How the Golden Age Lost Its Memory

By Andrew HeiselMarch 22, 2015

How the Golden Age Lost Its Memory

THIS MAY BE a golden age of television, but it’s hard to feel particularly blessed about it. According to Brett Martin’s recent book Difficult Men, this TV golden age is actually America’s third. In fact, if you add up the spans of Martin’s different ages, we’ve spent more time since 1950 within a golden age of television than without. Our current one has been running since the late ’90s. This is odd, not because we’ve found ourselves so frequently in the company of great television, but because we’ve found ourselves in golden ages at all. For a long time, the idea of “the golden age” just didn’t work like that.

The Greek poet Hesiod gave the world its first glimpse of the golden age. In his Works and Days, from ca. 700 BC, he describes a decline of man, from golden to silver to bronze, to the iron present. In the golden age, humans were without flaw and the earth was cornucopial. Man did not have to work and knew no master. In the ongoing iron, we are “with toils and grief oppressed, / Nor day nor night can yield a pause of rest.” Over the years, Plato, Ovid, and Virgil all played with the idea, but the essential concept remained the same: the golden age already happened; things are worse now. The job of the golden age is to remind us how much better things could be.

And so the golden age remained, firmly Classical, mythic, and over. And not just among the poets. To see how it worked its way into present American usage, I’ve traced the concept’s deployment through databases covering British and American writing since the 16th century — thousands of old books and newspapers. They bear out my suspicion that the “golden age” simply isn’t what it used to be, and not just on television. What changed?

With few exceptions, in earlier eras nobody ever seriously declares, “This is the golden age.” Instead, they accuse opponents of saying it or put it in the mouth of a foolish narrator. It only exists in the present as a bill of goods. In Britain, it’s what those charlatans behind the Corn Laws, the Reform Laws, or the Poor Laws would have you believe they’re creating. It’s the false promise made by those trying to root out, as The London Morning Post put it in 1828, “the rusty old customs of their forefathers” and replace them with “the delightful pleasures of change and variety.” Dreamers no less dangerous than the French revolutionaries, Edmund Burke writes, sought “a golden age, full of peace, order, and liberty.”

When writers do place it in the present, it is always with an irony befitting their preferred definition of the age. It’s a golden age of the stomach (1847), plagiarism (1825), or “quackery and counterfeiting” (1824). A present golden age is either the pinnacle of something base or the debasement of something lofty. In 1832, an editorialist for New York’s Spectator writes that the president’s ability to “twist the constitution a little to accommodate his particular friends in his own state” signals nothing less than a “golden age of republican virtue.” This golden age sarcasm is really, really common.

Not all jokes are so easy to spot. Occasionally a celebration of some person or party will feel genuine, right up until its sentiment is destroyed by a signature like “MENDAX” or “Will Whimsical.” The irony was probably clearer for contemporary readers, who would have been accustomed to smirk at the first utterance of “golden age.” That was simply how the term worked. It looked to the past to critique the present.

Yet they were not hopeless pessimists. Many writers across the years suggest that some change will put them on the cusp of the golden age, and sometimes they’re even earnest about it. Historians have shown that a widespread belief in “progress” began to take hold during the Renaissance, and accordingly you can find in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writings plenty of pride in existing and anticipated improvements. But belief in the future did not require glorification of the present.

Occasionally, a great man will die, be it a knight in 1616 or a king in 1760, and encomiums follow declaring his time a golden age. Or a king takes power, like Charles II in 1660, and is declared to have “return’d the golden age again.” Sometimes even a living duke or minister is similarly praised. But this is why the word “courtship” derives from the court — it’s the arena of fawning speech at the service of personal desires, nothing more. Genuine assertions of a present golden age usually apply to a place that is simple and distant, a contrast that can allow the reader to examine his own sordid, city-bound condition. There’s no golden age in London but rather in tranquil Mallow (1738), Brighton (1777), St. Kilda (1753), or Tahiti (1773).

And of course many imagine a golden age in the New World, a site that reveals just how tortured this rhetoric can be. Not only are the natives discovered there said to be in a golden age free from wants or vices, but the colonists are also said to foolishly think they can create one of their own. They have, the Morning Chronicle writes in 1774, “an idea of Common-wealth, not unlike that which poets and young people have of the golden age, where they fancy, that without either labour, solicitude, or chagrin, people pass their time in the innocent pleasures of love, music, and other soft delights.” Some Tory American newspapers expressed the same sentiment. But the loyalists don’t have a complete monopoly on the term. The British government is accused by one London writer during this period of dreaming the war will create “a new golden Age of commercial Liberty and Empire.” It’s reductio ad aurum in all directions.

