“The Rising Waters” is even more salient now than when Carl Hassmann drew it in 1906. Then, as now, American society was in a desperate state, thanks to decades of the rich getting richer and leaving everyone else behind. The Gilded Age had created vast industrial wealth while consigning millions to exploitative working conditions and poverty. Landed security became more elusive as labor-saving machinery displaced rural folk and opportunities to homestead shrank with the “closing” of the American frontier. Cities became clogged with Americans seeking the respectability and comfort that came with new white-collar jobs.
Hassmann imagines centralized wealth as a rising tide about to overwhelm and destroy all traces of American society. (Only the very wealthy are safe, being depicted as man-eaters rather than as humans themselves.) A desperate family clings to the slippery rock of “opportunity.” It is destitute, homeless, and helpless, facing extinction. The political foundation of hope, which republican government represents, is likewise disappearing fast, as the rising waters threaten the Statue of Liberty.
More than a century on, Hassmann’s drawing freshly describes today’s America, where the interests of the wealthiest engross part of what should belong to the whole population. America’s reverence for wealth has fueled a style of growth that privileges large economic interests, while starving ordinary people and their dreams. Congress operates for purposes other than to empower citizens and channel the will of a self-governing people. The present era of flood, fires, and pestilence has further alienated Americans from the glossy national story that the mainstream media package and sell. The hypnotic tide of personal “expression” on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram paradoxically obscures the anomie and isolation that pandemic-weary Americans are suffering.
Ultimately, Hassmann’s masterful illustration is a hopeful “message in a bottle” from an earlier time. In 1906, observers despaired over the nation’s sad state, going so far as to declare its promise lost. Yet, thanks to a rising generation of reform-minded leaders (think Theodore Roosevelt and Jane Addams), the pendulum began to swing the other way. American government once again moved in pursuit of greater opportunity and fairness, renewing its concern for personal character and the common good. After decades of moral mediocrity and corruption, the United States took itself in hand and soared to new heights, reaching an apogee after World War II. Can today’s leaders prevail over the self-destruction sinking the nation now?
Image: from this source.