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.



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.


Mark Twain, “Roughing It” (1872): Part Two

“His flesh was stripped from the bones and burned (except nine pounds of it which were sent on board the ships). The heart was hung up in a native hut, where it was found and eaten by three children, who mistook it for the heart of a dog. One of these children grew to be a very old man, and died in Honolulu a few years ago. Some of Cook’s bones were recovered and consigned to the deep by the officers of the ship.” (919)

What does the killing of Captain Cook in Hawaii have to do with territorial Nevada, despite both appearing in Mark Twain’s Roughing It? Both are part of the scope of American imperialism in the second half of the nineteenth century and both constituted domains of the emerging American empire, eventually to reach beyond the continent into the Pacific. The scale of the second half of  Roughing It is much larger than the first half. In the first half, we follow Twain as he travels by Overland Stage Coach to Nevada, via Mormon Utah. We learn about the Pony Express and the mythology of frontier desperadoes. When Twain arrived in Nevada he quickly got caught up in the silver mining bubble economy and makes an attempt at prospecting. This effort is a failure (although he was a theoretical millionaire for a few days). This put Twain into a hopeless quandary. He had gotten used to the idea of not working and now he was in need of a job. Twain documents his work history, which is quite impressive. I particularly liked his stint at a bookstore. “I had been a bookseller’s clerk for awhile, but the customers bothered me so much I could not read with any comfort, and so the proprietor gave ma  furlough and forgot to put a limit on it.” (744) Ah, that is how I felt as a copy-editor, although my furlough was self-imposed. I am in common cause with Mark Twain. Work (if we absolutely must) should be our own benefit, not for the employers.

Etching from "Roughing It"

Etching from “Roughing It”

Contained within Roughing It is an explanation of how Twain entered into work as a journalist in Nevada. It was not hard for him. Some of his writings had appeared in print before and he was given a staff job as a junior city editor with a salary of $25 a month (later raised). And then he walked a beat around Virginia City. We learn how he managed slow news days, how he got the scoop on the school budget form a competing newspaper. Most interesting is the all too familiar journalistic fascination with conflict, scandal, and violence. Murders, apparently made Twain the happiest man in the territory for it promised something to writer about.

With his job as a journalist secured, Twain eventually become a Western writer of some renown, but he does not focus too much on his career, using the space in Roughing It to discuss the social and economic conditions of the territory. The chapters on the silver boom are a useful study of an economy based on speculation. It was much like a game Old Maid where the deck had 50 Old Maid cards. Most people’s claims were worthless or near enough. So the game became convincing others of the inherent wealth of this claim or that claim. In some cases, this meant even “salting” mines with silver in order to create the impression of future wealth, but only long enough to sell the shares in the mine to some sucker. However, since everyone was in on the game, it does not seem that “exploitation” is the right word to use. Twain says less about the working class in the territory. We know that there were people who worked for wages. This did not mean they forsook the brinkmanship of prospecting.

Much of his concern is with with violence and the legal order. It is not quite right to say that the violence was a product of a lack of state presence. There were courts, juries, police, and executions. None of this really prevented the violence that was integral to the social network. If we take him seriously people’s reputations were tied up into their histories of violence. “If an unknown individual arrived, they did not inquire if he was capable, honest, industrious, but — had he killed his man?” (781) Juries existed but seemed to not convict many people (“only two persons have suffered the death penalty.”) Twain associates this violence and vice with the prosperity of the region. “A crowded police court docket is the surest of all signs that trade is brisk and money plenty.” (798) But crime was not the only sign of vibrancy. Twain puts the emergence of a literary journal at the same level.


Twain next takes us on his adventures in California and Hawaii before closing the narrative. Roughing It is as much a story of Twain’s quest for fulfillment and satisfaction with life as it is a document on the Nevada frontier. I find some commonality with Herman Melville’s early work, where characters existed in a constant state of discontent. As he described the thoughts that led him on his first trip to Hawaii, he confessed this nature. “I was out of debt, but my interest in my work was gone; for my correspondence being a daily one, without rest of respite, I got unspeakably tired of it. I wanted another change. The vagabond institute was strong upon me. Fortune favored and I got a new berth and  delightful one.” (862) His “moral” at the end of the book addresses how creativity emerges from this spirit. “If you are of any acocunt, stay at home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are ‘no account,’ go away from home, and then you will have to work.” (960)

The final section of the book explores his half year in Hawaii as a journalist and lecturer. Here we are given a darker side of the U.S. Empire as it was completing its conquest of the islands. Of course, the Empire was alive and well in Nevada as well, but since we only see the frontier there from the perspective of white men. He has a few asides about Chinese, but he simply repeats the stereotype of the model minority: well-behaved and hard working. In Hawaii, we see the full extent of American commercial power over other people through his tour of the islands and his visits to the plantations. This is carefully set aside a retelling of the story of the killing of Cook, one of Hawaii’s first blows against Western imperialism in the Pacific. However, Twain is not really interested in a story of economic exploitation in the empire (this would come later in his work). He is acutely aware at this point of the culture wars, between the missionaries and Hawaiian society. We meet, for instance, Christian converts but no plantation workers.