In 1773, a widely reprinted sermon by a Welsh bishop points out the great unfolding irony of the colonists’ dreams. Once they have achieved independence,

the old and prudent will often look back on their present Happiness with regret; and consider the Peace and Security, the state of visible Improvement, and brotherly Equality, which they enjoyed under the Protection of their Mother Country, as the true Golden Age of America.

His prophecy came eerily true in 1783, when at least two London newspapers printed an extract of a “Letter from Charlestown, South Carolina,” relating that now,

the wise and moderate part of the inhabitants here look back on their late situation when connected with Great-Britain with infinite regret, and consider the peace, the security, the brotherly regard, the state of visible improvement, which they enjoyed under the protection of their Mother Country, as the true Golden Age of America.

Yes, they just tweaked the old prediction and ran it as fact. Whether it’s what you want to believe, what you want others to believe, or what you want others to believe others believe, the golden age is an able tool.

Yet soon some Americans genuinely did begin to miss the old days. Already by 1809, there were widespread laments for the lost golden age, not of union with Britain, but of the Revolution and Presidents Washington and Adams. “I wish to have the golden age of Washington revived,” Congressman Barent Gardenier told the House that year. But no, the editor of the True American declared four years later, that golden age “is gone, and can never return.” Almost instantly, the Revolutionary years and the Founding Fathers were viewed by many with the same awe they receive today — and the golden age was an apt descriptor for the impossible virtue attributed to them.

The era did have some self-awareness about its exaggerated nostalgia however. Although it apparently took until 1867 for someone to point out that Washington’s letters reveal a level of dissatisfaction quite out of keeping with a so-called “golden age,” in general golden age debunkers were not uncommon. As a London magazine put it in 1793, the “admiration of former ages was a vanity that was prevalent at all times as well as ours; and the golden age was never the present.”But even those with a clear-eyed view of the past weren't about to over-praise the present.

Then gradually over the course of the 19th century, the age of irony came to a close. With astounding technological advancement and growing fruits of colonial expansion, change was too remarkable not to appreciate. In 1826, a Boston newspaper calls it a “golden age of luxuries, conveniences, and innovations.” In 1882, a syndicated story asks, “Is not this the ‘Golden Age’ of the world, with those most magnificent opportunities to those who have enterprise or capital?” In 1891, it is not at all strange for another widely circulated item to declare, “This is the golden age: The world was never better than at the present.” As Charles Rosenberg describes in his classic study of science and American social thought No Other Gods, the Second Great Awakening of the first half of the 19th century created a “mood of intense, even millennial enthusiasm” that fed into excitement over the era’s rapid industrial improvements. Americans made, he shows, almost no “distinctions between the material and spiritual aspects of economic, technological, and scientific progress.” It was a period marked by “unquestioning faith” in the advance of civilization, in which a dean of an agricultural college in 1912 could blithely declare “efficiency and morality” to be “mighty good chums.” As David Nye notes in American Technological Sublime, technological advance was so tightly linked with the nation’s conception of itself that in the nineteenth century inventors were routinely celebrated on Independence Day. In all this optimism, there was little use for the cynic’s idea of a lost golden age.

More popular were various mystics and professors traveling to give speeches about the present or very near golden age. The claims must have been partly therapeutic, giving hope to the many who didn’t benefit from the age’s advances. As Barbara Ehrenreich describes in her book Bright-Sided, this divide between aspiration and reality gave rise in late century to the New Thought movement, which preached the power of positive thinking, creating a sort of reverse Calvinism in which people were encouraged to scrutinize themselves to eliminate the negative thoughts keeping them from the prosperity all around.

Ehrenreich describes the movement as one ultimately in line with the interests of business, creating psychologically isolated workers who were taught they could only blame themselves for failures to think and visualize properly. If people became more divided (within themselves and from each other), so too did the golden age. Those professors’ talks always list a host of technological advances that add up to the golden age, but suddenly there is much less talk of a greater good than of assorted individual goods. The phrase “golden age of X” was rare before, and almost never earnestly applied except to literature, but now it abounds. We enter golden ages of wine (1833), engraving (1834), Protestantism (1882), childhood (1884), real estate boomers (1887), baseball (1887), philanthropy (1892), pugilism (1892), babies (1893), literary advertising (1895), humorous picture making (1901), and — without a hint of irony — colonial exploitation (1904). The dream of universal harmony gives way to parochial pursuits.

