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.


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.”

William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs” (May1861-March 1864): The Problem of Occupation

shermanThe next section (continued from last post) of William T. Sherman’s Memoirs cover the first two and a half years of the Civil War, including Sherman’s involvement in the First Battle of Bull Run, his nervous breakdown and pessimism while working to expel Confederates from Kentucky, the Battle of Shiloh, the Vicksburg Campaign, and the Chattanooga Campaign.  The final of these were significant from Sherman’s theory of warfare because its epilogue, the Meridian campaign was led by Sherman and largely involved putting into practice total war.  Since the war’s front lines moved so quickly in the Tennessee and Mississippi campaigns, Sherman often found himself confronting the question of what to do with the cities and towns that he helped seized.  The dilemma seemed to be one between sustaining democratic values and democratic governments, property rights while at war.  Ultimately, as proven by the orders he gave during the Meridian campaign, warfare cannot be compatible with these values.  I suspect Sherman is correct on this point.  At least, modern history has seem to prove it.  I do not know much about the Durutti Column and other efforts to fight wars with democratic values.  But the Durutti Column was fighting a war of defense and was rooted in communities with a functioning anarchy.  Sherman was trying to suppress a rebellion.  In most cases, wars are fought against a people and Sherman’s logic is necessary.  A much better approach is to eliminate war, a goal a soldier like Sherman had little interest in thinking about.

As for the Battle of Bull Run, Sherman is skeptical about labeling it a Confederate victory at all, being really a rumble between two undisciplined armies.  “Both armies were fairly defeated, and whichever had stood fast, the other would have run.”  (199)  In the aftermath of the battle he gained some respect for Lincoln, who reviewed the troops, due to his ability to speak to the troops honestly but “full of feeling.” (207)  At the time, Sherman asked Lincoln to ensure that he never takes a top-level command, thinking instead that he would do better as part of the institution rather than its head.  Sherman certainly believed that he excelled under the leadership of Grant and faced his most traumatic times while in sole command.  That trauma came not long after Bull Run, when Sherman took command of a little more than a thousand troops in Kentucky.  In despair, he predicted that the suppression of the Confederacy in that area would take more than 60,000 troops (he later states 200,000 for the “center”).  He does not say much of anything about his frustrations of late 1861, but does document in detail how he his superiors underestimated the power that would be required to put down the rebellion.  This period certainly contributed to his reputation as a “lunatic.”  But as in many things, the lunatic is often proven right.

Often, Sherman does not write his narrative down from the perspective of the 1870s.  Especially in regards to the memory of battles (which is may be right to mistrust) he relies on his orders, letters, and formal reports to commanders.  He included them into his memoirs unedited and intact.  I was often surprised at how enjoyable and literary some of these official correspondences were.  Although written under incredible stress and sorrows, Sherman includes useful commentary (often praising his troops performance), recommendations, and personal touches.  I wonder how many other Civil War generals were able to produce such reports.  I cannot imagine some of those Southern aristocrats producing much that we would want to read 150 years later in the aftermath of a battle.  Anyway, the battle of Shiloh is given to us completely through these reports.  He only adds a defense of Grant’s performance at the end.

Between Shiloh and the Vicksburg campaign, Sherman had the chance to get a feeling for the occupation of enemy territory.  His opinion that the Southerners need to be dealt with harshly as enemies emerges very early.  In August 1862 he wrote: “This is no trifle; when one nation is at war with another, all the people of one are enemies of the other: then the rules are plain and easy of understanding.  Most unfortunately, the war in which we are now engaged has been complicated with the belief on the one hand that all on the other are not enemies.”  He adds that “not only are they unfriendly, but all who can procure arms now bear them as organized regiments, or as guerrillas.” (286)  He then recommends the wholesale looting of occupied territories of cotton, currency, and bullion.    On the same month, he gave detailed notes to the quartermaster in occupied Memphis to seize rents (but not properties) “because the United States assumes the place of trustee.” (295)  Of course he saw this as all logical and the proper implementation of the Confiscation Act, but he is nevertheless innovative in his brutal honesty about the nature of modern war.

In September 1863, Sherman extends this logic to that of the state itself, when he comments in a private letter to General Halleck, on occupation.  The heart of his argument is that no government should be established in Louisiana until the war is over.  Sherman claims knowledge of the local conditions from his time living and working and serving in New Orleans.  “They had a government so mild and paternal that they gradually forgot they had any at all, save what they themselves controlled; they asserted an absolute right to seize public moneys, forts, arms, and even to shut up the natural avenues of travel and commerce. They chose war.”  (361)  The elite cannot be easily replaced and must be forced to accept the new conditions (primarily the end of slavery).  “A civil government of the representative type would suit this class far less than a purely military rule.” (362)  The poor whites, which Sherman paints with a broad brush, are untrustworthy and easily manipulated by the elite.  The “Union men” are timid and prone to demagoguery.  They are not capable of forming a government.  The “young bloods” are basically dumb jocks who are only cut out to strive for fruitless valor on the battlefield.  In short, “a civil government . . . would be simply ridiculous.” (363)  Sherman knew that political power was backed by the gun and therefore he recommends the maintenance of a military government in Louisiana.  The justification for this requires no more than that “as a nation the United States has the right, and also the physical power, to penetrate to every part of our national domain, and that we will do it. . . that it makes no difference whether it be in one year, or two, or ten, or twenty.”  (365)  Sherman identified the horrifying truth of the state and inadvertently makes the case for its abolition.

