And Then I Read: THE GILDED AGE by Mark Twain & Charles Dudley Warner

Title page found online, I read an ebook version. This was Twain’s first novel. He’d written many short stories before it, and two non-fiction books about travel, “The Innocents Abroad,” and “Roughing It.” Warner, a fellow writer, and Twain were friends and neighbors, and their wives challenged them to produce a novel better than what the women were able to find in the bookstores of their day in Hartford, CT. Twain wrote the first 11 chapters, which focus on the the Hawkins family of rural Tennessee and their friend and mentor, Colonel Beriah Sellers. Warner wrote the next 12 chapters which follow two New York City men from well-to-do families, Philip Sterling and Henry Brierly. The many later chapters were a tag-team effort, and a collaboration at the end. All these characters have one desire: to make it rich quickly in the American midwest, still essentially frontier territory in the years after the Civil War. Sellers is a dreamer and a schemer, leading the gullible Hawkins family on a move westward from Tennessee across the Mississippi into Missouri, where one scheme after another fails to work.

Along the way, the Hawkins family adds and adopts two orphans. One of them, Laura, grows into a woman of intelligence and beauty, and the latter half of the book often focuses on her, with and without the two New York Men, Philip and Henry. Those two get involved in a land surveying project in Missouri and soon meet up with Colonel Sellers and the Hawkins group. Later, Sellers, Laura, and the two men end up in Washington DC trying to get legislation passed that will have the U.S. Government purchasing land they own, or benefitting them in other ways. Laura is an excellent schemer in this area until she is derailed by the appearance of her former husband, George Selby, a man who had treated her very badly, and now arrives in Washington with a new wife. A melodramatic murder ensues.

This book has lots of social and political satire, and reveals the truth that politics has always been a corrupt game. One early effort by Colonel Sellers to get a federal grant for a railroad project in his home area involves lots of wrangling and “selling” by Sellers, Laura Hawkins and their friend Senator Dilworthy. They finally get half a million dollars for the project, a fortune in those days. But as they find out, once payoffs are made to all the congressmen who voted for the money, their staffs, and so on, Sellers and cohorts find they actually owe their new railroad company $10,000 each. While it has serious moments, there’s also a good deal of humor and romance on hand. Colonel Sellers and Laura Hawkins are the standout characters, the former being a sly con-man, the latter a charming con-woman.

It’s a long book, and at times did not entertain me as much as other Twain works I’ve read. The standout chapter in the early Twain ones is a steam boat race on the Mississippi with a disastrous conclusion that jumps off the page with excitement and thrills. Clearly this was an area that Twain was good at and would return to. I’m not a fan of politics, so the political satire dragged for me, though the characters got me through. It’s certainly an interesting look at a period of American history I hadn’t known much about, a time for big dreams and big schemes that often failed to come true.

Mildly recommended.

The Gilded Age by Mark Twain

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