Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Obedstown. Tiny village in eastern Tennessee whose few homes are so widely dispersed among trees that it is difficult for visitors to realize that they are in a “town.” The novel opens with the village postmaster, Si Hawkins, receiving a letter from his friend Colonel Sellers urging him to bring his family to Missouri because that state offers easier riches. Hawkins’s giving up on Obedstown is the first of the novel’s many relocations in search of easier wealth.

Twain modeled Obedstown on Jamestown, Tennessee, where his own parents lived before following a kinsman to Missouri. The fictional Obedstown takes its name from the real Obed (or Obeds) River, a tributary of the Tennessee River.

“Tennessee Land.”

“Tennessee Land.” Large tract of commercially worthless land in eastern Tennessee that Hawkins buys before moving west. Throughout his life, he beguiles his children with the promise of the riches to come, admonishing them, “never lose sight of the Tennessee Land.” However, the land brings his children nothing but disappointment. After the Civil War, it becomes the focus of a federal government scandal when Washington Hawkins, Colonel Sellers, and Senator Abner Dilworthy try to push a bill through Congress to get the government to buy the land for the proposed Knobs Industrial University for freed slaves. The scheme collapses when Dilworthy’s corruption in buying votes is exposed.

Like Si Hawkins, Twain’s own father, John Clemens, owned a huge parcel of land in eastern Tennessee on which his children counted for future prosperity. However, they, also like the Hawkinses, never reaped anything from their Tennessee Land but disappointment. Twain took a deep interest in the debilitating effect that land had on his family. Late in life, he was thinking of that land when he said that to begin life “poor and prospectively rich” is a “curse.” The Gilded Age reaches its climax when Washington Hawkins finally lets the family’s title to the Tennessee Land go by not paying its tax assessment, declaring, “The spell is broken, the life-long curse is ended!”

*Mississippi River

*Mississippi River. North America’s great river plays a brief but important role in the novel as a stage in the Hawkins family’s migration from Tennessee to Missouri. While the Hawkinses are riding the...

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The Gilded Age Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

French, Bryant Morey. Mark Twain and “The Gilded Age.” Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1965. A definitive study of The Gilded Age. Identifies the events, persons, and practices that the novel satirizes. A bibliography and illustrations.

Gerber, John. Mark Twain. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Offers a full account of the background for the novel and an evaluation of its significance in the development of Twain as a writer of fiction. Bibliography.

Goldner, Ellen J. “Tangled Web: Lies, Capitalist Expansion, and the Dissolution of the Subject in The Gilded Age.” Arizona Quarterly 49, no. 3 (Autumn, 1993): 59-92. Details the threat to American individualism from the expanding global economy in 1873, allegorized in some of Colonel Sellers’ tall tales. Bibliography of economic studies.

Harris, Susan K. “Four Ways to Inscribe a Mackerel: Mark Twain and Laura Hawkins.” Studies in the Novel 21 (1989): 138-153. Interprets the character of Laura as not only a parody of the sentimental heroine, but also evidence of the authors’ antifeminist attitudes.

Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 1995. Contains a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of The Gilded Age, identifying which author wrote each part, with cross-references to individual essays on major characters, places, and other topics appearing in the novel.

Sewall, David. Mark Twain’s Languages: Discourse, Dialogue, and Linguistic Variety. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Explores the corruption of language that accompanies the corruption of institutions. Bibliography.