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History Lessons From the Couch

Pretty much say the words “Historical Fiction” and I am intrigued. Novels rooted in a rich and colorful historical context make for the most rewarding (in my opinion) journeys. As my mom once said: “When I read a really great historical fiction, I want to feel as though I’ve learned a lot.” Whether it’s Tudor England, World War II Japan, Communist Hungary, or any other locale, when you read a well-done work of historical fiction, you get to be temporarily transported to another time and place. You can imagine yourself inhabiting a world that, though long-gone, has been temporarily resurrected between the covers of your novel.

History Lessons From the CouchThe same goes for a great film, and, recently, television. Some of the most popular programs currently on the air offer similar glimpses into fascinating moments in history. Every Sunday night I am on the couch with my husband and dog watching Masterpiece Classic’s Downton Abbey. Other great programs like Call the Midwife, Upstairs Downstairs, Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are also steeped in rich historical detail and colorful cultural context.

But a recent favorite of mine, and a must-see for any fan of history, is the History Channel’s The Men Who Built America. It’s a series outlining the rise of the half-dozen industrial titans who changed the course of American, and global, history during the decades following the Civil War. Outlining John D. Rockefeller’s revolutionary treatment of oil, Andrew Carnegie’s invention of steel as we know it, Vanderbilt’s overhaul of the American rail system, Henry Ford’s breakthrough with the assembly line and mass-production of the automobile, and J.P. Morgan’s restructuring of the American financial system, this series takes you on a whirlwind journey and enumerates how America advanced so quickly from a decimated nation reeling from the Civil War into the world’s undisputed industrial super power ready to tackle the Twentieth Century.

To watch the rise of these men (the majority of them from extremely humble origins) – along with the myriad ethical questions their success raised, as well as the impact of their prolific philanthropic bequests – is a staggering experience. They created the modern railroad, technology, finance, steel and oil industries which most of the globe now uses. American, and global, history was put on a new trajectory by these men. The scope of their wealth, the intensity of their corporate avarice, the lengths to which their philanthropy still touches us today, and the human toll that was exacted so that they might pave their way to the top, these are important points to study and learn.

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