Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 932

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 932 words.)

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The Gilded Age