Early American Honolulu

Early American Honolulu

Mark Twain, “Roughing It” (1872): Part One

Mark Twain wrote Roughing It in 1872, just as he was giving up journalism. It is a heavily autobiographical look at the silver frontier in Nevada in the 1860s and covers Twain’s life between the end of his abortive adventures in the Civil War as part of a local Missouri militia and his travels to Europe, which became The Innocents Abroad. Using his own words it was “not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation. It is a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing.” (527) So much the better.  The work is almost flawless as it is.


The first half of Roughing It is set wholly in 1861 (as far as I can tell). It describes his accompanying his brother, who received an official post in Nevada, on his journey West. It then takes on Twain’s experiences as a prospector and, as he describes his, his brief few days as a millionaire due to silver claims.

I have to say I enjoyed almost every page of Roughing It. It is presented as a series of eighty short chapters, so it can be picked up and read at just about any point and does not command a systematic study. While the line between myth and reality is sometimes blurred, this is part of the culture of the West that Twain encountered. Early on we learn about the story of the vigilante vagabond Slade. Of course, Twain only heard about him from the stories that he picked up during his travels West. His real life encounter with Slade was pleasant and did not seem to match the stories. According to the mythology, Slade was murderer, an outlaw, a skilled lawman when called upon, and vicious to his enemies. When Twain met Slade he noticed that “it was hardly possible to realize that this pleasant person was the pitiless scourge of the outlaws, the raw-head-and-bloody-bones the nursing mothers of the mountains terrified their children with. And to this day I can remember nothing remarkable about Slade.” (588) I, for one, cannot speak of any quasi-mythical figures from my childhood, although we had some notorious individuals. Nothing, certainly, reaching the status of Slade. Perhaps the best example is the fictional figure from The Wire, Omar Little, who over the course of the series reached almost mythical levels in West Baltimore before being ignobly shot in a store. Slade had a similarly pathetic death, which Twain dwells on. He seemed to lose some of his desperado reputation by his “cowardly” way he faced his death with tears and prayers. (I wonder if David Simon had Slade in mind when he wrote Omar.) There is an undergraduate paper in the comparison if anyone wants to pursue it.  My attraction is in this vernacular myth making and how the formalization of literature and even folklore into canons undermined this. I suspect most children growing up knowing much more about the heroes of Greek mythology or Grimm’s fairy tales than their own local heroes and villains. Real or not, we need more Slades.

Drawing of Slade

Drawing of Slade

It took Twain around three weeks to travel to Nevada by stage coach. It was an uncomfortable trip but he learned a lot from it and got 25% of a book out of those two weeks. I recently heard about a environmentalist activist who only takes trains, even on a trip from Europe to Beijing. Along the way he wrote two articles. (If anyone knows the reference, I would be thankful.) It is not true that we lose time by travelling old fashioned slow ways. We cannot lose time, although we can certainly waste time. There is much life to be experienced and learned along the way to places. Now, I do not know if or when peak oil will hit, but from what I have read by the time I am old we will be back to trains, dirigibles, and passenger ships. After reading Roughing It, I cannot say I will miss airplanes. I have some personal experience with such types of travels; maybe all poor graduate students have. I took Greyhound buses from Eugene, Oregon to Albany, New York. I took trains along the same route. I do not think I will get books out of any of these experiences, but for a variety of reason they are much more memorable than the rushed transfers at airports.

Overland Stage Coach

Overland Stage Coach

Even Twain seems to morn the passing of the stage coaches across the West. “Stage-coaching on the Overland is no more, and stage drivers are a race defunct. I wonder if they bequeathed that bald-headed anecdote to their successors, the railroad brakemen and conductors, and if these latter still persecute the helpless passenger with it until he concludes, as did many a tourist of other days, that the real grandeurs of the Pacific coast are not Yo Semite and the Big Trees, but Hank Monk and his adventure with Horace Greely.” (639-640)

In Twain’s case, he not only learned about Slade, but he got a quick introduction to the Mormon migration to the West when be encountered a caravan of migrants and later visited Utah on the way to Nevada. Twain was interested in the Mormons and despite a quick and devastating deconstruction of the Book of Mormon saw them as mostly a harmless group and an interesting part of the American landscape. “The Mormon Bible is rather stupid and tiresome to read, but there is nothing vicious in its teachings.” (624)

The next section of the book considers Twain’s arrival in Carson City and his unsuccessful period as a mine prospector. As a result, for ten days, Twain was a millionaire. One point that comes up again and again in this part of the book is how there was a degree of classlessness in Nevada because everyone had imagined wealth. Everyone seemed to have a good prospect (just undeveloped). People had ways of scheming each other into buying shares of worthless claims. Wages for workers were high, but that aside everyone was benefiting from the bubble economy. Not unlike an out of control housing market, which creates many wealthy people but little actual wealth, the Nevada silver boom promised everyone wealth for only a slight investment of time and effort. Twain, however, lost his claim because hew as not even willing to put in that token amount of work to develop his claim.

Nevada capital at Carson City

Nevada capital at Carson City

I am torn between the odiousness of bubble economies of invested wealth and my sympathies for egalitarian, post-scarcity, post-work cultures. Twain erred on the side of not working during these years in Nevada. For this I must tip my hat to him.