Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner: “The Gilded Age” (1873): Part One

“Our quotations are set in a vast number of tongues; this is done for the reason that very few foreign nations among whom the book will circulate can read in any language but their own; whereas we do not write for a particular class or sect of nation, but to take in the whole world.” (3)

This is in the preface to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-day. While the audience may be global, the story he is telling (and many all of the stories Twain told) is distinctively American. The novel is concerned with an issue Twain took up often in Roughing It, but never with this degree of criticism: land speculation. This is the gilded nature of wealth that Twain and Warner hoped to revealed. The family at the center of the story, the Hawkins family, owns 75,000 acres in Tennessee and is convinced of its immense wealth. Despite dire poverty, they hold onto the land waiting for the proper price. After the first hundred pages, this struggle is taken to Washington, where they attempt to get the government to buy the land. Of course there is no real wealth on the land, certainly none produced by wealth. It is a fantasy.

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There is something that bothered me in Roughing It and now I have come at it more clearly. Twain (and we should add for this book Warner) seem to think the major problem of the post-Civil War era was speculation and the facade of prosperity caused by the speculation economy. And while it certainly makes these works important for our day (the housing bubble is not so different from the silver mine prospecting game), I cannot help but feel that Twain is missing an important part of the mid-nineteenth century economy: exploitation. Yes, there were games, corruption, speculation, and delusion schemes that would have made Colonel Sellers (more on him below) proud, but there was also real wealth being created in factories as a result of the rise of a violent and exploitive industrial capitalism. If “the gilded age” really means that behind the surface there is worthless metal, it is misnamed. Someone built the cities, picked the cotton, rebuilt the South, produced the steel, and laid the railroad tracks. Yes, there were games on Wall Street and tricks in Washington. Maybe in the silver mines you did have a situation where everyone was relatively equal and could play games taking advantage of each other without real exploitation, but in the economy at large expropriation was real.

Real wealth producers in an age of speculation

Real wealth producers in an age of speculation

As a document of the games and tricks side of the economy, The Gilded Age is a useful text and does interrogate a long-standing American tradition: the belief that money can come from nothing, given the right scheme. In addition to the Hawkins family scheme, there is a secondary plot involving a man named Philip Sterling and one of his coconspirators, who are attempting to get involved in speculating land in Tennessee, not that far from where the Hawkins claim sits. Another figure, Colonel Sellers crosses through both plots and is always engaged in dreaming up or trying out schemes to make money. One of these involves trying to produce a beverage for marketing in Asia, alluding to the strong believe at that time that the China and Asia market was endless.

Around 100 pages in, the major character of the novel turns to Laura Hawkins, who arrived in Washington to take leadership of the family efforts to sell the Tennessee land, turning to the buyer of last resort, the government. She gradually turns more and more odious (at least through this first half of the story). Her brother, Washington Hawkins, is a more passive figure and often pitiable. What these two children had in common was a belief that they were wealth despite their physical conditions. “With the other Hawkins children Laura had been brought up in the belief that they had inherited a fortune in the Tennessee Lands. She did not by any means share all the delusion of her family, but her brain was not seldom busy with schemes about it. Washington seemed to her only to ream of it and to be willing to wait for its riches to fall upon him in a golden shower; but she was impatient, and wished she were a man to take hold of the business.” (145—146) These represent two paths for the children of the rich (that they are not rich in fact is beside the point as they both sincerely believe that they are rich). Laura takes on the most sociopathic qualities of her class, embraces amoral willingness to bride or harm whoever it took to achieve her aims. Washington’s training for a life of sloth began so early he never learned how to create wealth.

Colonel Sellers runs through the novel and every time he emerges he seems to have a new scheme. He reminds me of some of the characters in Twain’s short fiction. I have no doubt that he must have run into a fair number of this sort of person. I suppose it is an inevitable outcropping of a democratic capitalism that leaves more people behind that it lifts up. If we are all equal, we have only ourselves to blame for our failure. If we have just the right plan, the right idea, or the well-executed business plan we can be successful. Sellers is of the type that despite previous failures will never admit that he is defeated. Some of these schemes were inspired by the growing revolution in technology. However false or delusion, there is something projectural about his schemes. “I should go on myself, but I am engaged in the invention of a process for lighting such a city as St. Louis by means of water; just attach my machine to the water-pipes, and the decomposition of the fluid begins, and you will have floods of light for the mere cost of the machine. I’ve nearly got the lightening part, but I want to attach to it a heating, cooking, washing and ironing apparatus.” (173)

There is a wonderful moment in chapter 18 where the authors consider the broader social situation and conclude on the importance of the individual and solidarity over the institutions of civilization. “As we are accustomed to interpret the economy of providence, the life of the individual is as nothing to that of the nation or the race; but who can say, in the broader view and the more intelligent weight of values, that the life of one man is not more than that of a nationality, and that there is not a tribunal where the tragedy of one human soul shall not seem more significant than the overturning of any human institution whatever?” (134) What never ceases to amaze me is how often this sentiment is repeated in American literature. For whatever truth there is to the selfish, capitalist, isolated American, there is also this solidarity, if we are to trust American writers.

These are just some assorted thoughts on what is an assorted and patched together novel. Perhaps I will have more to say next time about the den of corruption known as Washington, D.C.

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