The New Gilded Age: ‘The New Yorker’ Looks at the Culture of Affluence. Edited by David Remnick. Random House, 432 pages, $26.95.
When did we lose the 1990′s? I’m not niggling about the change of millennium and all that. I’m talking about the decade-that- almost-was, that quaint and earnest America of, say, the first winter of the Clinton Presidency. Remember? We were all going to be Head Start volunteers, wear flannel shirts and drink lots of good, dark coffee. And then, collectively, we took a look around and said, “Oh, screw it. We’ll take the gigante mocha frappuccino.”
And now here we are, eight years and a new century later, wiping the froth from our chins, not the least bit queasy from a long national binge-fest that-we might as well admit it-makes the Roaring Twenties or the Mauve Decade look positively beige by comparison.
Too bad all the best nicknames for the era were already used up. (We went ahead and wasted “The Me Decade” on the 70′s ? What were we thinking ?) So (in a nod, perhaps, to the recycling spirit of 1993) The New Yorker has decided to borrow an old one, and has dubbed the time we live in “The New Gilded Age.”
In his introduction to this latest anthology ( The New Yorker has been spewing them out-a gag reflex brought on by leg-acy anxieties?), David Remnick doesn’t hedge his bets, casts no worried glances at the downward spikes of the Nasdaq. He goes bravely with the present tense, all the way. “This New Gilded Age, this American moment of prosper-ity, satisfaction, and self-satisfaction, is rife with … contradictions,” he writes. ” The New Yorker has tried in the past few years to capture something of this age-its leading figures, its manners, its mechanisms, its politics, its ironies.”
The earliest piece in this collection (James Stewart’s profile of a commercially struggling literary novelist) was published on June 27, 1994. The latest (Calvin Trillin’s profile of two young Wall Streeters convicted of insider trading) appeared on July 10, 2000. Most of them, actually, date from the last year and a half or so. And yet … is it just me, or do I detect, even in the Trillin piece, a tinge of quaint nostalgia, a slight fading to sepia at the edges of the page? Could this book itself be a sign that the New Gilded Age is already history?
O.K., O.K., don’t call your broker quite yet. Maybe it’s just that the various authors have so effectively gathered together the telltale artifacts of our times, dusted them off, set them under tastefully directed pinpoint lighting and invited us to ponder them from beyond the glass. The New Gilded Age feels like a collection not just in the literary sense but in the museum one, a blockbuster Met retrospective on some past moment of imperial, millennial splendor. (Think of the current Year One exhibition.) The articles’ dominant genres are, themselves, like vases whose arcane shapes attest to the rites and habits of their makers: celebrity profile, personal confession, cultural self-examination.
You can almost hear Mr. Remnick intoning through the Acoustiguide: “Who were their gods, their emperors? What did they wear? What did they eat?” It’s all here, set out for us vitrine by vitrine. And some of the most memorable pieces are, in fact, considerations of specific artifacts, like Adam Gopnik’s brilliant little 1998 essay (which I somehow missed when it appeared in the magazine) on our newly redesigned and counterfeit-protected paper money: “It’s Camden Yards money-see, just as good as the old place, sonny, with all the old-fashioned charm you’re used to. Have another hot dog. And underneath-the part of the stadium shown only to Rupert Murdoch-in the security control center, the cables run out to the surveillance cameras that … wink at you beneath their reassuring nineteenth-century façade.”
The articles are grouped into four themed sections: “The Barons” (although that’s a misnomer, since these are really portraits of our Great Khans, our Holy Roman Emperors: Alan Greenspan, Bill Gates, Martha Stewart), “The Web,” “The Age,” “The Life.” Certain obsessions keep popping up in all of them, though. Like New York real estate. Old money versus new. Home furnishings. And food. Here, for example-recorded for posterity-is what you had for dinner in 1997 if you were a small-time Morgan Stanley employee being set up on an insider- trading sting: “chicken fingers and fried clam strips and spicy French fries and Southwest potato skins and something called Buffalo calamari.” Here’s what you had for dinner in 1999 at an ultra-trendy restaurant outside Washington, D.C.: “potato cornets layered in salmon, caviar, and crème fraîche … veal sweetbreads braised in port with mushrooms and huckleberries.”
The obsessions of the New Gilded Age are, in other words, pretty much the same obsessions that the old Gilded Age had. In fact, it’s worth remembering that the phrase itself originally came from the title of a book, an 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The novel’s not much read these days outside of graduate seminars, and understandably so: It’s a boilerplate job, with very little of the period color that its title seems to promise. If you want to get the flavor of late-19th-century America, you’d be better off turning-as several writers in The New Yorker anthology do-to Henry James or William Dean Howells.
The New Gilded Age may not offer anything quite like James or Howells in full flood, but it does make it clear that-setting aside for a moment where the rest of the country is headed-the past few years have been binge years for The New Yorker . It’s possible to cast a skeptical glance at the magazine’s newfound fascination with Microsoft stock and Manolo Blahniks, but still admire its reporters’ diligent, wide-ranging work in vividly capturing the spirit of our times.
Adam Goodheart is a member of the editorial board of The American Scholar.