So what do we call THIS era?

I’d always liked Sargent’s “El Jaleo,” and was greatly surprised to find it suddenly before me in Boston last year…

You can only know so much about history. Life is short, and in truth one can never have total knowledge and understanding even of the periods we focus in upon most obsessively.

And in my life, I’ve bounced around from one intense interest to another. When I was a kid, it was the Second World War. It was the thing that loomed over the world in which I grew up, and made that world I knew seem uninteresting in comparison. After I started taking Latin in high school, I got into ancient Rome — or at least, the end of the republic and the first few emperors. When I was in college, I was riveted by the early days of our own republic — not so much the Revolution, but what came after: The Constitutional Convention, leading through the administrations of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Quincy Adams (before the standard dropped so sharply with Old Hickory). I used to go around saying I would love to go back and live in that time of brilliant ideas, if only they’d had more indoor plumbing — yes, an undergraduate’s notion of wit.

Lately, though, I find myself living vicariously in the Gilded Age, bleeding over a bit into the Progressive Era.

This is a period I had mostly ignored in the past — it was after The Recent Unpleasantness, and before the more relatable politics of the 20th, both of which had always seemed more interesting. I just saw it as a time of boring prosperity in the North, and postwar trauma in the South (the rise and fall of Reconstruction, Tillmanism, rich Yankees coming down and buying up plantations as hunting estates, etc.). It was always kind of a blur.

But lately, over the last year or so, I’ve found myself drawn back to it over and over. My recent reading has included:

  • Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard. My elder son gave me this last year — he had assigned himself the task of going through one book about each president in our history, in chronological order, and this had been his favorite. It was about James Garfield, about whom I knew pretty much nothing, which was shameful on my part. It painted a picture of an extraordinary man who was like a dream POTUS — a brilliant self-made scholar and war hero who turned to politics. When he showed up at the Republican national convention to nominate another man in 1880, he ended up being nominated himself, unanimously, but against his own wishes. He then won the election, but his administration had hardly begun when a lunatic (a nobody who outlandishly imagined that Garfield should have named him ambassador to France) shot him. He would have survived, except for the stunningly, inexcusably bad medical care he received. Along the way, the story encompassed other major figures of the period (including Alexander Graham Bell, playing an important role in trying to save Garfield), painting amid the tragedy a bright picture of a country on its way up.
  • Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. Also by Candice Millard, because I’d liked the Garfield book so much. This was also very enjoyable and enlightening, although not quite as much so, since I had recently seen the 1972 film “Young Winston,” which for a movie did a pretty good job of covering the same portion of Churchill’s life. It’s available on Prime if you want to watch it. But I still definitely recommend the book.
  • Artists of the period. Our trip to Boston last year — specifically, our visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — intensified an already-growing interest in such artists as Isabella’s friend John Singer Sargent, and similar painters such as Anders Zorn — who painted an arresting portrait of Isabella, which I initially mistook for the work of Sargent. Both of them were definitely chroniclers of the Gilded Age, painting famous portraits of heiresses (here’s my favorite, which I like even better than Madame X.) From them, I’ve started branching out to other, similar artists such as George William Joy, whose painting of omnibus passengers I liked better than Zorn’s. It reminded me of the kinds of photos I sneak of fellow passengers on subways — the pictures one of my granddaughters insisted I stop taking. She’s right, but I find the habit hard to shake.
  • Theodore Rex — Still making my way — my slow and steady way — through this, the second book in Edmund Morris’ trilogy about Teddy. It’s pretty awesome. He breaks down Roosevelt’s time as president almost day by day, and in rich detail, and it never gets dull or tiresome (TR wouldn’t have allowed that). Extra bonus: The portrait on the cover is, of course, by John Singer Sargent. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times lately, and will no doubt mention it even more as I proceed. It’s great nourishment for the mind to see issues of actual importance discussed with an intelligence that should make us all envious as we are bombarded by the Kulturkampf of left and right in our own day. And then see them acted upon effectively. We were a nation of such promise then, with a political system that worked.

