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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 2: 1866 - 1875|
LXXXVIII. "The Gilded Age"
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Mark Twain did not go on the lecture circuit that winter. Redpath had
besought him as usual, and even in midsummer had written:
"Will you? Won't you? We have seven thousand to eight thousand dollars
in engagements recorded for you," and he named a list of towns ranging
geographically from Boston to St. Paul.
But Clemens had no intention then of ever lecturing any more, and again
in November, from London, he announced (to Redpath):
"When I yell again for less than $500 I'll be pretty hungry, but I
haven't any intention of yelling at any price."
Redpath pursued him, and in January proposed $400 for a single night in
Philadelphia, but without result. He did lecture two nights in Steinway
Hall for the Mercantile Library Association, on the basis of half
profits, netting $1,300 for the two nights as his share; and he lectured
one night in Hartford, at a profit Of $1,500, for charity. Father
Hawley, of Hartford, had announced that his missionary work was suffering
for lack of funds. Some of his people were actually without food, he
said, their children crying with hunger. No one ever responded to an
appeal like that quicker than Samuel Clemens. He offered to deliver a
lecture free, and to bear an equal proportion of whatever expenses were
incurred by the committee of eight who agreed to join in forwarding the
project. He gave the Sandwich Island lecture, and at the close of it a
large card was handed him with the figures of the receipts printed upon
it. It was held up to view, and the house broke into a storm of cheers.
He did very little writing during the early weeks following his return.
Early in the year (January 3 and 6, 1873) he contributed two Sandwich
Island letters to the Tribune, in which, in his own peculiar fashion, he
"We must annex those people," he declared, and proceeded to specify the
blessings we could give them, such as "leather-headed juries, the
insanity law, and the Tweed Ring."
We can confer Woodhull and Clafin on them, and George Francis Train.
We can give them lecturers! I will go myself.
We can make that little bunch of sleepy islands the hottest corner
on earth, and array it in the moral splendor of our high and holy
civilization. Annexation is what the poor islanders need!
"Shall we, to men benighted, the lamp of life deny?"
His success in England became an incentive to certain American
institutions to recognize his gifts at home. Early in the year he was
dined as the guest of the Lotos Club of New York, and a week or two later
elected to its membership. This was but a beginning. Some new
membership or honor was offered every little while, and so many banquets
that he finally invented a set form for declining them. He was not yet
recognized as the foremost American man of letters, but undoubtedly he
had become the most popular; and Edwin Whipple, writing at this time, or
but little later, said:
"Mark Twain is regarded chiefly as a humorist, but the exercise of his
real talents would rank him with the ablest of our authors in the past
fifty years." So he was beginning to be "discovered" in high places.
It was during this winter that the Clemens household enjoyed its first
real home life in Hartford, its first real home life anywhere since those
earliest days of marriage. The Hooker mansion was a comfortable place.
The little family had comparatively good health. Their old friends were
stanch and lavishly warm-hearted, and they had added many new ones.
Their fireside was a delightful nucleus around which gathered those they
cared for most, the Twichells, the Warner families, the Trumbulls--all
certain of a welcome there. George Warner, only a little while ago,
"The Clemens house was the only one I have ever known where there was
never any preoccupation in the evenings, and where visitors were always
welcome. Clemens was the best kind of a host; his evenings after dinner
were an unending flow of stories."
Friends living near by usually came and went at will, often without the
ceremony of knocking or formal leave-taking. They were more like one
great family in that neighborhood, with a community of interests, a unity
of ideals. The Warner families and the Clemenses were particularly
intimate, and out of their association grew Mark Twain's next important
literary undertaking, his collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner in
'The Gilded Age'.
A number of more or less absurd stories have been printed about the
origin of this book. It was a very simple matter, a perfectly natural
At the dinner-table one night, with the Warners present, criticisms of
recent novels were offered, with the usual freedom and severity of
dinner-table talk. The husbands were inclined to treat rather lightly
the novels in which their wives were finding entertainment. The wives
naturally retorted that the proper thing for the husbands to do was to
furnish the American people with better ones. This was regarded in the
nature of a challenge, and as such was accepted--mutually accepted: that
is to say, in partnership. On the spur of the moment Clemens and Warner
agreed that they would do a novel together, that they would begin it
immediately. This is the whole story of the book's origin; so far, at
least, as the collaboration is concerned. Clemens, in fact, had the
beginning of a story in his mind, but had been unwilling to undertake an
extended work of fiction alone. He welcomed only too eagerly, therefore,
the proposition of joint authorship. His purpose was to write a tale
around that lovable character of his youth, his mother's cousin, James
Lampton--to let that gentle visionary stand as the central figure against
a proper background. The idea appealed to Warner, and there was no delay
in the beginning. Clemens immediately set to work and completed 399
pages of the manuscript, the first eleven chapters of the book, before
the early flush of enthusiasm waned.
