Mark Twain Publishes "The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today"
The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today is an 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner that satirizes greed and political corruption in post-Civil War America.
The term gilded age, commonly given to the era, comes from the title of this book. Twain and Warner got the name from Shakespeare's King John (1595): "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily... is wasteful and ridiculous excess." Gilding a lily, which is already beautiful and not in need of further adornment, is excessive and wasteful, characteristics of the age Twain and Warner wrote about in their novel. Another interpretation of the title, of course, is the contrast between an ideal "Golden Age," and a less worthy "Gilded Age," as gilding is only a thin layer of gold over baser metal, so the title now takes on a pejorative meaning as to the novel's time, events and people.
Although not one of Twain's more well-known works, it has appeared in more than 100 editions since its original publication in 1873. Twain and Warner originally had planned to issue the novel with illustrations by Thomas Nast. The book is remarkable for two reasons–-it is the only novel Twain wrote with a collaborator, and its title very quickly became synonymous with graft, materialism, and corruption in public life.
The novel mainly deals with the efforts of a poor Tennessee family to get rich by finding the right time to sell the 75,000 acres (300 km2) of unimproved land acquired by their patriarch, Silas “Si” Hawkins. After several adventures in Tennessee, the family fails to sell the land and Si Hawkins dies. The rest of the Hawkins story line focuses on the beautiful adopted daughter, Laura. In the early 1870s, she travels to Washington, D.C. to become a lobbyist. With a Senator's help, she enters Society and attempts to persuade Congressmen to require the federal government to purchase the land.
A parallel story written by Warner concerns two young upper-class men, Philip Sterling and Henry Brierly, who seek their fortunes in land a different way. They join a trip to survey land in Tennessee in order to acquire it for speculation. Philip is a good-natured but rather plodding fellow. He is in love with Ruth Bolton, a feminist and aspiring doctor. Henry is a natural lobbyist and salesman, charming but superficial.
The theme of the novel is that the lust for getting rich through land speculation pervades society: this includes the Hawkinses, Philip and Henry, and Ruth's educated, wealthy father (who cannot turn down his acquaintances' money-making schemes).
The Hawkins sections were written by Twain; these include several humorous sketches. Examples are the steamboat race that leads to a wreck (Chapter IV) and Laura’s toying with a clerk in a Washington bookstore (Chapter XXXVI). Notable too is the comic presence throughout the book of the eternally optimistic and eternally broke Micawber-like character, Colonel Beriah Sellers. (The character was called Escol Sellers in the first edition and changed when George Escol Sellers of Philadelphia objected. A real Beriah Sellers also turned up causing Twain to use the name Mulberry Sellers when writing The American Claimant.)
The main action of the story takes place in Washington, D.C., and satirizes the greed and corruption of the governing class. Twain also satirizes the social pretensions of the newly rich. Laura's Washington visitors include "Mrs. Patrique Oreille (pronounced O-rey)," the wife of "a wealthy Frenchman from Cork."
The book does not touch on other themes now associated with the "Gilded Age” period and its literature, such as industrialization, corporations, and urban political machines. This may be because this book was written at the very beginning of the period.
In the end, Laura fails to secure enough votes to pass a Congressional bill requiring federal purchase of the Hawkins land. She kills her married lover but is found not guilty of the crime with the help of a sympathetic jury and a clever lawyer. However, her spirit is broken after a failed attempt at a lecturing career, and she dies regretting her fall from youth's innocence. Washington Hawkins, the eldest son, who has drifted through life on his father’s early promise that he would be “one of the richest men in the world,” finally gives up the family's ownership of the still unimproved land when he cannot afford to pay the tax bill of $180. He appears to be ready to give up his passivity: "The spell is broken, the life-long curse is ended!" Philip, using his diligently acquired engineering skills, finds coal on land purchased by Ruth's father, seems to have won Ruth's heart, and appears headed for a prosperous and conventionally happy domestic life. Henry and Sellers, presumably, will continue to live gaily by their wits while others pay their bills.
Twain Publishes The Gilded Age
Twain publishes the satiric novel The Gilded Age, its title giving a name to an entire era of American history. His most successful invention, the self-pasting scrapbook, makes its debut the same year.