Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner

Source of book: I own this

This book is a joint effort by Mark Twain, who needs no introduction; and Charles Dudley Warner, who does. 

 Charles Dudley Warner

Warner was a critic, essayist, novelist, and editor who was reasonably well known in his day, but has since faded into obscurity. He left, however, two significant legacies in addition to this book. First, his travelogue about Southern California, Our Italy, said so many nice things about San Diego that he is honored by no fewer than three streets in the Point Loma neighborhood. (Naturally, "Charles Street," "Dudley Street," and "Warner Street.")

(Side note: I am from SoCal, and love San Diego, so I am completely unsurprised that Warner found it to be a nice place.)

The second legacy was his famous aphorism, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Ironically, this quote is often misattributed to Mark Twain.

The Gilded Age in fact gave the name to The Gilded Age, the period of expansion, corruption, and excess following the Civil War. I became interested in this book as a result of reading Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, which mentions this novel as being on point.

Had I read this book before Railroaded, I would have attributed Twain and Warner’s description of the corruption, graft, and bribery in congress to a purposeful hyperbole, an exaggeration to make a point.

Having read the actual evidence - including the writings of those involved - which was carefully documented in Railroaded, I believe that Twain and Warner actually understated the level of corruption.

Like any collaborative book, The Gilded Age is a bit uneven in quality. In general, the Twain authored portions (and you can usually tell the difference) are better - and more biting - than than the Warner authored passages. The need to create a coherent plot (and really, tie the competing plots together) lead to some interesting compromises. In addition, there are some standard Victorian tropes which are a bit tiresome. First, the inevitable corruption and destruction of the beautiful but too-assertive woman. Second, the love triangle resulting in another woman left to pine away on her own. Third, the easy disposal of a character by sending him off to a “foreign” destination lest he figure in the plot. (In this case, San Francisco stands in for Paris or Rome.)

Twain’s plot follows the Hawkins family from their impoverished beginnings to their, well, impoverished state at the end of the book. Two children are adopted as they move west, and these two play key roles an effort is made to lobby the US government to purchase the land, thus making the family wealthy.
in the drama. At the heart of this story is the attempt to sell a large plot of undeveloped land. Eventually,
An interesting fact about this plot is that it takes inspiration from a real event in Twain’s life. His family likewise owned a parcel of land that they believed was immensely valuable, despite all evidence to the contrary. Likewise, a key character in the novel, “Colonel” Beriah Sellers, was patterned after one of Twain’s relatives. More about him later.

In contrast, Warner’s plot follows the fortunes of two young upper class friends, Henry and Philip, who head west to survey the land in advance of the railroad, and (they hope) acquire land which they can sell for a profit. Henry is shallow but charming, while Philip is hard working but a bit dull.

The plots come together in Hawkeye, where the Hawkins’ live. Henry becomes enamoured of the gorgeous Laura, and becomes a companion of Beriah Sellers, a figure sort of like Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield, who is always speculating, sure something will “turn up.” Unlike Micawber, though, Sellers continually has his hand in some sort of a speculation or scheme. He is quick to find ways to bring others on board, being a natural salesman. However, his judgment is lacking, and everyone - including himself - ends up going bust. Sellers not only mirrored Twain’s relative, I suspect many of us can name a friend or relative like him. The person who is mostly harmless, has good intentions, but is always seeking a “get-rich-quick” scheme. More often than not, such a person gets himself and those around him in difficulties of some sort or another.

While Philip searches for coal in a joint venture with his eventual father-in-law, the rest head to Washington to attempt to arrange a sale of the Tennessee property to the government, in what amounts to a pretty clear swindle. The second half of the book, thus, primarily concerns the political gamesmanship over the bill and the dirty politics that accompanies anything in Congress. As I noted before, the book is every bit as cynical as anything said about politics here in the 21st Century, but it turns out that it was accurate! (I noted in my review of Railroaded that today’s politicians are amateurs compared to those of the past. The total amount of land given away to the railroads - to say nothing of the loan guarantees and direct payments - would have been the third largest state in the union - nearly the size of Texas.)

Twain details all of the dirty deals needed to make this happen. The backdoor quid pro quo, the clothing of a swindle in the language of virtue and charity. The enrollment of religious organizations.

Your religious paper is by far the best vehicle for a thing of this kind, because they’ll ‘lead’ your article and put it right in the midst of the reading matter; and if it’s got a few Scripture quotations in it, and some temperance platitudes and a bit of gush here and there about Sunday Schools, and a sentimental snuffle now and then about ‘God’s precious ones, the honest hard-handed poor,’ it works the nation like a charm, my dear sir, and never a man suspects that it is an advertisement…

The more things change, I guess. While an appeal to “the poor” isn’t particularly effective in today’s Christianity, an appeal to fear and “the children” remains the key way that unholy marriages of religion and politics are consummated.

Religion isn’t the only institution that gets a barb, though. Clearly Twain reserves his bitterest ire for Congress and politics. But the press doesn’t exactly get off easy either, as Twain points out its love of sensation and easy cooption. But there is some pity too. Even when the press gets it right, it isn’t effective.

Senator Dilworthy: “Give us newspaper persecution enough, and we are safe. Vigorous persecution will alone carry a bill sometimes, dear...And then presently, it changes the tide of public opinion. The great public is weak-minded; the great public is sentimental; the great public always turns around and weeps for an odious murderer, and prays for him, and carries flowers to his prison and besieges the governor with appeals for his clemency, as soon as the papers begin to howl for his blood...

