Carole Owens: Looking back upon Gilded Age chronicle
‘Owens wrote ‘The Berkshire Cottages' at the last possible moment it could have been written."
That sentence was from a book review written in The Berkshire Eagle 30 years ago. What the reviewer meant was that the Cottagers and their servants -- the original residents of the Berkshire Cottages -- were dying. My book, based in part on oral history, could not be written in just that way had I waited any longer.
This is the 30th anniversary of publication of "The Berkshire Cottages." In the intervening years many people have gotten in touch with me to share anecdotes and memorabilia. I am always interested and grateful; yet, that reviewer remains correct. Those alive after 1984 were most often the children and grandchildren of the builders and first inhabitants, and more often shared stories they were told rather than first hand memories.
Oral histories give immediacy and authenticity to the prose. Oral histories are fun to collect, necessary to enliven the story, but rarely sufficient. Memory is always tricky, often inaccurate, and just as often without context. For example:
"What year did that happen?"
"Oh I couldn't say."
"How old were you when it happened?"
"Well I guess I was young -- definitely in elementary school."
Working from the interviewee's date of birth, the date can be determined within a six-year period but no closer.
Interviewees were surprised how often I knew more about their family members than they did; more about the cottage they owned, visited, or worked in than they did. Research is different from memory. To write a fun and informative history, both are necessary.
I was surprised and pleased that everyone (with the exception of one woman) said yes to being interviewed. Upstairs or downstairs, they all were happy to recall, to talk, share, and rummage for photographs. They were not all happy to be identified.
For many years people asked who coined the definition of a cottage: "more than 20 rooms on more than 30 acres." I was not at liberty to answer because the woman asked that I not use her name. Some of the best stories about Elm Court were told by a man who asked not to be identified. So I remain mute.
They are both dead now, and I wonder if their wishes and my obligation extend beyond the grave. I don't know. I do know this, however, the saddest part of writing "The Berkshire Cottages" was the number of interviewees who did not live to see the book published, and the happiest part of writing it was the interviewees who told me they were pleased with the book. Admittedly I was equally happy that Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, The Boston Globe and The New York Times also liked it.
I am ambivalent about the Amazon.com reviewer who wrote, "The Berkshire Cottages is the Bible on the subject." It is the kind of sentence that invites others to take a pot shot; curl a lip, roll up a sleeve, and dig for mistakes.
On a more serious note, the anniversary prompts the question: Is this America's second Gilded Age? Have we learned from, or have we repeated, our mistakes?
Cottages and city palaces were the symbols of the Gilded Age. Today our landscape is dotted with McMansions. Then and now: a small percent of the population control a majority of the wealth; while, in sharp contrast, millions of Americans face joblessness and foreclosure.
In the first Gilded Age, Jacob Riis in "How the Other Half Lives" underscored the socio-economic inequity of his age. Today the media and politicians can hardly express a thought without mentioning "the 1 percent." Yet the differences between then and now are as important as the similarities: population, manufacturing and trajectory.
The population of this country is 10 times what it was during the Gilded Age. That is 10 times the strain on infrastructure, services, and resources. Then we believed resources were limitless; now we know resources are finite, and the limits are fast being reached.
During the Gilded Age, we moved from an agriculturally-based economy to a labor-intensive manufacturing economy. Today to maximize profit, rather than employ Americans, we export jobs and replace humans with technology.
During the first Gilded Age, internationally, we were on an upward trajectory. Today our superiority in the world is being challenged. The United Nations reports that in health care delivery, education, preventing avoidable deaths, we rank behind other industrialized nations.
In social mobility, America ranks 10th. "America ranking 10th in social mobility is like Sweden ranking 10th in making Swedish meatballs," Bill Maher quipped.
The Gilded Age can be defined as: a time when vast new wealth was disproportionately distributed into a few hands. Given that, we apparently are in a second Gilded Age, but the context has changed. If a second Gilded Age, this one seems more difficult, less vibrant.
In October 2008, "The Berkshire Cottages" was set for another edition. The publisher panicked with the rest of America, pulled out, and since then no copies have been available; until now. Like those interviewees 30 years ago, who dug in attics for photos I could use, last week, I dug in the attic and found a box of books. So now -- after 6 years and for a limited time -- there are copies available. Happy anniversary, "Berkshire Cottages."
For copies email: firstname.lastname@example.org or mail Cottage Press POB 1207 Stockbridge Ma 01262.
A writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.
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