Publication Date

November 30, 2022

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:

In her smart and cleverly written examination of race (and its absence) in the Regency period drama Bridgerton (“‘Two Separate Societies, Divided by Color’: Race, Colonialism, and Bridgerton,” September 2022), Trishula Patel gives a qualified endorsement of the acknowledgment of racism in The Gilded Age, another high-profile television series. Her comment made me think about how The Gilded Age, written and produced by Julian Fellowes and set in late 19th-century New York City, fails miserably in its depiction of the working class for reasons similar to how Patel saw Bridgerton failing in depicting race.

Fellowes, who famously created and wrote Downton Abbey, has basically transposed the (supposed) class relations of that English country manor to an American metropolis of two million people. In place of the landed gentry, we see old money New Yorkers and the new financial and industrial elite (bankers and railroad tycoons), but the workers on-screen are still almost all household employees: maids, kitchen staff, messengers, carriage drivers. Fellowes at least attempts to convey the immigrant and ethnic origins of such workers, with a nod toward their Irish, German, and British backgrounds.

But in a drama set in 1880s New York City, we get no hint of the fact that Henry George, backed by trade unions that formed the United Labor Party, won 31 percent of the vote in the 1886 mayoral election, polling ahead of Republican Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt. The Central Labor Union boasted some 50,000 members and, in conjunction with the Knights of Labor, conducted numerous strikes for higher pay and fairer working conditions among streetcar drivers, brewery workers, cigar makers, telegraph operators, and many more. (For an overview of such activities, see the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace.) While the leading “new money” man in The Gilded Age is a railroad operator modeled partly after Jay Gould, there is no mention of labor strife in that industry, which by no means ended with the crushing of the 1877 railroad workers’ strike. (Even Bridgerton, in its second season, included a subplot highlighting artisan radicalism and its attendant repression by the state.)

That the producers of The Gilded Age engaged a historical consultant (Erica Armstrong Dunbar of Rutgers University) to help portray the racial diversity and racial discrimination of 1880s New York is to their credit, and I am sure that this consultant greatly improved the show’s writing and story lines. But a historical drama that seeks to more accurately explore issues of race and gender should make some effort to portray class relations beyond the outworn “upstairs-downstairs” formula. Moreover, in our examinations of middlebrow productions such as Bridgerton and The Gilded Age, historians should be just as attentive to representations of working-class people as we are to depictions of race and gender.

Robert Shaffer
Shippensburg University (emeritus)

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