Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner: “The Gilded Age” (1873): Assorted Thoughts

The major action in the second part of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age is about the failure of the Hawkins family attempt to sell their 75,000 acres of land in Tennessee to the U.S. government. Their scheme was to promote the establishment of a college of science and technology, which would have led to the purchase of the land for millions. Without getting into the details of this scheme, despite massive efforts of lobbying and bribing politicians, it fails catastrophically when taken to the floor of Congress for a vote. A second plot is about Laura Hawkins’ arrest for the murder of Colonel Selby, her lover who was pursuing a bigamist relationship with Laura. They actually married in the first half of the novel, but Selby quickly abandoned her before the marriage was reported.

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The impact of this relationship on Laura is quite significant. The authors connection it to the malevolent shift in her character. “Laura was ill for a long time, be she recovered she had that resolution in her that could conquer death almost. And with her health can back her beauty, and an added fascination, a something that might be mistaken for sadness. Is there a beauty in the knowledge of evil, a beauty that shines out in the face of a person whose inward life is transformed by some terrible experience? Is the pathos in the eyes of the Beatrice Cenci from her guilt or her innocence? Laura was not much changed. The lovely woman had a devil in her heart. That was all.” (140 – 141) There is an important message about the dysfunction of marriage that reminds me a bit of some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s depictions of marriage. If we look at Laura and Selby there is a basic conflict in their relationship as each is attempting to possess the other on their own terms. Too often we look at our relationships in this way, and this works into our culture. Women want men to themselves. Men will seek out to possess as many women as casually as possible. When Laura finds Selby in Washington with his “real” wife, she seeks to own him and when that fails she kills him. This murder and the trial that follows leads to much of the tension of the second half of the novel. If possession is at the heart of our relationships, then violence seems to be the inevitable result. On this, Twain and Warner and correct. Listen to Laura’s outrage (perhaps acceptable) but it is filled with the assumption of ownership, not unlike Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni. “And you dare come here with her, here, and tell me of it, here and mock me with it! And you think I will have it, George? You think I will let you live with that woman? You think I am as powerless as that day I fell dead at your feet?” (281) Later the narrator asks: “Had she not a right to him?” In response to this dilemma, both turn toward plotting. It is all very unfortunate and ugly. It makes the nonmonogamists seem much more mature (of course because they are).

Twain and Warner spend lots of time cultivating the aura of Washington in the post-Civil War era, discussing the class divisions between the different political families, their social life, the networks that fueled corruption, and even how the environment tended to corrupt those who were not of Washington (Such as Washington Hawkins). “Renowned generals and admirals who had seemed but colossal myths when he was in the far west, went in and out before him or sat at the Senator’s table, solidified into palpable flesh and blood; famous statesmen crossed his path daily; that once rare and awe-inspiriting being, a Congressman, was become a common spectacle.” (181) Of course, after the Civil War, there were plenty of these awe-inspiring heroes. The authors seem to mourn how easily these people fell into the corruption of politics after the war ended.

We see several hints throughout The Gilded Age of the growing American empire. Many of the Western land schemes discussed in the book presuppose an imperial agenda, both in how the land was original secured and in the plans for development. At one point Colonel Sellers suggests overseas expansion in the context of the plan to annex Santo Domingo (a real but often forgotten effort at Reconstruction-era empire building). Sellers sold the plan as a way to gain Southern support for some of his other policies. Even the plan to build an industrial college on the Hawkins land is suggested as a part of the modernization of the South, bringing into the nation after the Civil War, establishing the South as a fundamental part of the U.S. empire. The former slaves are presented as semi-colonial subjects to be brought up under the tutelage of Washington. “We understand that a philanthropic plan is on foot in relation to the colored race that will, if successful, revolutionize the whole character of southern industry.” (287)

The novel ends with an acquitted Laura taking stock of her live and attempting to turn away from the evil woman that being jilted and working in Washington made her into. If there is a lesson here it is that the nation also could turn from that path (but perhaps only after coming to terms with itself through the equivalent of a trial). Her question for wealth from nothing, paralleled the quest of many others, but was shown to be vapid. “Her life has been a failure. That was plain, she said. No more of that. She would now look to the future in the face; she would mark her course upon the chart of life, and follow it; follow it without swerving, through rocks and shoals, through storm and calm, to a haven of rest and peace—or, shipwreck.” (432) It would have been a banal ending for Laura without the final ambiguity. Without the possibility of shipwreck, I do not think Laura would be completely happy. Do any of us really want a “haven of rest and peace.”

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.

