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A Decade in Film and Literature: The 1880s

Authored By: 
Ian Rusten, History Teacher

With spring break just around the corner, I couldn’t help but think about how quickly the year is passing by. How I wish we would spend weeks on each era of American history digging deep into the cultural, social, and everyday lives of Americans! But alas, we must march on.  For those that wish to use some free time to gain more in-depth knowledge of American history, focus on any decade from the past and you will likely find films, art, and novels are just a click away. For example: The 1880s ushered in great change both in the United States and across the globe. With its arrival came the end of the Old West and of the romanticized outlaws and the growth of the Gilded Age, the Age of Imperialism, the Great Strikes, and the Populist Movement. It was the era of the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the great inventions by Edison and Bell--a romanticized yet fraught era. What better way to develop a deep understanding of the era then to delve in the literature and film both from and about the era? These books and films present a unique and vivid picture of the era. 

Literature and Films from or about the 1880s:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was the greatest American writer of the Gilded Age, and his work transports us to a time and place that has long passed while remaining fresh and accessible.  Huckleberry Finn is his masterpiece, capturing life on the Mississippi, but Twain’s travel writing (like The Innocents Abroad) is also well worth a look for anyone that wants to understand this time (or simply to be entertained).

The Assassination of Jesse JamesThis moody 2007 Brad Pitt film focuses on the last few years of the famed Missouri outlaw Jesse James (who was killed by Bob Ford in 1882) and captures the feeling of life in rural America, at a time when a very large number of Americans still lived on the farm.  James remains a fascinating if disturbing figure to many and this film brings him to life.

The Heiress (1949) directed by William Wyler is a brilliant adaptation of the 1880 novel Washington Square by the great American author Henry James. The film features Montgomery Clift as the penniless young suitor who woos the daughter (played by Olivia De Havilland) of a prominent New York doctor played by Ralph Richardson.  The novel and the film explore the social mores of the time and bring the period vividly to life.

The Magnificent Ambersons: Booth Tarkington was one of the most popular America writers of the early twentieth century and his 1918 novel about a prosperous Indiana family and the hardships and struggles they endured as America was transformed by industrialization in the period between the Civil War and World War I remains his most well-known work. Orson Welles turned it into a film in 1942 that many cinema fans rate almost as highly as Citizen Kane.

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller:  Historian Ron Chernow (who also wrote an excellent biography of Alexander Hamilton that formed the basis of the hit Broadway play) expertly tells the long but gripping story of the maverick from upstate New York who became the richest man in American history and the most famous American of the 19th century.  This is a crucial biography for anyone that wants to understand America in the time of industrialization and the age of monopolies.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: This 1970 book by Dee Brown was a revelation at the time of its publication as it marked one of the first times that a mainstream book told the story of the old west from an Indian perspective.  Brown focused a great deal of attention on the 1870s to the1890s, a time when Native American tribes, like the Apache and Sioux, were increasingly being forced onto reservations to make way for westward expansion.