Perhaps a better title for this reflection would be “How One’s Sense of History Gets Warped.”

The Victorian Era has always had special interest for me, long before I discovered the work of John Emerson Roberts.  As a child, I don’t think I understood the difference between “gilded” and “golden.”  When I heard people discussing the Gilded Age, I thought they spoke of a past universally esteemed better than the present.  As an era of long skirts and fine manners, I thought this must have been a splendid time, when people lived in a special golden light.  Like some ancient writers, I thought the present was flat compared to the past, an age of iron descended from an age of gold.

Currently, I cannot hear the term “Gilded Age” without thinking, if it isn’t said, “and Progressive Era.”  The period from roughly 1877 to 1920 has been labeled and marked off with this double title.  And a golden age it certainly was not.  It was an era of new ideas and inventions, but also one of urban and labor unrest and, in the United States particularly, of fear of immigrant populations.

My sense of the early 1950s was also skewed.  As I looked back on it from the sixties it seemed to have been an era of “returning to normal” after World War II.  I know now that it was not.  It was a new age of consumer goods and suburbs.  Cars and gas were now available and roads were rapidly being expanded.  Factories that had been geared up for war materials were converted to producing consumer goods.  It was also a time of great conformity.  People knew more about people who lived in other places, but that did not lead to appreciation of diversity.  Radio and soon television produced images of the right way to live, the “typical” family, and all the things that family should acquire.

As for a “return to normal” it slowly dawned on me that there had never been a “normal.”  Before World War II had been the Great Depression, before that the “Roaring 20’s” and Prohibition, and before that another war, the first and most disturbing, because unexpected, of the grim and ugly wars that characterized the twentieth century.  In another post I will expand on what I have learned about the cultural shock of World War I, which shattered the widely held belief in an ongoing progress of humanity and its projects, the cultural attitude which John Emerson Roberts held to as long as he was preaching.

As my confusion about “golden” and “gilded” lingered, I thought “normal” might have been back around 1899 or so.  Now I understand that every era in United States history has been one of transition from a past with difficulties toward an unknown future.  Change has been a constant feature and a great many mistakes have been made along the way.

Was it a case of inadequate education that I had these erroneous notions?  I don’t think so.  I think all children are subject to misconceptions, which the text books can’t erase easily, because the adults who write them have forgotten such possibilities.  Was I a child with too much imagination?  I don’t think there is such a thing as too much imagination.  It’s how you learn to use it that counts.  Sorting out these puzzles was an important part of my learning.

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