Henry Adams, “Democracy: An American Novel”

The next volume of the Library of America that I will work on is one of the three they published collecting the works of Henry Adams.  Two of these are his history of the early American Republic, which I will consider later.  Today I will start looking at his novels and autobiographical writings, starting with Democracy: An American Novel (1880).  Adams was a member of the political family founded by John Adams during the American Revolution.  While his ambitions were literary and historical (his major work is a massive history of the United States in the age of Jefferson), he was not completely immune from the political life as his novel Democracy suggests.  From his early years, he attacked the corrupting influence of money in politics in post-Civil War Washington.  That we still fight these battles is either a source of fatalism about the possibility of a government of the people, or possibly a defense of these influences as natural or even necessary.  An anarchist might read this text as a reminder of the importance of direct action and organization and the impossibility of democracy on a national scale.

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The plot of the novel centers on a young widow, Lightfoot Lee, who invests her money and time to experience the life of Washington D.C.  The narrator is not entirely sure of her motives, whether they were academic or ambitious.  As we learn throughout the novel, there was a place for ambitious women who hoped to raise in Washington society through marriages to politicians.  The narrator also begins by pointing out, that she did not find Europe a source of decadence and corruption.  She simply chose to explore all that America had to offer.  By the end of chapter one, we learn unequivocally that her desire to consume all that America offered was a cover for her true desires.  “She replied that if Washington society were so bad as this, she should have gained all she wanted, for it would be a pleasure to return, — precisely the feeling she longed for. . . . What she wished to see, she thought, was the clash of interests, the interests of forty millions of people and a whole continent, centering at Washington; guided, restrained, controlled, or unrestrained and uncontrollable, by men of ordinary mould; the tremendous forces of government, and the machinery of society at work.  What she wanted, was POWER.” (8)  She quickly enters the social life of Washington and is immediately courted by diplomats and politicians.  Most prominent among these is the Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe, who has presidential ambitions after narrowly missing his party’s nomination.  To become president, he needs a wife and Lee seemed ideal.  Ratcliffe is a great orator and full of traditional ideas.  He is opposed to reforms in the civil service and suffrage laws (the major issues being debated in the backdrop of the novel).  When talks come to new ideas such as Darwinism or communism, Ratcliffe is opposed on traditional and religious grounds.  That said, he is fully corrupted, duplicitous, manipulative, and ambitions.  When Lee learns of his corruption she rejects his offers of marriage and leaves Washington for Europe.

The relationship between Europe and America is a strong theme throughout the novel.  In the early 19th century, people in the U.S. liked to think of themselves as different from Europeans: democratic, uncorrupted, and holders of a unique and distinct culture.  It is in political and cultural life, more than anywhere else, that Americans expressed their independence from European corruptions.  There are numerous Europeans in Washington as vagabonds or diplomats.  They seem to bring European corruptions – reflected in the womanizing Baron Jacobi.  But of course, Americans in Washington were not much better.  Schuyler Clinton, from New York, apparently “made love to every girl with any pretensions to beauty that had appeared in the State of New York.” (16)  Adams wanted to show the reader how life in Washington had much in common with European courts.  Dynasties abounded, sycophants seeking jobs existed around every corner, parties for the rich and power seem to be the main events, and money – not the people – spoke.  The Baron Jacobi made the point that America has actually outdid Europe in respect to corruption.  “Well, I declare to you that in all my experience I have found no society which has had elements of corruption like the United States.  The children in the street are corrupt, and known how to cheat me.  The cities are all corrupt, and also the towns and the counties and the States’ legislatures and the judges.  Everywhere men betray trusts both public and private, steal money, run away with public funds.” (38)  Most of the characters in the novel seem to know this, or acts as through they do, even as they defend democracy.  One more idealistic figure, Nathan Gore of Massachusetts (a scholar and historian like Adams), seems to believe in the real potential of democracy powered by educated people.  Unfortunately, the reality is that the people of the United States just elected a incompetent Indiana farmer, who Ratcliffe is able to manipulate.

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One corrupting element of democracy that Adams had a long argument against was the selection of civil servants based on political alliances, rather than merit.  He argued for civil service reform in 1869.  This is a theme of the novel, and talk of reform is in the air, but a large part of this short work concerns the transition to the new president and the jockeying for jobs that go on behind the scenes.  Even the new president proclaims that the spoils system would be changed under his presidency, but any effort at reform fails.

We share Ratcliffe’s cynicism at the end.  Lee can avoid corruption only by going to Europe.  A new president matters little.  New ideas falter in Washington and become only the discussions points of parties for the political elite.  Even courtship serves political ends.  He says at one point that a democracy can only be as good as the people in it.  I suppose this is true that a few more people like Nathan Gore would have created a less corrupt government, but we cannot ignore the institutional arrangements that encourage corruption.  These institutions are not analyzed or listed by Adams, but we know what they are.  The political parties (that Ratcliffe thing trump all possible sources of loyalty, save the nation), the corporate influence, the bureaucratic class, and the physical and cultural separation of representatives and the people.

Personally, I have little to say in defense of American democracy and will today join with Adams in the condemnation of Washington.