The Gilded Age

by Mark Twain, Charles Dudley Warner

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Places Discussed

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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 steamboat Boreas upriver, its pilot engages another steamboat, the Amaranth, in a race. The Amaranth’s boilers explode, killing many passengers, apparently including the parents of Laura Van Brunt, whom the Hawkinses then adopt—an action that changes all their lives. Scenes aboard the Boreas provide the fullest descriptions of a steamboat that Twain wrote in any of his novels.


*Missouri. Midwestern state that represented the threshold of the Western frontier during the period in which The Gilded Age opens. For the Hawkinses to migrate to Missouri in the late 1840’s was almost as daring as later pioneers’ migrations to points farther west. As a frontier region in the novel, Missouri represents a land of rich promise, but every get-rich scheme the novel’s characters undertake in Missouri eventually comes to nothing—further proof of the illusory nature of easy wealth.


Hawkeye. Missouri town in which the Hawkins family settles after a brief residence in the much smaller Murpheysburg, whose limited commercial prospects disappoint Si Hawkins. Hawkeye is ten miles from Stone’s Landing, which Sellers wants to develop into a major railway and river transportation hub, but his dream is dashed when the people of Hawkeye buy enough shares in the railway to ensure that it will pass through their town instead of Stone’s Landing.

Stone’s Landing

Stone’s Landing. Missouri village that embodies all the false hopes, lies,...

(This entire section contains 989 words.)

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and deceptions that the novel depicts. The village is nothing more than a handful of cabins along the muddy bend of Goose Run that Sellers hopes to develop into a vast metropolis to be renamed Napoleon. He wants the federal government to bring in a railway line and transform Goose Run into a navigable stream to be renamed the Columbus River. The whole project dies an ignominious death after the government decides to route the railroad through Hawkeye.

Sellers’s grandiose plans are a satire of greed and government mismanagement that is summed up in his description of one of the villages to be developed along the proposed new railroad route: Corruptionville, the “gaudiest country for early carrots and cauliflowers . . . good missionary field, too. There ain’t such another missionary field outside the jungles of Central Africa. And patriotic?—why, they named it after Congress itself.”

*Washington, D.C

*Washington, D.C. National capital of the United States that provides a second major target of satire as the primary setting for the second half of the novel, which depicts the city as a hotbed of intrigue and corruption in which every politician has a hand in someone else’s pocket. The embodiment of all that the capital city represents is Missouri’s corrupt senator Abner Dilworthy, who sniffs profits for himself, first in the scheme to develop Stone’s Landing and later in the Knobs Industrial University scheme. Dilworthy lures beautiful Laura Hawkins to Washington, where he makes her a powerful lobbyist for a bill to get the federal government to buy the Hawkins family’s Tennessee Land.

*Washington Monument

*Washington Monument. Giant obelisk in Washington, D.C., that was begun in 1850 and not finished until 1885. Twain regarded the unfinished landmark as a pathetic symbol of the capital city’s false promises and used The Gilded Age to make fun of it, saying it has the “aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off.”


Ilium. Railroad stop in Pennsylvania near a tract of wild land in which Charles Dudley Warner’s character Philip Sterling prospects for coal. In contrast to most of the novel’s other characters, Sterling eventually succeeds in finding profitable coal deposits through careful and persistent work and personal sacrifice.


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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.


Critical Essays