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The Gilded Age

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner (2001) 

At a dinner party in late 1872, Mark Twain and his neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner, were discussing the sad state of the contemporary American novel. Twain was already well known for his comic essays describing his life as a river boat pilot, an observer during the California gold rush, and a bemused tourist in Europe and the Middle East. Warner was an essayist and newspaper editor who wanted to write fiction. The dinner party discussion prompted Twain and Warner to collaborate on a novel that became The Gilded Age.  The novel has appeared in more than 100 editions since its original publication in 1873.  Twain and Warner originally had planned to issue the novel with illustrations by Thomas Nast.  The book is remarkable for two reasons–it is the only novel Twain wrote with a collaborator, and its title very quickly became synonymous with graft, materialism, and corruption in public life. Historians have adopted "the gilded age" as a descriptive title for the era.

The setting moves between Tennessee, Missouri, New York, and Washington, D.C.  The central plot involves Laura, a foundling adopted by the Hawkins family. The family lives in constant expectation of riches from various speculative schemes; primarily one to sell property in Tennessee to the federal government for public use. Laura develops into a beauty and, after having been seduced and abandoned by a Confederate colonel, decides to advance her family’s fortunes in Washington as a lobbyist for the Tennessee land sale. Several chapters contain a snapshot of 1870s Washington that has hardly aged a day, describing heat, traffic jams, expensive hotels, cost overruns of public works projects, and how to make the “A” list in Washington society.

Laura soon catches the eye of Senator Dilworthy (modeled on real-life Senator Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas). Dilworthy and Laura come up with a scheme in which Dilworthy will introduce legislation to create a public university in Tennessee, on land to be purchased from the Hawkins family. The legislation is introduced and passage seems assured. Then Laura learns that the Confederate colonel who ruined her is in Washington. She follows him to New York and shoots him. In a sensational trial, Laura is acquitted by reason of temporary insanity and immediately embarks on a lecture tour to cash in on her overnight celebrity. She is hooted off the stage at her first lecture and dies of remorse a few days later–a plot device that the authors’ wives insisted on.

In the meantime, the Tennessee land purchase legislation falls apart in the wake of accusations of bribery leveled at Dilworthy. The Senate launches an investigation in which Dilworthy is cleared and his accusers themselves are censured for besmirching Dilworthy’s reputation.

Literary critics through the years have noted flaws in The Gilded Age, especially an overly complex and melodramatic plot and stylistic incompatibility between Twain and Warner.  As satire, however, and as prescient observation of the cult of overnight fame and social and political mores in Washington, The Gilded Age has aged very well in the 130 years since its publication.