Paulette D. Kilmer. The Fear of Sinking: The American Success Formula in the Gilded Age. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996. xvi + 230 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87049-939-5.
Reviewed by Thomas Winter (Bilkent University)
Published on H-SHGAPE (December, 1998)
Success, that all-too elusive icon of the American historical experience, continues to attract the fascination of historians and literary scholars. Paulette Kilmer's study is among the most recent additions to this genre.
Kilmer argues that the success paradigm in Gilded Age literature served a dual purpose: it affirmed the belief that hard work would be rewarded at a time when economic mobility became more and more difficult to obtain, but also served as a warning against amassing treasures. It assured readers that those who had made their wealth by illicit gain may not enjoy it for long and would surely meet their just fate. Key to Gilded Age writers and consumers of success literature was to balance "the desire for material goods with the need for spiritual well-being" (p. 5). In short, Kilmer maintains that "the success prototype encouraged readers to prove their self-worth by performing acts that perpetuated majestic forces larger than any individual" (p. 19). To support her argument, Kilmer looks at a range of popular literary works, including children's serials and girls' and women's romances, dime novels, fiction, mystery, religious writings, success tracts, and Westerns.
Kilmer emphasizes the spiritual, often overlooked dimension of the success paradigm: what she calls "bardic tales" indicted "the moral corruption induced by aristocratic birth in the fictive realm of the Gilded Age" (p. 76). The success paradigm, Kilmer asserts, did not simply urge people to acquire material fortunes, but balance them through individual transcendence and cherish spiritual values and rewards. Kilmer states that "the success archetype reiterated the cherished values that had preserved community for millennia--the bond with others created in the individual by belonging to something greater than the self" (p. 83). Material rewards would come only to those who upheld those bonds, Gilded Age writers claimed.
Success literature and the autobiographies of success writers not only reiterated this pattern, but plots frequently went to great length to affirm the success paradigm. In their autobiographies, success writers "selected incidents that fit reality into the reliable success prototype" (p. 108). When nothing else worked, "autobiographies reassured readers that...lucky coincidence introduced daring youths to benefactors, who, like fairy god parents, would transform them into middle-class citizens" (p. 130). Novels perpetuated similar hopes. Some even suggested that the truly just could expect "interventions by supernatural forces... [that] defied human economic power structures and encouraged underpaid readers to persevere and to enrich their lives with those comforts of the heart that were manifested in religion" (p. 115). Such insistence on the possibility of success, as ridiculous as it seems to us today, also fulfilled a function. Kilmer suggests that "the success archetype mirrored the cultural fear of sinking rather than rising in life" (p. 82).
Kilmer illustrates this rather well in her chapter on the treatment of two major fires in Chicago, Illinois and in Peshtigo, Wisconsin in 1871 in Gilded Age popular literature. Fires were the great equalizers. Such catastrophes became points, where, as Kilmer explains, "ancient narrative patterns, such as the Judgement Day archetype" (p. 131) were fused with the narrative conventions of the "success archetype." Depictions of these fires restated the simple facts "in terms of the myths that had sustained the community for generations" (pp. 131-32). Fires, which incinerated the property of rich and poor alike, seemed to prove to observers that "spiritual rather than material riches endured" (p. 140). The great value of the "success archetype" to Gilded Age readers, Kilmer suggests, was not any suggestion of how to become rich over night, but that it "proposed spiritual solutions for impenetrable mysteries" (p. 157).
While Kilmer certainly improves our understanding of the roles the success paradigm played in Gilded Age culture, she does not develop all her claims to the satisfaction of the reader. For example, Kilmer correctly points out that this "success paradigm powerfully justified the status quo," while "[s]imultaneously it provided an arena in which people experiment with change" (p. 48). Certainly, as Kilmer points out, Gilded Age literature was part of a cultural coping mechanism: the success genre valorized poverty at a time of economic uncertainty. Serials, like the McGuffey readers, "reinforced values while showing readers how to cope with hardship" (p. 84). However, Kilmer insists that Gilded Age popular literature did more than simply help readers to cope with reality. Kilmer claims that Gilded Age success writings began to reflect an acceptance of "secular pleasures that would have shocked" an earlier generation" (p. 85). Kilmer seems to suggest that Gilded Age literature represented a crucial juncture in the redefinition of success and acceptance of a consumer culture. She seems to suggest that, with regard to ideas about success, popular literature performed important cultural work. However, Kilmer over and over emphasizes how literature, such as the McGuffey readers, for example, reminded readers "of their moral responsibilities to the community" (p. 106). Kilmer's suggestion of the cultural work performed by Gilded Age mass literature is intriguing. However, she does not pursue this angle as she maybe could have.
Some readers may also not be totally satisfied with Kilmer's methodological approach and her command of the scholarly literature on success. For example, on the role of myths in culture, she relies heavily on Joseph Campbell's work. Some readers would probably consider the work of Roland Barthes or Paul Ricoeur at least as pertinent. On ideas about success, Kilmer could have consulted Judy Hilkey's dissertation, which would have added context to her discussion of Gilded Age publishing. Lastly, at least some readers would have liked to have seen a discussion of success in relation to dimensions of gender, class, or race.
Nonetheless, Kilmer aids our understanding of Gilded Age notions of success by looking beyond success tracts of authors like Owen Sweatt Marsden, for example. Scholars interested in Gilded Age ideas about success, however, will want to consult Kilmer's book.
. For a study of failure and the problems it posed, see Scott A. Sandage, Forgotten Men: Failure in American Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, forthcoming).
. See Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Paris: Seuil, 1957); Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Paul Ricoeur, The Hermeneutics of Action (London: Sage, 1996).
. See Judy Hilkey, "'The Way to Win': The Search for Success in a New Industrial Order, 1870-1910." Ph.D. diss. Rutgers University, 1980; recently published as Character Is Capital: Success Manuals and Manhood in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
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Thomas Winter. Review of Kilmer, Paulette D., The Fear of Sinking: The American Success Formula in the Gilded Age.
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