Friday, November 2, 2012

The Gilded Age By Mark Twain and some other guy - just the good parts

The absence of recognizable fiction for such a long stretch of Mark Twain’s early career explains what had been a mystery to me, why his first novel, The Gilded Age (1873), is such a crashing dud.  Twain was still practicing.

The novel is actually co-written with Twain’s neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner, another professional writer who had never attempted a novel.  Reading The Gilded Age is a useful exercise for a critic.  Identifying Twain’s chapters is pretty easy.  Both authors showcase the clichés of American fiction circa 1873.

Yet The Gilded Age has its merits.  I will annotate them.

1.  The title is a stroke of genius.  An historic title, as an historian might say.  I would say “a historic title.”

2.  The first successful temporary insanity defense for murder dates to 1859.  Twain was still mad about it in 1873 – thought it was a scam – and uses it in the climax of the novel.  Kinda interesting.

3.  Chapter XXIV is an Innocents Abroad-like description of Washington, D.C.  it is excellent and can be read on its own.  I have seen it in an anthology of some sort.  Gaze upon the incomplete Washington Monument:

Still in the distance, but on this side of the water and close to its edge, the Monument to the Father of his Country towers out of the mud – sacred soil is the customary term.  It has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off.  The skeleton of a decaying scaffolding lingers about its summit, and tradition says that the spirit of Washington often comes down and sits on those rafters to enjoy this tribute of respect which the nation has reared as the symbol of its unappeasable gratitude.  The monument is to be finished, some day…

4.  Chapter XXXIII features one of the three or four funniest pieces of Twain’s I have ever seen, a conversation among Washington socialites.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with the novel's story.  Everything begins reasonably enough, with the weather, and a preference for Paris (“I dote on Paris; I'd druther scrimp along on ten thousand dollars a year there, than suffer and worry here on a real decent income”).  Things take an odd turn when the women begin discussing the delicate health of little Percy and François (“He was always delicate – especially his lungs”).  Doctors are consulted (“The first thing he suggested for Percy was to have him taken out in the back yard for an airing, every afternoon, with nothing at all on”), but behave strangely:

“By and by I flung out next door and dragged in Dr. Sprague, President of the Medical University – no time to go for our own doctor of course – and the minute he saw François he said, 'Send for your own physician, madam;' said it as cross as a bear, too, and turned right on his heel, and cleared out without doing a thing!"

The story culminates with this footnote:

[** As impossible and exasperating as this conversation may sound to a person who is not an idiot, it is scarcely in any respect an exaggeration of one which one of us actually listened to in an American drawing room – otherwise we could not venture to put such a chapter into a book which, professes to deal with social possibilities. – THE AUTHORS.]

The reader who wisely skips The Gilded Age as a whole should jump straight to page 305 of this electronic edition, which includes pleasing illustrations, and stop seven pages later, after the footnote.  The piece lends itself to reading aloud, I can vouch for that.

No comments:

Post a Comment