Book Review: The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today is not one of Mark Twain’s more well-known books. It’s the only one he wrote with a collaborator, Charles Dudley Warner, who was also a friend and neighbor. The story goes that their wives challenged them “to write a better novel than what they were used to reading.”

But this book is distinctive for an additional reason: its name became applied to the era after Reconstruction until the 1900s. According to this site, “American economy grew at its fastest rate in history” during this period. Such a rise gave way to more industrialization and a class of sudden and ultra-wealthy citizens. “The period also was marked by social movements for reform, the creation of machine politics, and continued mass immigration.” according to the same site.

Twain’s and Warner’s novel satirizes much that was characteristic of the era. But the story itself focuses on a few individuals.

The Hawkins family is poor but decent, located in Obedstown, TN. The family patriarch, Si, has bought 75,000 acres of Tennessee land. It’s not worth much at present, but with the expected changes on the horizon—the expansion of the railroad and discovery of coal for fuel—Si expects some day the land can be sold for a fortune and provide for his children.

In the meantime, their old friend Eschol Sellers has written to urge them to come to Missouri for the wealth of opportunities there. Mrs. Hawkins supports her husband’s decisions, but following Sellers has not boded well for them in the past. He means well, but he always comes up with grand schemes that never quite work out as expected.

On their way, they acquire two more children by adoption who have been newly orphaned. Their fortunes go up and down—mostly down. Si is tempted to sell the Tennessee land several times, but holds out. The older children venture out to work and help the family.

Parallel to the Hawkins and Sellers story is that of two friends, Harry and Phillip, who set put to make their fortune by becoming civil engineers for the railroad. Harry seems like a more refined version of Sellers, but Phillip is earnest and wants to truly learn the job.

The young men eventually cross paths with Laura Hawkins, the adopted daughter who has grown into a fascinating beauty. Henry is smitten. Laura is not unkind, but neither is she interested in Henry. Phillip is also in love with a girl who wants to become a doctor and isn’t interested in committing herself to a relationship.

Laura has an unfortunate relationship with a man who swept her off her feet and encouraged her to elope. When he gets tired of her, he confesses that he was already married and therefore his marriage to her was a sham. He leaves her. Laura changes as a result, becoming more calculating and ruthless.

Sellers, Laura, and Washington Hawkins end up in Washington DC in a grand scheme to get Congress to buy the Tennessee land to establish a college for Negroes. The book’s authors seems to believe that there is not a sincere, uncorrupt senator or representative, and we see a lot of the machinations of the political process: “The chances are that a man cannot get into congress now without resorting to arts and means that should render him unfit to go there.”

Some of the characters end in tragedy. Some are singed by circumstances but wiser in the end. A couple receive a hard-won happy ending.

Some sections are autobiographical. Twain’s biography says that his father had his own version of Tennessee land that always seemed to hold out hope for a good future, and his brother was killed in a steamboat accident similar to the one that orphaned Laura. One section of the book describing Phillip has a footnote that his life to that point mirrored Warner’s.

I understood how the book’s title could be applied to the era. Of course, the era wasn’t named the Gilded Age at the time Twain and Warner wrote. So, though they were satirizing the times, I think they also might have been pointing out the futility of so many individuals in the story who were seeking after the next great elusive thing instead of settling down and working hard for their goals and livelihoods.

Though this book is satire, it also has some wonderfully sweet and poignant moments.

The book kind of dragged in the middle for me, with the young men’s relationships and everyone’s schemes not going anywhere. But it picked up again in the end, with some parts being riveting.

There are a few “damns” in it. The portrayal of black people was probably accurate to the times but is condescending and insensitive in places.

Eschol Sellers’ first name is different in some versions because a real Eschol Sellers showed up and protested after the book was first published. Sellers was based on a cousin of Twain’s who was influential in his father’s land deal.

A few of my favorite quotes:

He . . . was not wanting in courage, but be would have been a better soldier if he had been less engaged in contrivances for circumventing the enemy by strategy unknown to the books. It happened to him to be captured in one of his self-appointed expeditions, but the federal colonel released him, after a short examination, satisfied that he could most injure the confederate forces opposed to the Unionists by returning him to his regiment.

There are many young men like him in American society, of his age, opportunities, education and abilities, who have really been educated for nothing and have let themselves drift, in the hope that they will find somehow, and by some sudden turn of good luck, the golden road to fortune. He was not idle or lazy, he had energy and a disposition to carve his own way. But he was born into a time when all young men of his age caught the fever of speculation, and expected to get on in the world by the omission of some of the regular processes which have been appointed from of old. And examples were not wanting to encourage him.

Whatever her thoughts may have been they were unknown to Philip, as they are to these historians; if she was seeming to be what she was not, and carrying a burden heavier than any one else carried, because she had to bear it alone, she was only doing what thousands of women do, with a self-renunciation and heroism, of which men, impatient and complaining, have no conception. Have not these big babies with beards filled all literature with their outcries, their griefs and their lamentations? It is always the gentle sex which is hard and cruel and fickle and implacable.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Bronson Pinchot. He did an amazing job with the nuances, inflections, and numerous accents. One nouveau riche character is Irish but has traveled in France and changed her last name to a French pronunciation. Bronson nails an Irish accent trying to sound French as well as a variety of Southern accents.

This book first came to my attention when I was searching for a book set in TN for the “Classics from a place you have lived” category of the Back to the Classics challenge. As it turned out, only parts of the book take place in TN. But many of the main characters are from TN, and the “Tennessee land” is almost a character itself, so I am hoping this book will still qualify.

Have you ever read this book? What did you think?

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Gilded Age

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