By J.F. McKenna
Mark Twain remains the nation’s foremost social critic, even now tearing apart our 21st century devotion to the wrongheaded if not half-assed notions upon which he first poured satire and vitriol more than a century ago. He skewered simple personal vanity and railed against the horrors of economic slavery. Likewise, Sam Clemens made it his crusade to expose every blatherskite and poseur as part of the scouting party for mankind’s unwitting trip to hell. He knew the ranks of those scouts were deep and certain to outlast his mortal efforts to rid them from the territory.
“By the Law of Periodical Repetition,” Twain once warned, “everything which has happened once must happen again.”
Were he able to review today’s Internet, Huckleberry Finn’s father might certainly be impressed with the speed of news delivery, but not with the familiar content. Especially when it comes to man the political animal, whose smart phone and instant messaging can’t disguise the hoary perversions and pettifogging of venal politicking, be it government’s bending of personal privacy or the disruption caused by such social engineering as Obamacare. “Pretty old fare,” Twain would conclude. “Charles Dudley Warner and I plowed over much of that ground back in 1873, when we collaborated on The Gilded Age.”
Twain and Warner’s 63-chapter political novel doesn’t rank particular high in the canon of most Twain buffs. Outside of the graduate-level venue, in fact, the last time I heard of anyone teaching it was in 1972, at old St. John College in downtown Cleveland. The work has been relegated to noted but not very notable. That said, The Gilded Age deserves more than just a passing acknowledgement 140 years later.
Twain’s first novel, albeit a 50-50 effort with Warner, provided the Post-Civil War era with a spot-on label. “The novel skewers government and politicians, big business and America’s obsession with getting rich,” writes R. Kent Rassmussen in Mark Twain A to Z. “The novel specifically deals with hypocritical politicians, vote-buying, conflicts of interest, court corruption and the jury system.” And Milton Meltzer, in his Mark Twain Himself, declares The Gilded Age “the only contemporary novel to attack the fevered speculation and expose the political muck of its day. The lobbyists, the Wall Street financiers, Washington’s political hacks, the boom towns of the West, the railroad builders, the vulgar new aristocracy of wealth, ‘the great putty-hearted public’ that tolerated the plunder—all fall beneath the axe Twain had been sharpening since…1867 when he had watched Capitol Hill in action.”
That summary handily mimics the news budget on Yahoo’s home page, doesn’t it? The Gilded Age employed A Tale of To-Day as its subtitle. Concoct an updated version of the novel and you don’t even have to alter the secondary appellation outside of losing that quaint hyphen.
But I would revise the main title itself. Much more accurate for the 2013 successor to the original text is The Gelded Age. After all, our contemporary political corruption and citizen indifference have left the country in a castrated state.
The facts back that up. American foreign embassies are closed en masse in the face of increasing jihadist activity. The Russian bear, as The Wall Street Journal reports, thumbs its furry nose at us over the Snowden affair. The Affordable Care Act looks more every day like the Single-Payer Debacle. Nearly three-quarters of the citizenry believes that government surveillance of phone and Internet data is used for purposes other than fighting terrorists. Politically induced fiscal implosions threaten once-great Midwestern cities. And mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner resets the parameters of personal shame for a new generation of public servants.
In his celebrated biography Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, Justin Kaplan notes that The Gilded Age is “a novel of reaction and despair. Even the naivest of its characters, Washington Hawkins, finally experiences the shock of futility: ‘The country is a fool.’” Sad to say, I’ve heard echoes of Hawkins’ lament along the highways and byways more than once this year.
Mark Twain, Kaplan insists, nonetheless leveraged much good out of his book-length cynicism. He used his novel as practice to give the world such classic works as Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi. To be sure, Kaplan writes, Twain transformed his Gilded Age pessimism into “a somber and cautious affirmation of democracy itself.”
As noted from this corner before, Twain rendered one outstanding observation in The Gilded Age: “No country can be well governed unless its citizens as a body keep religiously before their minds that they are the guardians of the law, and that the law officers are only the machinery for its execution, nothing more.”
In this gelded age of ours, with no other Twains in sight, we might keep that advice close for ready reference. You’ll find it in Chapter 39.
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also attends all meetings of the Mark Twain Society of Penn Hills, possibly the smallest literary gathering east of Pittsburgh. Reach him at email@example.com or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.