Literature of the Gilded Age

Literature of the Gilded Age
Helen Taft: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: One to two class periods


The literature of the pre-Civil War period is usually characterized as “romantic” and includes the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, the transcendental essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell.  These traditions continued after the Civil War; however, not surprisingly, there was a significant change with the growth of realism in the literature—a realistic and sometimes critical portrayal of life.  The new approaches to the novel, essays, and poetry that emerged after the Civil War gave rise to Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Catha, and Kate Chopin.   As an educated woman, Nellie Taft was certainly familiar with the works of these authors.


The purpose of this lesson is to introduce students to the great figures in the literary world of the Gilded Age and to their work.   

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.  Access to print reference materials.


Ask students if they are familiar with the works of several of the writers listed in the Introduction above.  Be sure to include some with whom they are familiar, such as Mark Twain perhaps, and some with whom they are not familiar.  Ask students to share what they know about the writers and their work. 
1.      After this brief introduction, assign students to groups or allow them to choose their groups based on the following authors that you select:
  • Walt Whitman
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Mark Twain
  • Henry James
  • Stephen Crane
  • Theodore Dreiser
  • Willa Catha
  • Kate Chopin

2.      Working in groups, students research the authors’ lives and the literature they created using resources from the web as well as print references, focusing on only one or two major works for an author.
3.      Consulting the timeline provided with the curriculum, have students construct a timeline for their author.
4.      If time permits (and the teacher chooses to do so), have students create a possible “book cover” for a biography of their author.
5.      Each group will present their author to the class so that all students will benefit from the work of each group.

Extending the Lesson:

Students may wish to illustrate the timeline they create for their author.  The teacher may decide to make designing the “book cover” for a biography a required part of the assignment.  Students may desire to create a PowerPoint for their classroom presentation. 

Sources & Resources:

Each of these authors has numerous websites devoted to their lives and work.  The following may be quite helpful:
Walt Whitman
Emily Dickinson
Mark Twain
Henry James
Theodore Dreiser
Willa Cather

This lesson was developed by Bette Brooks, Kent State University.