Twain’s Gilded Age, and Ours
The sage of Hannibal wasn’t right about everything, but we could use a dose of his outrage today.
The more I think of this, the more nearly impossible the project seems,” Samuel Clemens told would-be amanuensis Albert Bigelow Paine in January 1906. It was Clemens’s penultimate attempt, after numerous false starts, to put his life story as Mark Twain on paper, and he confessed that “the difficulties of it grow upon me all the time.” Even though assisted by an experienced stenographer hired by Paine, the great American novelist and public speaker found “blocking out a consecutive series of events” to be more than he could handle. Sequence and chronology defeated him. It was better simply to “talk about the thing that something suggests at the moment—something in the middle of my life, perhaps, or something that happened only a few months ago.”
Three years later, Twain decided he was enough satisfied with the results of his dictation sessions to incorporate the best of some 30 or 40 false starts at autobiography to produce a final, immense record of memories, writings, newsprint, and letters. He called the collection Autobiography of Mark Twain and stipulated that its contents remain unpublished until a century after his death because of their subversive opinions and bald candor. As that time has come—Twain died on April 21, 1910—the University of California Press has issued a hefty first of a three-volume Twain autobiography, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith.
No doubt Twain scholars will find less to be surprised by in this unexpurgated offering from the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley than the casual student and interested reader. In disregard of the sage of Hannibal’s explicit and well-advertised wishes, Paine, acting as Twain’s literary executor and official biographer, served up a grand tranche of embargoed matter in 1924. Bernard De Voto followed with another in 1940, as did Twain scholar Charles Neider 19 years later, all of them presuming to disclose only what was best for the public’s sensibilities. None of this would have surprised the inventor of Tom Sawyer, one of American letters’ most elaborate pranksters. Readers of the North American Review, the nation’s oldest literary magazine, had been titillated by sanitized portions of the supposedly posthumous autobiography by Twain himself, who winked four years before dying that “no part” of it was to appear in book form “during the lifetime of the author.”
So what has been added a century later to what the informed already knew of Twain’s anti-imperialism, robber-baron animus, tax-dodger mockery, his sympathy for the “weaker sex,” minorities, and the deaf and blind, and his ribald impatience with humbug? A hint of plagiarism in The Gilded Age, a mortifying failure of a tribute to John Greenleaf Whittier at a dinner in proper Boston, a lengthy, excruciating sojourn in a grand Italian villa, ethical questions about publishing rights to Ulysses Grant’s memoirs, together with a good bit more, reveal themselves in this “complete and authoritative edition” as largely time-bound much ados—as, to this reviewer, does the tirelessly debated propriety of Twain’s use of the “n” word. It should occur to readers well before reaching the end of Twain’s strikingly self-indulgent and only intermittently revelatory apologia pro vita sua that its significance a hundred years on is less what it says about its time than what it reveals about ourselves in our time.
One recalls a time not too many decades ago when most Americans conceded to government a moderate regulatory role over the market economy; when the demonizing of inheritance duties as “death taxes” would have been derided as hilarious; even a time when the billionaire rich were neither axiomatically brilliant nor born to rule the republic as a matter of course. Twain royally thumped un-brilliant billionaires and their civic pretensions in the Paine dictations: “Satan, twaddling sentimental sillinesses…could be no burlesque upon John D. Rockefeller” preaching his gospel of the uplifting dime in a Cleveland Sunday school, he snorted. Admitting to a Carnegie Hall audience his “friendly, social, and criminal intercourse with the whole of them” (the tax-dodging rich), a septuagenarian Twain declared that his conscience got the better of him when tax collectors let a “whole crop of millionaires live in New York at a third of the price they were charging me.”
Even before Michael Lewis, Paul Krugman, and Lawrence McDonald succeeded in exposing ex post facto how today’s masters of speculative finance rigged their deadly games, Twain was on to these character types—first cousins of Huck’s high-strutting confidence duo, the Duke and the Dauphin—most notably in The Gilded Age. “A veering, improvised mess of a book” it may be, as Twain biographer Ron Powers judges; but The Gilded Age fixed greed and grossness in a distinctively American aspic that comes remarkably close to the great potlatch that Wall Street copiously consumed during this century’s first decade. Even with his deep understanding of Americans’ innate optimism and rugged individualism—traits in books like Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It that did so much to shape the exceptionalist American creed—Twain might be stunned to see twenty-first-century Americans either clueless or complacent before the present asymmetry in individual earning power and household wealth: a 300-percent increase in CEO compensation from 1990 to 2005, adjusted for inflation, while ordinary workers gained 4 percent. In 2007, the top 1 percent of New Gilded Age households owned 43 percent of the all financial wealth, while the bottom 80 percent of the population owned a mere 7 percent. When he told Paine that “the gospel left behind by Jay Gould is doing giant work in our days,” Twain probably foresaw that Americans would still have a large share of Jay Goulds among them a hundred years in the future.
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