Thursday Reviews: The Gilded Age by Mark Twain & Charles Dudley Warner

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner

Mark Twain’s first novel is a collaboration with friend Charles Dudley Warner. It’s a raucous look at Washington and Wall Street in the so-called “Gilded Age” (which takes it’s name from this book.) The novel concerns the Hawkins family and their friend, Col. Beriah Sellers. Sellers and the Hawkins patriarch try scheme after scheme to cash in on the Missouri land boom and land the elder Hawkins owns in Tennessee. Meanwhile, two gentlemen from Philadelphia, Phillip Sterling and Henry Brierly, as they try their hand at coal speculation. Fortunes are made and lost, and quite often stolen. Members of Congress, who play a large part in this tale, are repeatedly accused of taking bribes and selling their office, found guilty, and given stern talkings to by their fellow Congressmen.

The novel contains some autobiographical material. While Sterling and Brierly’s storyline was written by Warner, their fortunes reflect Twain’s adventures in Nevada as a gold and silver speculator. Also, Twain writes in his autobiography that his father similarly bought land in Tennessee, promising his family would make millions from it someday. (It ultimately sold for a modest amount.)

The novel has a lot in common with The Bonfire of the Vanities. However, unlike Wolfe’s depiction of New York, most of the characters, even the weasels, are likeable. Like Bonfire, however, Gilded suffers from disjointed storylines. Part of it is due to each author working on a separate storyline. Which is too bad, because Twain’s first two books, The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, already proved he could tell a good tale. Still, the book was done on a dare by Mrs. Clemens (Twain) and Mrs. Warner, who were sick of their husbands kvetching about the state of modern fiction.