What explains the pervasiveness of the “difficulty of giving” discourse at a time when so many Americans lived in or near poverty? I highlight the discourse’s versatility, demonstrating the ways in which an accounting of the benefactor’s travails both bolstered and undermined apologies for industrial capitalism. I suggest that an emphasis on the burdens of wealth, and on the difficulty of giving more specifically, allowed the capitalist to gesture toward the traditional ethic of Christian self-sacrifice, showing the ways in which he suffered for the greater good, even as his bank accounts bulged. On the other hand, I also explore the ways in which these stories of suffering were understood by much of the broader public as retribution for, and not as validation of, the accumulative zeal of the wealthy. Finally, I detail what this discourse reveals about the uneasy transition between entrepreneurial and managerial capitalism and the precarious status of the philanthropist in Gilded Age social thought.
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