Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Noveau Riche vs. Shabby Gentility

From Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, pp. 1-2:

"While middle-class contemporaries [of late-nineteenth century library philanthropists] continued to support moral reform movements (like the YMCA) as a means of encouraging social cohesion, very wealthy men who had pulled themselves up the social ladder tended to be less enthusiastic about social constraints imposed from above. Instead, these self-made millionaires were attracted to libraries and other cultural institutions as a means for promoting individual development from within."

This seems a little bit in contradiction to the description given in the first five chapters of Apostles of Culture in which the stable-but-not-prosperous middle class focused on public library as the institution that would keep their social position "safe" insofar as it rounded the sharp edges off the new commercial world they did not understand.

Actually it might not be too contradictory. Carnegie after all was one of the very people that the late-nineteenth-century middle class saw themselves as creating: a new American crafted out of European immigrant stock and made a prosperous believer in America--an America free of class conflict, mind you.

This paragraph also represents something of the distance traveled in the past century. The American noveau riche of today, excepting maybe computer entrepreneurs or people involved in scientific research, tend to be knee-jerk social conservatives with a deep-rooted suspicion of all culture and education as being first and foremost a source of higher taxes.

3 comments:

Katie Hanson said...

This paragraph also represents something of the distance traveled in the past century. The American noveau riche of today, excepting maybe computer entrepreneurs or people involved in scientific research, tend to be knee-jerk social conservatives with a deep-rooted suspicion of all culture and education as being first and foremost a source of higher taxes.

I tried to find statistics on just who is giving money and for what to determine if most charitable giving is being done by 'nouveau riche' or 'old money'--or just by middle class people who give small amounts. Alas, either this isn't tallied or it is entirely beyond my searching abilities. The best I could do was the top 60 givers of 2005, which gives a little sense of where the big donations are coming from. It looks like medical and educational groups (universities espeically) are the most popular for donations, but there's still a pretty wide variety of other agencies (environmental, arts, the occasional presidental library--and ironically, the Carnegie Corporation) that receive big checks. But just glancing over the list, I wonder whether the motives for giving have really changed all that much since Carnegie's time, and if donors today are as concerned with individual development as much as the article and Apostles made them out to be.

Nancy S. said...

As Katie found the rich of today are giving to educational and cultural institutions (like libraries) similar to Carnegie and his contemporaries. Perhaps just like during the time of Carnegie these donations were made because of conservative knee-jerkers working against higher taxes. Although answering why these donors were making large donations is important to understanding the historical context - the article suggests that the effect they had is a more important issue.

In the article we see Carnegie and Bertram 'forcing' libraries to accept their theories in design, function, etc. They had a profound effect on the development of libraries. I think it is important to consider and understand these effects as today donors such as Bill Gates and the like are making similar library donations that most likely will effect the development of modern libraries.

Is this a positive thing for libraries? Does Van Slyck offer any incite as to whether this is most likely going to positively or negatively effect libraries?

Soren said...

I was also struck by the statement that "very wealthy men who had pulled themselves up the social ladder tended to be less enthusiastic about social constraints imposed from above." Unfortunately, the end or footnote for this statement is not included in our reader. Anyone care to look it up? I can do it, but not before class.