The Gilded Age: the novel, not the television series

February 5, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, writers, writing.

The Gilded Age, HBO’s lavishly produced and extensively advertised, series takes its title from a book published in 1873, but it is at that point that the connection ends. The book was written co-authored by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner..

Twain and Warner were friends and neighbors who lived close to one another in Hartford, Connecticut. Their families knew each other well, and they often shared the dinner table at one house or another.

It was at one of those dinners when Twain and Warner were complaining about the novels that were in vogue at the time. They offered a variety of criticisms with what one of Twain’s biographers calls “the usual freedom and severity of dinner table talk.” The wives of the two men took some exception to these opinions, and so they challenged their husbands to write something for the American reader that would be better.

The challenge was accepted by both men, and they agreed to do a novel together.

Warner had not achieved the fame of his friend, but he was a credible partner in the effort. He had practiced law in Chicago from 1856 to 1860, when he moved to Hartford to became assistant editor of one of the newspapers there. Eventually, he joined the staff of Harper’s magazine and wrote a regular and popular column for that publication for almost a decade. He wrote a variety of works for publication, including five novels.

The writing of The Gilded Age began immediately because Twain already had an idea about a story that he was considering. He wanted to write something about a character of his youth, his mother’s cousin, and let that character be in the middle of a situation with which he, the author, could have a lot of fun.

The plan was for Twain to write the first chapters of the book and for Warner to write the subsequent chapters. Twain started writing immediately, and Warner would come over occasionally and listen to Twain as he read those chapters aloud.

After understanding where Twain was going with his story, Warner started writing his portion of the novel. It actually turned out to be a separate story, but the two eventually collaborated on how the whole book would end. The division of labor in the novel was more or less equal.

A third companion as taken into this writing fold. He was J. Hammond Trumbull, and he prepared some cryptographic chapter headings, which the original authors thought might lend some entertainment and some erudition to what they were writing. Ultimately, however, they were disappointed in what Trumbull produced.

The book was begun in February, and it was finished by April. The result was two separate stories, but it made for delightful reading for the American public at the time. The story mixes romance and tragedy together with the protagonists never quite achieving what they set out to accomplish.

The title of the book comes from William Shakespeare’s play King John. The reference means “wasteful and ridiculous excess.” The book is full of satirical observations of the political and social life of Washington, D.C. Much of what the book contains in that regard is still relevant today.

According to Arthur Bigelow Paine, Twain’s biographer:

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.

The book provided a title for the age of the late 19th century. It was an age of the accumulation of great wealth and its ostentatious display. It was indeed an apt title.

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