By the 1890s, newspapers had begun to draw a majority of their revenue from advertising, and the message on the business end reinforced that on the news side—or vice versa. As Gerald Baldasty shows in The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century, advertisers pressured papers to “present more of the bright side of life,” because optimism was more conducive to shopping. Businesses had golden ages to sell too: of dentistry (1869), ginghams (1891), Christmas cards (1892), dress goods (1895), storekeeping (1898), good dressing (1901), furniture (1904), housekeeping (1905), jam (1909), and lace (1916). Sometimes the product is conflated with the broader concept. It’s a golden age for women because the sewing machine is improved. It’s a golden age of opportunity because of new savings accounts. No longer is society indicted by this rhetoric but rather the individual — tasked at every turn with measuring up to the new age. Out with the old moral wardrobe. In with luxurious new fabrics.

And some were duly in dudgeon. Mark Twain labeled the tail of the 19th century a “Gilded Age,” with modern refinements masking age-old venality. It was the worst kind of golden age, a literal one. This was a critique of ancient vintage. As Ovid described his own era: “This is the golden age, not that of old, / Both life and honour are now bought with gold.” This little trick start is a mainstay, appearing any time someone wants to attack graft, joke about monetary policy, or discuss a gold rush. But it loses some of its bite in this period. It becomes an extremely popular device in 1849, but soon journalists lose concern for avarice. Gold really does seem the substance of a golden age, or any wealth, really. One of the earnest proclamations of a golden age quoted above starts with a discussion of silver mining.

The optimism of the late 19th century is oft noted, and just as often the arrival of the Great War is said to dampen spirits, but it has no effects on this rhetoric. People are still treated, to offer just a tiny sample of this booming phrase, to golden ages of the farmer (1919), human history (1920), young men who like adventure (1920), medical achievement (1925), finding relics of old London (1928), patent medicines (1928), and receiverships (1933). The trope isn’t subject to typical literary or philosophical periodization, and maybe not to history at all. It seems entirely fitting that the multiplicity of golden ages would arrive along with industrial society. The mechanisms that now promise to turn the future into a hellscape are so wonderful that the future slips from view. It’s quite easy to imagine people ages hence looking back on our era and agreeing that it was a golden age, observing our pleasures and self-satisfaction with envy — but mostly contempt.

The following decades present an overwhelming number of golden ages that run right up through the present day. Plug the phrase “golden age of” into Google and add any word of your choice. There are good odds you’ll get a hit. Or try The New York Times. According to their archives, here are some of the golden ages current as of 2013: human capital, museum renovation, video games, video game criticism, music documentaries, economic debunkery, economic discourse, spying, gold, sports cars, and Texas barbecue. In the same year, Slate reported the golden ages of maps, copper theft, animal discovering, cave exploration, robots, female self-pleasure, philanthropy, and cultural criticism.

We are also, according to The Times, Slate, and many other venues, in the golden age of journalism. This particular age has been declared in many different decades since the 1880s, but all the stories of late about journalism’s death have made it an especially enticing claim. And it’s certainly possible to make the case that it has improved. I discovered the same article about the history of facial hair — “the reign of Henry IV of France was the golden age of beards” — repurposed 53 times in various newspapers from the London Review in 1786 to the Kansas City Sun in 1919. This doesn’t say much for the carat of those ages. But the appeal of declaring this a golden age of journalism feels rooted less in the quality of journalism than in the pull of the phrase. The golden age is often declared in a story’s headline or lede. It’s a cheap way of arresting the reader’s divided attention. Books, tending to recount the past, have the opposite bag of tricks. Either way, the specifics of the claim are often unthought; it’s a way of begging you to believe that the story the writer is telling is important.

But it’s more than just attention baiting. There’s something affirming about these declarations, as is suggested by the popular genre of golden age debunking. I came across a number of historical instances of people disputing the idea of the golden age, but such assertions have never been so frequent. Now there is a steady flow of “There never was a golden age of X” articles, serving to assure readers that things really haven’t gotten worse, that education, grammar, journalism, or cultural literacy are as good or better than ever. Even without disputing the content of the claims, it seems odd that such soothing messages are necessary in an age when the bright side preponderates.

