes how populism started in the fields and slowly migrated into urban areas. Postel's book is a perfect counterbalance to Hofstader's Age of Reform.
Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 (Oxford University Press, 2005) McGerr's book shows how Progressive reformers walked a fine line balancing between advancing the social good and individual liberty. She describes how conservatives eventually slowed the tide of social reform and pushed back against the increasingly liberal use of governmental power.
W. H. Brands, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 (Random House, 2010) American Colossus describes the rise of capitalist titans such J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Brands places these titans at the center of a tale to show how capitalism connected to Reconstruction, the Indian Wars, the urban labor and agraian populists. In addition to being an outstanding historian, American Colossus is the work of extraordinary storyteller.
Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (UNC Press, 1996) Between Gender and Jim and Crow and Gilmore's other masterpiece Defying Dixie, Gilmore has illuminated the critical role African American women played as civil rights activists. As Jim Crow reordered southern society, women fought for the creation of southern progressivism. Gilmore's book is unique take on the expansion and impact of Jim Crow.
Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2007 - 15th Anniversary edition) Ayers book is a nuanced and complete view of the South after Reconstruction. Ayers is more concerned with everyday citizens than political actors, but this approach shows how the South balanced tradition and a modernizing world.
Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002) The Metaphysical Club won the Pulitzer prize for its extraordinary take on a group of Progressive Era intellectuals. His book shows how these intellectuals brought America into the modern world with their brand of philosophical pragmatism.
Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Belknap Press, 2000 ) Rodgers demonstrates the trans-Atlantic nature of progressivism. Instead of being simply American phenomenon, Rodgers shows how progressives relied on an international network of people with similar goals.
Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (Hill and Wang, 1966) Wiebe's innovative book shows how the spread of technology, science and industrialization forced America to create a unified nation in an increasing impersonal world. While Wiebe's work was published in 1966, it is still an essential book for understanding the Progressive Era.