The first volume of Sherman’s Memoirs ends with his narrative on the Meridian campaign in Mississippi, which was planned and executed from the beginning as an exercise in total war by destroying the infrastructure of southern Mississippi.  But given that the Atlantic campaign and the “march to the sea” is next, I will reserve the remainder of my thoughts on this till then.

Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Conjure Woman”

Later 19th century fiction from or about the South could be categorized as post-apocalyptic.  The war was not merely a traumatic defeat.  It also ushered in a radical transformation of society.  Reconstruction, as Du Bois points out, was a revolutionary act, led by black people, mostly former slaves.  In a matter of months, former slaves created themselves a political culture, social structure, economy, and culture in direct opposition to slavery.  Now, it does not take a historian to mention that many of these gains were taken away by whites as they reestablished their political dominance; nevertheless, the Civil War and Reconstruction destroyed the world that existed.  A world that for most people in the South was natural and enduring.  Change, even slight, was unthinkable.  The destruction of the slave society was impossible.  Predictions of the end of slavery, before 1860, could only be described as apocalyptic and therefore something to fear and resist (at least for most of those in the mid-century cultural industry and white power structure).

19th Century Apocalypse

19th Century Apocalypse

My point is that what was unthinkable in 1855 was real ten years later.  The culture, society, economy, and politics of slavery were abolished.  Visions of the end of capitalism often take the same apocalyptic tone.   Either we end up with a collapse of civilization (The Walking Dead), a totalitarian state (1984), or silly utopianism (Star Trek).  In any case, the end of capitalism is unthinkable.  (I am not the first to make this point – see Mark Fisher calling the literature of the later 19th century South, post-apocalyptic, I hope to encourage our readers to be a little less fearful of the end of capitalism.  After its end, we will likely find many challenges but I doubt it will mean any Mayan zombies (or whatever that was supposed to be about).

The next volume of the Library of America that I will cover in this series in a collection of Charles W. Chesnutt’s writings.  Chesnutt was born a Northern.  Both of his parents were free blacks from North Carolina.  They returned to North Carolina – with eight-year-old Charles – in 1866 to take part in the efforts to create new communities in the old South.  They were part of the great revolution of Reconstruction.  Chesnutt’s father helped create Howard school, ran for public office, and opened a grocery store.  Chesnutt quickly entered into academic life and eventually became a school principle in Fayetteville A.M.E. Zion Church.  Chesnutt was a child of the apocalypse that ended the slavery society.  He shows us that we should not fear the end of the way things are.  The exploited rarely do.


The Conjure Woman was published in 1899.  It is a short collection of seven stories, covering less than a 100 pages.  The plot is about a white Northern (of some means) who comes South for his wife’s health.  He starts a farm, taking advantage of the cheap land and cheap labor in the post-war South.  Each story contains within it a story told by “Uncle Julius,” a former slave who works on the land and becomes the narrator’s laborer.  He provides amusement for the narrator, who enjoys his stories of the South under slavery.  He also seeks practical advice from Julius, who is an expert in local conditions.  When the interests of the narrator and Julius conflict, however, Julius uses his story-telling to manipulate his boss.  By telling stories of conjuring, Julius attempts to convince his boss to change his course of action.  This scheme sometimes works.  The narrator is often condescending and does not often take the stories seriously – suggesting the permanence of racism, held even by Northern whites.  In the first story, for instance, the narrator is discussing growing a vineyard.  Julius objects, providing a complex story about how the vineyard is “goophered.”  Julius is not blindly superstition.  As the narrator always discovers, his stories are meant to protect his interests.  The grapevine supplied some income to Julius.  In “Po’ Sandy,” Julius tells of a man who allows himself to be turned into a tree to avoid being sold (his previous wife was sold to another plantation).  He is, unfortunately, chopped down and turned into a schoolhouse.  Julius uses to this story to prevent the schoolhouse from being turn into the narrator’s new kitchen.  In fact, Julius wants the schoolhouse to house his schismatic congregation.  We could be impressed with Julius’ ability to tell tales, use those stories to challenge his employers schemes, we are frustrated by the unequal relationship between the two.

The Conjure Woman provides plenty of local flavor.  Julius’ dialog (most of the stories are his words) is written in Southern black dialect.  The superstitions and folklore of Southern blacks held some influence on Northern audiences.  The narrator is a reflection of these Northern audiences, curious of their defeated brothers.  There is something almost colonial about this “gaze.”  The slave south was a different country.  Even in 1900, the sectional divides in the nation remained strong.  But the South was militarily defeated, occupied, and reformed.  For decades it continued under the economic influence of the North (again reflected in the narrator, a wealthy Northerner).  Part of our discomfort with this story comes from the seemingly abusive relationship between the narrator and Julius.  The narrator humors Julius, is amused by him, but ultimately does not him seriously if he poses a threat to the profitability of the farm of his plans for its development.


Another part of the story we should point out is that the land the narrator purchased, is, for Julius, his home and the source of his income.  Most of the narrator’s plans to develop the land were direct threats to Julius’ independent livelihood.  All of this makes the narrator’s pretense and humor toward Julius more disgusting.  As equals, the narrator could have learned from Julius about a topic of some interest to him.  Julius is instead trying to defend is autonomy from his employer, so that relationship is corrupted and embittered.  It is a familiar situation for those in colonial relationships: unfortunate, and unnecessary.