Warner came over then, and Clemens read it aloud to him. Warner had some
plans for the story, and took it up at this point, and continued it
through the next twelve chapters; and so they worked alternately, "in the
superstition," as Mark Twain long afterward declared, "that we were
writing one coherent yarn, when I suppose, as a matter of fact, we were
writing two incoherent ones."--[The reader may be interested in the
division of labor. Clemens wrote chapters I to XI; also chapters XXIV,
XXV, XXVII, XXVIII, XXX, XXXII, XXXIII, XXXIV, XXXVI, XXXVII, XLII,
XLIII, XLV, LI, LII, LIII, LVII, LIX, LX, LXI, LXII, and portions of
chapters XXXV, XLIX, LVI. Warner wrote chapters XII to XXIII; also
chapters XXVI, XXIX, XXXI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XL, XLI, XLIV, XLVI, XLVII,
XLVITT, L, LIV, LV, LVIII, LXIII, and portions of chapters XXXV, XLIX,
and LVI. The work was therefore very evenly divided.
There was another co-worker on The Gilded Age before the book was finally
completed. This was J. Hammond Trumbull, who prepared the variegated,
marvelous cryptographic chapter headings: Trumbull was the most learned
man that ever lived in Hartford. He was familiar with all literary and
scientific data, and according to Clemens could swear in twenty-seven
languages. It was thought to be a choice idea to get Trumbull to supply
a lingual medley of quotations to precede the chapters in the new book,
the purpose being to excite interest and possibly to amuse the reader--a
purpose which to some extent appears to have miscarried.]
The book was begun in February and finished in April, so the work did not
lag. The result, if not highly artistic, made astonishingly good
reading. Warner had the touch of romance, Clemens, the gift of creating,
or at least of portraying, human realities. Most of his characters
reflected intimate personalities of his early life. Besides the
apotheosis of James Lampton into the immortal Sellers, Orion became
Washington Hawkins, Squire Clemens the judge, while Mark Twain's own
personality, in a greater or lesser degree, is reflected in most of his
creations. As for the Tennessee land, so long a will-o'the-wisp and a
bugbear, it became tangible property at last. Only a year or two before
Clemens had written to Orion:
Oh, here! I don't want to be consulted at all about Tennessee. I
don't want it even mentioned to me. When I make a suggestion it is
for you to act upon it or throw it aside, but I beseech you never to
ask my advice, opinion, or consent about that hated property.
But it came in good play now. It is the important theme of the story.
Mark Twain was well qualified to construct his share of the tale. He
knew his characters, their lives, and their atmospheres perfectly.
Senator Dilworthy (otherwise Senator Pomeroy, of Kansas, then notorious
for attempted vote-buying) was familiar enough. That winter in
Washington had acquainted Clemens with the life there, its political
intrigues, and the disrepute of Congress. Warner was equally well
qualified for his share of the undertaking, and the chief criticism that
one may offer is the one stated by Clemens himself--that the divisions of
the tale remain divisions rather than unity.
As for the story itself--the romance and tragedy of it--the character of
Laura in the hands of either author is one not easy to forget. Whether
this means that the work is well done, or only strikingly done, the
reader himself must judge. Morally, the character is not justified.
Laura was a victim of circumstance from the beginning. There could be no
poetic justice in her doom. To drag her out of a steamer wreck, only to
make her the victim of a scoundrel, later an adventuress, and finally a
murderess, all may be good art, but of a very bad kind. Laura is a sort
of American Becky Sharp; but there is retributive justice in Becky's
fate, whereas Laura's doom is warranted only by the author's whim. As
for her end, whatever the virtuous public of that day might have done, a
present-day audience would not have pelted her from the stage, destroyed
her future, taken away her life.
The authors regarded their work highly when it was finished, but that is
nothing. Any author regards his work highly at the moment of its
completion. In later years neither of them thought very well of their
production; but that also is nothing. The author seldom cares very
deeply for his offspring once it is turned over to the public charge.
The fact that the story is still popular, still delights thousands of
readers, when a myriad of novels that have been written since it was
completed have lived their little day and died so utterly that even their
names have passed out of memory, is the best verdict as to its worth.