Popular scholarly series returns with a focus on the Gilded Age

The Wilton Historical Society and Wilton Library are partnering up for an eighth year of informative scholarly lectures, with this year’s focus on an important era in America’s history — the end of the 19th Century, also known as the Gilded Age.

This year’s series, “The Gilded Age: Culture and Conflict at the End of the 19th Century,” will examine a changing nation at a critical juncture, during which many of today’s issues were beginning to take form, such as change vs. status quo, federal vs. state involvement, and regulation vs. laissez-faire. It was an age where the divide between rich and poor was vast as tenements in neighborhoods teeming with crime and filth contrasted with skyscrapers and their tenants who celebrated their wealth with abandon.

“Last year’s series covered the Industrial Revolution — before that, topics included the War of 1812 and the Civil War, so the Gilded Age was the next logical place to go in historical sequence,” said Max Gabrielson, who helped plan and organize the series and will share moderating duties with Steve Hudspeth.

“It was a transformational era of tremendous economic growth in which the U.S. became a fully transcontinental nation and major international power. Monopolistic and labor struggles also came sharply into play as our economic power expanded.”

Mr. Gabrielson said the series will explore these and other Gilded Age topics at length, “including the often overlooked issues of racial discrimination and segregation that persisted far beyond the end of Reconstruction.

“Our planning committee was also intrigued by the relevance of all these historical issues to contemporary American society,” said Mr. Gabrielson, “which various commentators have called a ‘New Gilded Age.’”

Lectures and speakers

Louise Herot and Greg Chann will host the five-part Sunday series, which begins Jan. 18 and ends March 22. Each lecture will take place from 4 to 5:30, with informal receptions following each of the talks.

The first installment, “The Gilded Age: A Familiar but Ambiguous Label for a Period of Rapid Change,” will take place at Wilton Library. Ann Greene, a faculty member and administrator in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of History and Sociology of Science and an author.

Ms. Greene spoke about the Eerie Canal during last year’s scholarly series, which she said was “a wonderful experience.”

“The audience was wonderful, smart and responsive. Like last year, the library and historical society have come up with a wonderful idea for a lecture series,” said Ms. Greene. “I’m delighted to be invited back.”

This time, Ms. Greene said, she will talk about what the “Gilded Age” means, where the title came from and why. She said she will also “challenge common assumptions or myths” about the Gilded Age and “ponder whether it is even a useful designation at all.”

“People today keep referring to ‘a new Gilded Age,’ so it might be useful to understand the late 19th Century,” she said. “I hope that people come away with some new understandings about how historians think and how history operates.”

Brent Colley, a Redding native and resident scholar of Redding’s Mark Twain Library, will lead the second installment, “A Gilded Life: Mark Twain,” at the Wilton Historical Society on Feb. 8. Mr. Colley will present Mark Twain’s life and the challenges he faced and overcame throughout the course of his lifetime. Twain famously said in 1871, “What is the chief end of man? To get rich. In what way? Dishonestlyif we can; honestly if we must.”

On Feb. 22, “Race Relations and Politics in the Gilded Age” will be the topic of discussion at Wilton Library. James Goodman, a history and creative writing professor at Rutgers University, will examine why the topic of race relations should be discussed and how it informs today’s thinking.

Bonnie Yochelson, author and former curator at the Museum of the City of New York, will discuss late journalist Jacob A. Riis’ contributions to social reform and photographic history of the Gilded Age on March 8. The “How the Other Half Lives” lecture will take place at the library.

The last scholarly series installment, “From Civil War to Revolution: The Rapid Industrialization of America and the Challenges We Still Face,” will take place at the historical society on March 22. Matthew Warshauer, author and  history professor at Central Connecticut State University, will explore the remarkable and fast-paced changes to American life in the aftermath of the Civil War.

“There is “a strong demand in Wilton for scholarly presentations of this type and each series has been very popular,” said Mr. Gabrielson. “People planning on attending should reserve in advance at the Wilton Library website to ensure a seat.”

For information or to register, visit wiltonlibrary.org or call 203-762-3950, ext. 213.