Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 16. The Gilded Age

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

VIII. Mark Twain

§ 16. The Gilded Age

The most uneven of his novels is The Gilded Age, begun in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner in February, 1873, on the spur of a dinner-table challenge, and finished in the following April. The authors were proud of their performance; and it has admirable points. The title is a masterly epigraph on the flushed, corrupt period of the Reconstruction. The stage is set as for the representation of “the great American novel,” with scenes in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, St. Louis, and villages of New England and Tennessee. The plot is designed to bring typical Easterners and Westerners into diverting sentimental, financial, and political relations. There is a lively satirical play upon a wide range of clearly conceived characters and caricatures, exhibiting most of the elementary passions from love-making and fortune-hunting to bribing Congressmen and murder; and the sanguine, speculative Colonel Sellers, said to have been modelled on a relative of Mark Twain’s but certainly also modelled on Orion Clemens and on Mark Twain himself, is an American rival to Micawber. The book bristles with interesting intentions and accomplishments; yet its total effect is a bewildering dissonance of moods and styles, which fills one with regret that Mark Twain did not cut loose from his literary partner and work out by himself the story of Obedstown, Tennessee, opened by him with a rich realistic flow in the first eleven chapters. With all its demerits on its head, the novel sold forty thousand copies within a couple of months after publication, and a play built around the character of Sellers was immensely successful on the stage. Later, in collaboration with Howells, Mark Twain made a second Sellers play showing the hero aspiring to an English earldom; and this he worked over into The American Claimant (1891), a generally farcical romance streaked with admirable realistic passages. One may mention here also, as springing perhaps from experience not utterly remote from that of Sellers, Clemens’s exhibition of the effect upon character produced by expectation of unearned wealth in two capital short stories: The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899) and The $30,000 Bequest (1904).