Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Gilded Age (1873)

Mark Twain's first novel is also the only one in which he collaborated with another writer, Charles Dudley Warner. It gave the era of the late 19th century its name in the US—an enduring one, as we are now well into the sequel, Gilded Age II, though the latter name has not caught on yet. But as a novel The Gilded Age suffers from many faults. The main one is likely fruit of collaboration, with an unfocused story and too many plot threads that add up to too little. The composing strategy was that Twain wrote the first dozen or so chapters and Warner the next dozen or so (of 63 in total). For the most part they alternated chapters after that, though some are said to be worked on by both. Parts of it feel like the parlor game in which stories are invented by one participant at a time and then passed along to the next. Sometimes one person leaves the other in a predicament, perhaps to see how well he will write his way out of it, if he can. They can't always. I know Twain's writing much better than Warner's and recognize him in places such as the appendix. The story is built out of the post-Civil War go-go American economy, fixed on conquering the West for plunder with railroads and mining. Much of it takes place in Washington, D.C., and focuses on the legislative process, riddled with graft. It's exaggerated, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised to find not by much. It's full of melodramatic flourishes too—sudden death, orphans, a woman done wrong, and at least one blatant con man. But they don't do much with the novel, except broadly name the era and identify a long-familiar American identity, the grasping businessman. I'm tempted to say I read it so you don't have to, and for the most part that's true. But for any Twain completists it's interesting to watch him attempt to adapt his journalistic voice, already well developed, to the much more respected arts of fiction. Or maybe fiction was still disreputable then, but Twain always constructed his persona as the knowing but plainspoken sophisticate gently indulging the rubes, from which he never explicitly excepts himself. Part of his shtick, in fact, is that he admits he is merely a rube himself straining for sophistication. Given how bad the corruption under consideration was at the time (at least equally bad now), part of me resents the joking tone. These things look deceptively buffoonish and silly in the moment, all the lies and bribes and other trickery, but they cause serious and persistent harms and aren't really laughing matters, as we saw earlier this month. Now I'm scolding, and this is from someone who laughed very loudly at 1990s tabloid culture. I have some sense that these long-term pernicious effects of corruption were no small part of Twain's remarkable bitterness toward the end of his life.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (Library of America)

1 comment:

  1. Literary source defining 40-50 years of U.S. history, sounds like missed opportunity. Twain needed to tag team with Marx (or Henry George, slightly more realistically) rather than Warner. Weird part about parallels with subsequent history is how unfortunate it is the grasping businessman are turned into heroic, envied, revered capitalist figures; Robber Barons, tycoons, captains of industry, etc. No doubt about the long terms effects of corruption. How to stave off the bitterness? That is the question

    I've seen Digital Gilded Age.