One interesting historical anachronism that political junkies will appreciate: When this book was written, United States Senators were “elected” by the State legislatures, unlike now, when they are elected by popular statewide vote. This meant that Dilworthy, in his re-election campaign, had to schmooze with his fellow legislators, plus go out to the public to ensure that his allies at the state level would retain their seats.

Since this book was co-written by Twain, there are naturally some great quotable lines.

In the preface, Twain takes aim at the all-too-common practice of critics:

We do not object to criticism; and we do not expect that the critic will read the book before writing a notice of it. We do not even expect the reviewer of the book will say that he has not read it.

Early in the novel, Twain writes a set-piece about a steamboat race. Like a few other bits in the novel, this was based on a real event. A couple of captains decide to show off, racing each other down the river. As a result, one boiler explodes, destroying the boat and killing dozens of people. Twain describes the aftermath:

A jury of inquest was impaneled, and after due deliberation and inquiry they returned the inevitable American verdict which has been so familiar to our ears all the days of our lives - “Nobody to blame.”

While in the decades to follow, the civil law would fill this gap to a degree, holding the deep pockets, at least, accountable for needless deaths, the statement still all too often applies to the criminal courts. One cannot but think of the Eric Garner case as one where a senseless and unnecessary death resulted in a “Nobody to blame” verdict.

Another set-piece that Twain carries off extremely well is a scene in which Laura, with some time to kill, enters a bookstore manned by a thoroughly stupid clerk, who knows nothing of books beyond the current thrillers and low-class joke books. Laura absolutely takes him down, but he only sort of gradually figures out how badly he is being dissed. I considered quoting some of it, but it is too long for a simple review, and is best read in context. Definitely, this was the best part of the book. (I’m sure this book is available free online. Chapter 36.)

The final section that I found quite interesting was a scene between Philip and his eventual wife, Ruth. She is the daughter of a somewhat progressive Quaker family - her father has defied the judgment of his fellow Quakers to allow Ruth to study to become a physician. As she and Philip contemplate a life together, the usual issues come up. I can attest to the fact that the same questions which Warner addresses in 1873 are still the ones couples like my wife and I have had to work through 130 years later. Ruth starts it off, discussing the fate that unattached women have in the world:

“[T]he worst of it is that you men do not want women educated to do anything, to be able to earn an honest living by their own exertions. They are educated as if they were always to be petted and supported, and there was never to be any such thing as misfortune. I suppose, now, that you would all choose to have me stay idly at home, and give up my profession.”

“Oh, no,” said Philip, earnestly, “I respect your resolution. But, Ruth, do you think you would be happier or do more good in following your profession than in having a home of your own?”

“What is to hinder having a home of my own?”

“Nothing, perhaps, only you never would be in it - you would be away day and night, if you had any practice; and what sort of a home would that make for your husband?”

“What sort of a home is it for the wife whose husband is always away riding about in his doctor’s gig?”

“Ah, you know that is not fair, The woman makes the home.”

And thus is the entire issue laid out for all to see. Philip, despite being a truly nice guy, still believes in a male-centric viewpoint. The question is what sort of a home she will make for him. The woman makes the home. The idea that he might share even equal responsibility for making a home doesn’t even register. And he considers the choice between home and family on the one hand, and a career on the other, to be a choice she faces. But not him. Never the man, as Ruth points out.

On the one hand, it is amazing that this feminist of a statement was made in the 1870s, not in a feminist writing, but casually, in a novel. On the other, it is discouraging that women are still expected to have the sole, or at least, primary, responsibility for household duties, regardless of whatever else they are doing with their lives. While our society grants women the right to participate in the workforce, there is still a huge stigma for men who “homemake.” And a messy house is always blamed on the woman, even if she works longer hours.

As I said, these are issues that my wife and I have had to address ourselves, and our decisions have not always met with enthusiasm from others.

I give Warner great brownie points, though, for writing a strong female character, one far more intriguing than the tragic Laura; and for noting the key question when it comes to the heart of feminism (the social, political, and economic equality of women): in order for feminism to “work,” men need to take on an equal share of what is still considered “women’s work.” We need to feel an equal responsibility to make a house a home, care for our children, and do the unpraised things that keep the world humming along.

A couple of other things I liked: the authors “pretentiously” put quotes from other sources at the headings of the chapters. In essence, they mock the pseudo-scholarliness of others. While some of the quotes are standard, they also pick ones from obscure languages and cultures, even going so far as to quote translations of the Bible into Native American and African languages. Some feel like the equivalent of translating a pointless Shakespeare quote into Sanskrit just to look smart. Which is exactly the point. The other thing I’ll admit I liked was the way that Warner drew out the subtleties of Ruth’s parents trying to straddle the line between Quaker orthodoxy and the modern needs of their children. It would have been interesting to have more than a couple of chapters devoted to them, as they were the most subtle, and therefore interesting, characters in the book.

So there it is: an interesting book on a fascinating era. Twain and Warner don’t really delve into the other issues that later historians have noted: industrialization and monopolies, but they certainly had the pulse of the national political machine in all its ugliness. In addition, there are individual characters and scenes that are unforgettable. Despite its flaws, this is a worthy book. Twain’s acid humor is evident, and Warner’s more subtle treatment of religious and social issues were also noteworthy. Unfortunately, the two authors seemed to have different and conflicting visions for the book, which made it feel a bit incoherent as it went on. Still, I would consider it worth the effort to read.


  1. The book is available from Project Gutenberg at

    1. Pretty much all of Twain is available for free at Gutenberg and other sources. I collect hardback classics, so I own this in print form, but the online versions are a great resource.