A Mirror for History

In A Mirror for History: How Novels and Art Reflect the Evolution of Middle Class America, author Marc Egnal uses novels and art to provide a new understanding of American society.

The book argues that the arc of middle-class culture reflects the evolution of the American economy from the near-subsistence agriculture of the 1750s to the extraordinarily unequal society of the twenty-first century. Fiction offers a rich source for this analysis. By delving deep into the souls of characters and their complex worlds, novels shed light on the dreams, hopes, and goals of individuals and reveal the structures that shape character’s lives. Additionally, paintings of the time periods expand upon these insights drawn from literature.

Egnal’s lively exploration of the changing economy, fiction, art, and American values is organized into four expansive periods—the Sentimental Era, Genteel America, Modern Society, and Post-Modern America. Within that framework, A Mirror for History looks at topics such as masculinity, childhood, the status of women, the outlook of African Americans, the role of religion, and varying views of capitalism.

Readers will be enthralled to find discussions of overlooked novels and paintings as well as to discover new approaches to familiar pieces. A Mirror for History examines over one hundred authors and dozens of artists and their works, presented here in full color.


“A fascinating book that combines history, economics, literary criticism and distant reading to offer a sweeping portrait of the rising and falling middle class in America, by way of the ultimate middle-class art form, the novel.”
– Stephen Marche, author of The Next Civil War

“A Mirror for History introduces an engaging and bold new way of interpreting American social history.”
– Elizabeth Abbott, author of A History of Marriage