The Gilded Age, as opposed to a golden age, is an excellent portrait of the American post-Civil War years, a period for which Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s title has become a name. Lacking a cohesive plot, the novel derives its unity from its satiric purpose and ironic tone. These begin with the preface, which lampoons contemporary fictional practices, and continue by satirizing formulaic fiction, economic speculation, political corruption, fraudulent piety, visionaries, exploiters, confidence men, and the get-rich-quick mentality. The book is considered one of the best sources for an understanding of the economic boom years during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.
Reportedly, when Twain and Warner, essayist and editor of the Hartford Courant, were ridiculing the contemporary sentimental novels their wives were reading, the women taunted them to write something better. Although both were seasoned writers, neither had attempted a novel before. Twain turned out the first eleven chapters and Warner the next twelve. For the remaining forty, they alternated small and large units, then patched them together to make the book, completing it in about three months. Of the total, Twain claimed thirty-three chapters and parts of three others. He contributed most of the frontier episodes and Warner most of those concerning the East, the two parts interwoven by the theme of speculation, by Senator Dilworthy’s moves between the West and the East, by the trip to Missouri of Philip Sterling and Harry Brierly, by travels to Washington, D.C., and by Laura Hawkins. Twain’s portion was reworked into a successful play. The numerous stock situations—the adopted child searching for a father hinted to be aristocratic, the villainous seducer, the false marriage, the steamboat disaster, the adopted child becoming more helpful to his parents than the natural child, the reliable Philip contrasted with the foppish Harry, a heroine saved from grave illness, the beautiful wronged woman turned vengeful, the industrious young man finally earning wealth—were intended to burlesque the fiction that was then popular. Similarly, the obscure mottoes, contributed by the Hartford philologist James Hammond Trumbull, parody the contemporary practice of heading chapters with erudite quotations suggestive of moral profundity. Adding the mottoes’ translations in 1899 provided a basis for extending the copyright.
Many reviewers have judged Twain’s opening chapters, drawn almost completely from his own family history, to be the best part of the book. Squire Hawkins and his wife Nancy, with their children Washington and Emily, move from Tennessee to Missouri as did John and Jane Clemens with Samuel’s older siblings, Orion, Pamela, Margaret, and Benjamin. The Tennessee land that represents false expectations to Hawkins held the same meaning for Twain’s father. The delightful but unreliable Colonel Beriah Sellers was, Twain said, a close portrayal of his mother’s cousin, James Lampton. Beyond making use of the family history, the authors drew many characters and episodes in the novel as clear parodies of contemporary well-known persons and events. Laura’s story is based on the historical Laura D. Fair, whose insanity plea in 1870 extended the notoriety of her having shot her lover. Senator Dilworthy’s escapades reenact the vote-buying scandal of Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas, which made news in January, 1873. William M. Weed and Mr. Fairoaks were readily recognized by the contemporary audience as, respectively, William M. “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall and Representative Oakes Ames, scandalously exposed for bribing congressmen to fund and then control watered railroad stock. The many topical allusions recognizable to readers of 1873 make the novel a roman à clef . Land development speculation and other ambitious schemes were so widespread, however, as were religious cant...
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and hypocrisy motivated by an ethics of greed, that the satire is effective even without identification of all the allusions to actual chicanery.
Social satire gives the novel its dominant theme. The displacement of democratic ideals—those of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine—stressing integrity of character and virtuous industry, by dreams of bonanzas that would repeat the robber barons’ leaps to luxury represented to Twain and Warner the national evil that supported the Old World idea that one’s worth could be measured by one’s birth and wealth instead of by one’s values and honest achievement. Thus, only the honest work of Philip Sterling and Clay Hawkins is rewarded with material success. Their education for useful work and their genuinely humanitarian motives contrast with the illusory ambitions toward wealth and station that corrupt Washington and Laura into becoming tools of the scoundrels. Laura’s expectations from reading sentimental novels, especially those concerning an aristocratic father and a dashing lover, prime her for the seduction and betrayal by Colonel Selby, who embodies the authors’ bitter distaste for the myth of southern chivalry. This theme of appearance contrasted with reality is captured in Colonel Sellers’s insistence, as his family and guest suffer from the chill, that one needs only the appearance of heat, not the actual heat itself. The contrast plays out in the perversions of the legal system at Laura’s trial: the self-serving bases for choosing jurors, the manipulations of the defense attorney, the corrupt politician-judge, and the misuse of the insanity plea.
The preference for appearance over reality also governs the absurdities of the social-caste system of Washington, D.C. The book’s title emphasizes the difference between the truly golden and what only appears to be. The book helped establish Twain as a satirist of corrupted American political and religious institutions. It sold thirty-five thousand copies before the panic of 1873 reduced sales—a panic caused by the speculation it burlesqued.