For all that, I didn’t seek this stuff out on purpose in a deliberate effort to study the period. I just wandered from one to another, and only realized quite recently how wrapped up I had become in this time.

We’ve had a number of prominently named historical periods since the Progressive, such as:

And now, finally, I get to my point, which is that after the heady days of the ’90s, things got kind of fuzzy.

I mean, what do we call THESE times? And does it involve words that can be used on a blog that observes the conventions of what we used to call a “family newspaper”?

For that matter, with the atomization of society due to the profusion of media, is it even possible to make any sort of coherent, widely acceptable generalization about a world that is divided into so many camps that see the world so differently?

I’ll offer one possibility: The Schizophrenic Era. I’m not making a clinical diagnosis here, so don’t correct me with a bunch of quotes from the DSM. I’m thinking in terms of the Greek etymology of the term, meaning “splitting of the mind”… because that fragmentation explains our period as much as any.

I’m not going to suggest any other terms right now, because mainly, I’m curious as to what y’all would call it…

James Garfield, a potentially great president, was shot by one idiot and treated by another…

15 thoughts on “So what do we call THIS era?

  1. bud

    Interesting that you skipped the 70s. Without a doubt that was the true Age of Enlightenment. From disco music to leisure suits, big hair, great movies like Saturday Night Fever a Grease and pornstar mustaches. I yearn for those days. Best time to be alive – period.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      This is a coincidence. This piece is unrelated — a reflection on “Animal House, for some reason — but yesterday I read in it these words:

      In other words, “Animal House” is where the 1960s finally and decisively turned into the 1980s — the 1970s being understood as a transition period highlighted by double-knit and “Kung Fu Fighting.” With “Animal House,” we crossed the line from hippies to yuppies, from “all you need is love” to “greed is good.”…

      I disagreed with a number of things in that piece, but I think he got that right. The 70s were sort of follow through from the 60s. For instance, everybody connects long hair with the 60s, but take a look at a school yearbook from those days — almost no one has rock star hair. The 70s were a time when the 60s took full effect, and ALL the guys grew their hair long. So, a continuation.

      Ironically, of course, he’s talking about a movie that came out in 1978 but was SET in 1962. And somehow it set up the 80s. According to him…

  2. Ken

    Just a few possibilities:

    The Decade of Dysfunction
    The Dysphoric Decade
    The Proctomental Decade
    The Pandemonic Decade
    The Age of Reaction
    The Myopic Era
    The Vulgaries
    Illiberal Times
    The Time of Hysterics
    The Teenie Meanies

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Those are some nice ones.

      Mind if I offer a variant on “Proctomental?” How about “Proctological?”

      I refer to one of the things that prevents many good people from running for public office — which is one of the significant causes of our political dysfunction. They don’t run because putting yourself out there is like subjecting yourself to a proctological exam, conducted by an angry mob with pitchforks…

      1. Ken

        Sorry, nope. Proctological is a real word. Proctomental is my own confection to describe those who think with the aft rather than the fore portion of their anatomy.

    1. Barry

      “go woke, go broke”


      The very sensitive folks that get their feelings hurt are amusing.

      Going “woke” is a money maker in the long term. It has been for a long time and will continue to be in the long run.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Actually, they’re no more “amusing” than the MAGA crowd. Well, maybe a little more amusing, and less scary.

        How do I monetize it, though? I didn’t know there was money in it…

  3. Barry

    To answer your question

    I think any description of this twisted, nut-ball era has to include Trump in some fashion.

    After all, the United States elected a man who spent years flat out openly lying about his predecessor, the first African American president, accusing him of being an illegal president, and then gloated and bragged about sexually abusing women, bragged about trying to commit adultery with a married tv host, and who spewed lies and bile about losing an election to the point where some of his supporters committed acts of violence in and on the United States capitol grounds, and convinced the majority of 1 of the 2 major political parties that an election was stolen from him (just him of course – no one else given all the Republicans that won at the same time he lost).

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      To say it again, Trump is merely a symptom of the madness that led to his rise. He just happened to stumble into history at the right moment, for him…

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