Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750
Charles Dudley Warner typifies conservative American authors between 1865 and the advent of literary naturalism—popular because they were genial, witty, and somewhat shallow.
Warner’s parents were farmers. When Charles was five, his father died, leaving two hundred acres and admonishing Charles to attend college. In 1837, his mother took him to a guardian in Claremont, Massachusetts, and four years later to her brother in Cazenovia, New York.
In 1847 Warner attended the Oneida Conference Seminary in Cazenovia and a year later entered Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. His puritanical upbringing discouraged frivolity; his college years were therefore marked by scrupulous, protracted reading. He published a few articles in the Knickerbocker Magazine. During graduation ceremonies in 1851, he presented an eloquent address. After tedious work in printing and publishing establishments, Warner compiled The Book of Eloquence, featuring passages from British and American authors whose works he revered, and printed it privately in 1853 and commercially in 1866.
Warner improved chronically poor health by working from 1853 to 1854 as a railway surveyor in Missouri. He returned to New York State in 1855, living with an uncle in Binghamton, working in real-estate conveyancing, and reading law there and soon after in Philadelphia. In 1856 he married Susan Lee, a seminary classmate; the couple never had children. Warner earned his law degree at the University of Pennsylvania and passed the bar examination in 1858. A two-year stint of law practice in Chicago (1858-1860) was unprofitable, partly owing to the Panic of 1857, and convinced him that he should try writing, research, and editing.
Joseph Hawley, whom Warner had known at Hamilton, invited him to move to Hartford, Connecticut, to become his associate editor at the Hartford Press. When the Civil War began, Hawley joined the Union army, leaving Warner (whose nearsightedness kept him from military duty) as editor in chief. He displayed such editorial skills that soon after General Hawley returned to civilian life and entered politics, Warner consolidated the Hartford Press with the Hartford Courant, of which he became part owner. In 1868 he took his wife for a leisurely year in England and on the Continent, during which time he dispatched travel essays to his Courant.
Back in Hartford, Warner bought a house and three acres outside the city, later named the place Nook Farm, and began welcoming numerous persons of grace, wit, and literary accomplishments—including William Dean Howells, novelist, editor, and critic; Mark Twain, world-famous humorist; antiquarian J. Hammond Trumbull; Joseph Hopkins Twichell, ex-Union Army chaplain; Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and her siblings, Henry Ward Beecher, clergyman and author (phenomenally popular until disgraced for alleged adultery in 1874), and suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker.
Warner’s literary career began with My Summer in a Garden, a collection of philosophical Hartford Courant columns on garden work and joys. It was guaranteed success when the Reverend Beecher recommended it to his own Boston publisher and provided a pleasant introduction. Warner’s career advanced with Saunterings, his collection of Courant essays sent from abroad. Its popularity encouraged him to publish eight more travel books, reflecting his comfortable sojourns, brief or extended, in Africa, California, Canada, France, Egypt, Mexico, Spain, and elsewhere and voicing his conservative lament that cultural values were eroding.
Backlog Studies was his first book of critical essays on society and literature. A burning backlog, symbol of conservative influence here, radiates heat slowly, consistently, and influentially. Of several such books that followed, the only exciting ones propose improvements in public education, open-ended prison sentences for reform-minded inmates, and American and international copyright reforms.
Warner’s solid biography of Washington Irving inaugurated his influential American Men of Letters series. His huge A Library of the World’s Best Literature was popular in its day and netted him thousands of dollars. His superficial Biographical Dictionary and Synopsis of Books Ancient and Modern, however, is now embarrassing; for example, Dante rates only six lines.
Almost solely through his association with Mark Twain in coauthoring The Gilded Age is Warner remembered today. In it, however, his chapters mainly feature melodramatic plotting and effete Victorian morality, whereas Twain’s chapters satirizing political corruption and greedy land speculators inspired historians to call the last decades of America’s nineteenth century the Gilded Age. The three novels Warner wrote without Twain’s help also dramatize the disastrous consequences of ruthless moneygrubbing. Warner is a near-perfect example of late nineteenth century cultural critics: largely self-educated, genteel, sincere, and persuasive, espousing conservative ideals destined to be shattered by events they rarely saw looming on the horizon.
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