[Written for The Evening Star.]
“The Gilded Age,” by Mark Twain and C. D. Warner, is a large and plentifully illustrated subscription book, which I have read through with interest and satiety. It begins drily and vividly, runs along into prose without much plot, hits on a good many characters of the day, and ends without being finished. It is a very good example of the Gilded Age in itself, being imperfect, and making the most advantageous trade upon two hasty and fair reputations. The last page of the book is as imprudent as the dying joke of Artemus Ward, when he left a fortune which nobody could find, to people still in pursuit of it. Having carried a person called Laura (Far) through nearly the whole book, “the authors” say: “Perhaps some apology to the reader is necessary in view of our failure to find Laura’s father. We supposed, from the ease with which lost persons are found in novels that it would not be difficult. But it was; indeed it was impossible; and therefore the portions of the narrative containing the record of the search have been stricken out.” Thus the reader is rewarded for following a character through 573 pages.
It is apparent from this book that one or both of the authors lack continuity and the patient to elaborate and execute a story. They are equally yoked, and one man pulls out and goes off to graze while the other hands the whole load, and, of course, goes sidewise. It would be invidious, perhaps, to say, which of the twain does the grazing.
The Gilded Age is pitched in East Tennessee to begin with, where the head of the lineal characters gets in some way a vast tract of mountain land. This land and the expectations it arouses are the curse of his posterity. The family moves to Missouri, where the civil war breaks out. After the war the land in question is made the staple of a great congressional job, and the action is transferred to Washington, which Mark Twain must have seen in a vision with his boots on headforemostwise. He says of the Capitol:
“Gossips will tell you that it was to cost $12,000,000 and that the government did come within $27,200,00 of building it for that sum.”
There is no joke in this, and no truth either. The Capitol at this day, with the new squares added, has cost $15,000,000.
Of the city he (she or it) says, “It is a wide stretch of cheap little brick houses, with here and there a noble architectural pile, lifting itself out of the midst – government buildings these. If the thaw is still going on when you come down and go about town you will wonder at the short-sightedness of the city fathers when you come to inspect the street, in that they did not dilute the mud a little more and use them for canals.”
This all very well, as it used to be. He or they say of the White House, “Beyond the treasury is a fine large white barn with wide unhandsome grounds about it. The President lives there. It is ugly enough outside, but that is nothing to do what it is inside. Dreariness, flimsiness, bad taste reduced to mathematical completeness, is what the inside offers to the eye.”
It occurs to me, just here, that I have read all this before. Did Mark Twain pass over to Mr. Warner his Washington correspondence and other letters, and the same utilized in a story by Warner?
However, the authors introduce a Christian statesman into this book, made up of the mingled reputations of Pomeroy, H____, and Colfax; they are all ingenious grafted upon one stem, Senator Dillworthy. Of course in the end Dilworthy is exposed, investigated and whitewashed and the great job fails. Meantime Laura, the only interesting women in the book, takes up a second time with the man who seduced and jilted her, and then follows him to New York and kills him. Then there is a great trial, modeled upon the Stokes and Laura Fair trails, with some humorous writing. Laura is cleared and takes to lecturing on her crime, for which the audience hoot her and she dies that night in stupor and broken heartedness. The tale virtually ends there, although there is a weak attempt to prolong other characters sufficiently to dismiss them.
The most extraordinary part of this book is its sardonic, almost lurid estimate of life and enjoyment. It is written in an unhappy spirit, and upon the model, apparently, or Martin Chuzzlewit. There are good parts in it, but no real merriment. The essence of comedy is wanting. The vivid parts are the best. At times, the work is so careless as to suggest that the authors despaired in their task and hated it for its uncongeniality. As to real character it possesses none. There are some human mud turtles in it in the early chapters, a good many hypocrites and confidence people; but in womanhood, beauty, mental repose, dignity of manhood, and sincerity of aspiration, it is wholly destitute. It ought to be called “The Gilded Pill: An arouser of dyspepsia. By Two Sufferers.”
The following is a sketch in this book of Newspaper Row.
“They were always talking in the Row, everlastingly gossiping, bantering and sarcastically praising things, and going on in a style which was a curious commingling of earnest and persiflage. Colonel Sellers liked this talk amazingly, though he was sometimes a little at sea in it – and perhaps that didn’t lessen the relish of the conversation of the correspondents.”