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Honors Project Prep: Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, “The Gilded Age”

May 28, 2014

So far for this project, I’ve covered two poetry collections and a work of nonfiction.  Today’s topic, though, is a work of fiction.  On the surface, prose fiction is the style least relevant to my project.  It neither provides examples of writing political poetry nor highlight the issues which such poetry may cover.  So why I am including prose fiction here?

Two words: Mark Twain.  The grandfather of American literature.  One of the country’s premier satirists.  Possibly my favorite fiction writer.  And so: The Gilded Age.

The Gilded Age, a collaboration between Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, is a novel which satirizes American society, especially politics, during the period following the Civil War.  Published in 1873, the novel presages the corruption and lax governance of the Industrial Revolution, so much so that its title became a byword for the period.

Alas, it’s not very good.  There are a couple of memorable characters, such as orphan-turned-lobbyist Laura Hawkins and the endlessly verbose Colonel Sellers, but this book as too many characters who don’t stand out in the slightest.  Also, the narrative is much too long.  My edition clocks in at 483 pages, which is about 300 pages more than the story can sustain.  Given how much I love Twain’s other satires (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s CourtThe Innocents Abroad), this was a considerable disappointment.

But, something about this book did inspire me to write poetry: imperialist foresight.

Most of the satire in The Gilded Age centers on the crooked world of Washington politics: bribery, lobbying, Senatorial self-interest, etc.  However, other topics are the subject of side jokes, including bookstore owner’s poor taste in literature.  One of those side jokes is a conversation about war.  The wife of a general, discussing the grandstanding of another general, states the following:

“Well, my husband says, its nonsense to talk of war, and wicked.  He knows what war is.  If we do have war, I hope it will be for the patriots of Cuba.  Don’t you think we want Cuba, Mr. Hawkins?”

25 years later, the United States would declare war on Spain and, as a result, gained temporary control over the island.  Washington Hawkins’ response is also relevant, summarizing the attitudes of the pro-imperial side of the debate:

“I think we want it bad,” said Washington.  “And Santo Domingo.  Senator Dilworthy says, we are bound to extend our religion over the isles of the sea.  We’ve got to round out our territories…”

I’ve mentioned satire which proves prophetic in hindsight before, when I talked about Phillip Roth’s Our Gang.  It’s that kind of moment that makes me wonder whether Clio, the muse of history, is a tad literal minded.  Perhaps we should be a bit more careful with our satire, eh?  Lest we accidentally create the world we mock.


From → Literature, Politics

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