THE GILDED AGE
Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner
American Publishing Company
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Before Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Prince and the Pauper, he wrote his debut novel, The Gilded Age in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner. The novel was originally published in 1873 and loaned its title to the era of American history from the 1870s to the turn of the century, a period which saw rapid economic growth, the expansion of railroads, and rampant political corruption.
The collaboration took the form of a round-robin novel, with Twain writing the first 11 chapters about the Hawkins family, then Warner writing the next dozen chapters about a group of east coast speculators. The authors continued to trade off chapters, sometimes only writing one, other times writing several chapters in a row. The main link between the chapters is Colonel Mulberry Sellers, whose eye for failed speculation provides the focus of the entire novel. Given Twain’s later personal experiences with failed investments and the constant need to be in on the next big thing, it is hard for the reader not to see similarities between Sellers and Twain, although it is clear that Twain does not see himself reflected in the character.
Although the various chapters don't always mesh together well and the writing styles differ, both authors are intent on conveying the collaborative theme of the novel. Their characters have a tendency to think themselves more competent than there is evidence for, desire to get their share of the wealth they believe is owed to them, and are prone to leap at any get-rich quick scheme they can think of. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Sellers is seeing as a man of means and connections who can help all of them achieve their goals. The Hawkins family retains a hold of a large acreage of land in Tennessee that they are sure can eventually be sold for a fortune. Warner's characters, Harry Brierly and Philip Sterling sign on as engineers for a surveying team because they know money is to be made in the west, even though neither has any clue about the job that needs to be done.
The chapters by the different men don't mesh seamlessly and, surprisingly, given Twain's later career, Warner's chapters are more humorous. Twain could be a bit of a cynic, however, and that comes through in his chapters. He also focuses more on the Hawkins family, which is very clearly pursuing a dream that will never come to fruition, at least not in the way they expect it to. Twain's cynicism also comes through in the manner in which the political situation is depicted. Politicians are all open to bribes (overt or not) and it is more important to speak a good game to get into the upper echelons of politics than it is to demonstrate either proof or results, as evidenced by the many people who give credence to Sellers' various schemes.
Reading the novel in the twenty-first century is best done by Twain completists or people who are specifically looking for a taste of the literature and feeling of the 1870s. It tends to be slowly paced and, although the themes to resonate with modern times, the prose doesn't stand up well, with the characters' social situations feeling somewhat dated.
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