The best books on the glittering gilded age and its seamier side

The Books I Picked & Why

The Age of Innocence

By Edith Wharton

Book cover of The Age of Innocence

Why this book?

Before there were Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, there was the book that brought them together (in the movie): Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Wharton’s lush, sepia-toned tale of the New York haut ton of the 1870s. Gilded Age society at its best; it won the 1921 Pulitzer for fiction, making Wharton the first woman to win the prize. Read it first, then stream the movie. I loved its opulent portrayal of the well-heeled society of upper-class New York and its spot-on portrayal of moral hypocrisy. The battles that nineteenth-century women of all classes fought to live their lives with integrity and honesty seem to me to echo today in the ongoing injustices perpetrated against society’s powerless.


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Germinal

By Emile Zola, Peter Collier

Book cover of Germinal

Why this book?

No glitter here. Though Germinal takes place in the 186os, it was written in 1884, and Gilded Age sensibilities haunt this tale of the crushing lives of French coal miners whose labor, hardships, and deaths fuel the excesses of Gilded Age lives. Zola’s masterpiece, with several movie adaptations to choose from.


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Paradise Falls

By Don Robertson

Book cover of Paradise Falls

Why this book?

Two volumes, nearly a thousand pages—but don’t let that put you off. This is the background story of the Gilded Age in small-town America, a microcosm of all that was best and worst in the era. Coal mines—a theme running through much Gilded Age tale-telling—and vast riches, sexual misadventures in a time when Victorian straitjackets were loosening, neighborly battles, far-reaching strikes, religious convulsions, political shenanigans. They’re all here. You’ll get lost in them.


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The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915

By Jon Grinspan

Book cover of The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915

Why this book?

And now to nonfiction. For anyone who savors the study of history as a prelude to the present, this is the book to read. The Gilded Age, rife with economic and technologic disruptions and the clash between the ever-richer and the always-poor, driven by industrial juggernauts and riven by raucous, violent politics—to understand the era and see the roots of many of today’s issues, this book is a must.


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A Secret Life: The Lies and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland

By Charles Lachman

Book cover of A Secret Life: The Lies and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland

Why this book?

Delicious fact that reads like fiction and tells a story of Gilded Age power politics. Presidential scandals? Nothing new here. The tale of the illegitimate son of the 22nd and 24th president and the boy’s defenseless mother perfectly illustrates the sexual upheavals of the era and the workings of a society steaming along in an effort to keep pace with the changes of the new industrial era.


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