Abraham Lincoln, the politician whose memory and legacy dominated the Gilded Age, died as this book begins, but he never really vanished. The novelist and critic William Dean Howells captured part of the reason when he reviewed John Hay’s and John Nicolay’s monumental biography of the president in 1890. Howells wrote that “if America means anything at all, it means the sufficiency of the common, the insufficiency of the uncommon.” Lincoln had come to be both the personification of the American common people and the nation’s greatest—and most uncommon—president. Howells thought it was the nation’s common people and common traits that most mattered.
Howells, famous then and largely forgotten since, knew most everyone, but he always remained detached. He watched, and he wrote. His interventions in politics remained minor. Howells was a Midwesterner, and this was the great age of the Midwest. Originally a committed liberal, he came to acknowledge liberalism’s failures and insufficiencies, and then struggled to imagine alternatives. He did so as a writer, and he and his fellow Realists created invaluable portraits of the age. In his confusion, his intelligence, and his honesty, he reminds us that for those living through the Gilded Age it was an astonishing and frightening period, full of great hopes as well as deep fears. When Howells cryptically embraces the common, it is worth listening to him. Understanding his judgment of the “sufficiency of the common, the insufficiency of the uncommon” provides a lens for assessing the Gilded Age.