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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Power: Taming the Octopus
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Power
Text 1. Images of the Octopus, five cartoons
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Text 2. Standard Oil
Text 3. The Octopus in the West
Text 4. The Populist Party Platform [Omaha Platform]
Text 5. The Pullman Strike
Text 6. Jack London, South of the Slot
Text 7. The Boss and the Reformer
Text 8. Images of Big City Politics
Text 9. Social Policy: Social Darwinism vs. the Social Gospel
Text 10. Theodore Roosevelt, The New Nationalism
Text 11. African American Strategies
Text 12. Women and Power

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Reading Guide
The Menace of the Hour, 1899
The Menace of the Hour
The Image of the Octopus, six drawings, 1882-1909  Discussing Art
- The Curse of California, The Wasp, 19 Aug. 1882
- The Forty Ts [Thieves], Harper’s Weekly, 17 March 1888
- The Menace of the Hour, The Verdict, 30 Jan. 1899
- An English Country Seat . . . , Puck, 23 Oct. 1901
- "Next!", Puck, 7 Sept. 1904
- The Puzzled Citizen, Chicago Daily News, 3 Feb. 1909

As this sample of images and the title of Frank Norris's novel suggest (see Text 3), in late nineteenth-century America the octopus seemed, metaphorically, to be everywhere. Of course, this octopus was not the sort you might snag while deep-sea fishing. It was decidedly a land creature, malevolent, imbued with rationality, purpose, and unbridled appetite. Why did this image resonate so deeply within the popular imagination of the era? It was due to the growing awareness of the extent to which large, centralized, interlocking networks of distribution, organization, and administration—from railroads, to power grids, to corporate hierarchies, to political machines—were shaping American life. Trapped in such systems, American sensed a lessening of control in nearly every sphere. For our purposes the specific local conditions to which these images refer are irrelevant. What matters is their interpretation of power and powerlessness. 6 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. Why an octopus? What associations does the octopus arouse in your imagination?
  2. Considering such elements as tone, setting, shape, and use of space, what similarities do you see in the five images? What differences?
  3. How do the illustrators characterize the power of the octopus?
  4. Who are the victims, and how are they portrayed?

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Topic Framing Question
  •  How did Americans respond to the shifts in economic and political power that occurred during this period?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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