But if the dedication to the present can seem a bit indiscriminate, it’s worth remembering just how heinous is the side being rejected. Conflict did not disappear with the arrival of the golden age. Retrograde elements lived on to stand athwart each advancement and demand, “No further.” Consider the status of women, against whom this phrase has long turned. In 1730, for instance, a journal mockingly asserts that it must be a “golden age of innocence” if women can appear without blushing “for threescore nights together at a bawdy entertainment, [featuring] the most lascivious acts, nearly tending to copulation itself.” To the journal’s audience, these women’s willingness to view such shows is enough to disprove their accusations “against beastly fellows for Rapes.” The golden age of innocence that is expected of women is used to deny them real world rights. An 1818 piece takes a similar tack, with an ironic list of reasons why the golden age must have arrived. Naturally, the failings of women figure prominently: “Formerly women undressed to go to bed — now, to go abroad. There’s economy.” The bizarro golden age is the one where women do as they please.

This feeling continues as women attain more rights. A piece in 1837 begins by declaring that “the golden age of female emancipation has commenced,” but it soon becomes clear that this is a negative. Suddenly, women are stepping out of their “proper sphere” and speaking about things like the proposed statehood of Texas. Yet by the end of the century, as women’s movements grow, so too do earnest proclamations of women’s achievement. A woman in 1900 declares her gender’s golden age and adds, “If women of the past could see us as we are today, they would exclaim: ‘Well done, women of the nineteenth century. You have accomplished great things.’” But the effort to corral those achievements remains. A contributor to The Washington Post says in 1910 that it is the duty of women to eschew “selfishness and sensualism” in order to uphold morality: “Take the great women of the nineteenth century, the golden age of woman’s achievements, and we find that the women who figure in that century of unparalleled progress were plain in appearance.” Women’s historical achievements are fine; it’s always the next step that threatens to spoil the age. The theme continues when women get the vote in 1920. A Baltimore Sun piece insists their golden age won’t stop there, that the only way to keep “wicked man” on “good behavior” will be to take the vote away from “four or five million males.”

This term, it can’t be emphasized enough, has long been a weapon of the rankest, most revanchist forces. Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the combination of power and depravity anchored to the phrase than the existence of an 18th-century slave ship called The Golden Age. Today’s eager declarations of a present golden age sometimes seem animated by spite for these awful voices that have so long wielded the term. Better to reject the past whole cloth than risk rubbing shoulders with the old guard that has lamented every positive social development. It’s an attempt to turn the master’s tools against him. The golden age has always been a political term, but whereas before it was straightforward, now it’s politics by other means. Put the golden age in the present and you put yourself, explicitly or implicitly, out of such awful company.

This is as true of television as anything. Fittingly, the earliest statement about TV’s first golden age that I could find, from 1952, came in the context of a story about the medium’s dangers. Two years earlier, a series in The Christian Science Monitor warned that television could be a “pied piper” tantalizing children and possibly leading them to oblivion. Amid this climate, TV lovers struck back, declaring, as one critic wrote in 1955, that the shows on air would stand “for all time.” The next year, the term “idiot box” was coined. This is how “golden age” has always worked — there’s always something to be sold, always an opposition in view. Before, the phrase was used to decry the present with a longing eye toward the past. Now it’s to celebrate the present, with a tacit antagonism of the past and those clinging to it. Today’s golden age of television isn’t purely about praise, as is evident in how critics continually mock the old terms of scorn, often raising and dismissing the specter of that old prig who would brag about not even owning a TV. They suggest that to love TV is to be free of elitism and maybe by association the old guard’s other horrible -isms.

The claims don’t exactly hold up. Discussions of the new golden age usually just translate the standards of the higher arts into this besmirched sphere. Hence the medium is often called the new film or the new novel. The first golden age was 1950s teleplays. Neither Martin’s new book nor the critics of the time included I Love Lucy. The second golden age, first described in a 1997 book by Robert J. Thompson, lasted from 1978 to 1994 but omits Taxi, The Cosby Show, and other sitcoms. Instead, Thompson focuses on dramas with lower ratings and less staying power like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and China Beach. Likewise, while comedies have drawn much attention from critics in recent years, think pieces about the present golden age rarely mention them except in passing. (It’s telling that light-on-laughs Louie is the most revered one.) And though a BuzzFeed piece recently knocked The New York Times’ TV critics for “resistance to seeing value in the popular,” the highest rated programs of this era—like NCIS and Two and a Half Men—are almost universally ignored in these discussions. But sometimes the point is less the validity of the “golden age” claims than what they say about the speaker.

To be fair, many TV critics now only use the phrase in scare quotes, and some, like Slate’s Willa Paskin and Todd VanDerWerff, formerly of The A.V. Club, fully recognize how the term can limit approaches to the medium and want to put it to rest. It’s actually a little surprising the term could still have such restrictive power anyway. At this point, it is nearly drained of all former associations. The final triumph against the past has been to rewrite the very term by which it was appreciated, to make “golden age” a mere replacement for “really good.”

But in this erasure we have lost more than just a memory. A bit of the future goes too. Built into golden age rhetoric has always been a notion of its potential return. People decry the present because they imagine something better. Where is the future in all these current golden ages? Was 1902 really the golden age of American labor? Who would agree that 1920 was the golden age of woman? That 1945 was the golden age of chemotherapy? Surely no one would agree that since 1977 it’s been all downhill for crepes. There’s no foresight here. True, improvements happen regardless, but the willingness to declare ideal something that still has a ways to go reveals a carelessness about our place in the arc of history. By contrast, some of the earliest adopters of present golden age rhetoric employed it to push for change — an advocate for prisoners’ rights in 1776, abolitionists in the 1840s. The very context of its uses pointed up how un-golden the era was while indicating the attainability of a better path.

Our golden ages come only to praise the present, never to blame it, and thus they lose some of the term’s threat. Those with power have never really wanted the golden age; it’s always been a danger to the existing order. Hence a 1653 satire continually takes aim at the idea, ridiculing a fool who thinks the “fruits of the earth” should be common. A 1793 newspaper insists Britain’s predations in India are moral precisely because it wasn’t a golden age there before. A 1794 paper can defend the necessity of war on the grounds that we do not live in a “golden age of innocence.” And again and again the golden age is reviled as the utopia of layabouts unwilling to “stoop to any servile labor.” Sure, these critics might say, give us the golden age, Lord — but not yet.

Rewriting the meaning of “golden age” has thus helped the conservative establishment off its own petard. Consider how disconcerting it still can be. Viewing the golden age ideal as uncomfortably close to the environmentalist one, in 1980 conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote a History of the Idea of Progress, which sought to revise our understanding of Western civilization to make it friendlier to industry. In earlier works, he had aligned conservative thought with an anti-Enlightenment tradition, but with the 'massed forces of pessimism' seeming to align on the Left, he changed tacks. The golden age now looked like a decline, the lazy idyll of hippies that would lead to the collapse of society. He labors to prove that Hesiod and the entire history of Western civilization until the 1960s felt the same way. “From the very beginning,” he writes, “there has been close relationship between belief in the general progress of mankind and belief in the necessity of economic growth and development.” Far from looking back fondly on a golden age, the great minds have always been confident in the improvement in knowledge and morality, and they have always linked them with technological and economic development. Underlying their thought is always a celebration of hard work and a “trust of reigning institutions.” But now, he fears, society is given to “temptations to leisure,” and forces have arisen that wish to “drastically curtail our use of fuels and minerals” and “vast areas of land and water.” In his treatment, environmentalism becomes just another way to fear change.

Far from a conservative ideal, if the golden age were one in which people were allowed to ease off the plow, nothing could be more dangerous. Thus, he revises a focus on economic growth back into the classics. Nisbet shows that if the eager celebration of the present may not fit with a traditional definition of conservatism, it fits quite well with the market interests conservatives tend to hold dearer than their philosophy. His own version of a golden age, contrary to his apocalyptic fears prior to Reagan’s triumph, is just the one we’re in.

Thus in layering the golden age over the present, we have sacrificed its double-edged capacity and lost a skeptical approach toward our own time. In its old form, the golden age is a dream that nobody can master. Coming from an era in which history was viewed as cyclical, it cannot be placed clearly in the future or the past. Its purpose is to make people uncomfortable where they are, to challenge the status quo. The conservatives use it to rattle their contemporaries, but it rattles them too. At its best, it’s an ideal that abides out of time, unattainable and all the more compelling for being so. History has shown it often to be an ugly critical tool, but it’s only as ugly as the one who wields it. The present has its virtues, but even so, we could do worse than bring back the golden age.


Andrew Heisel is a writer living in New Haven, CT.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Heisel is a writer living in New Haven, CT. Follow him on Twitter: @andyheisel.


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