Not Worth a Cent: Glitz and Excess in The Gilded Age

Robber Barons Pic.png

The idea behind the cartoon is, as I mention below, big business controlled the government during the Gilded Age. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons”, the name given to railroad company tycoons (and the businesses that made them possible, such as the steel business), pictured as bloated bags of money, lording over the tiny mice of the senate.

Photo Credit: The Bosses of the Senate cartoon, Joseph Ferdinand Keppler. First published in Puck, 23 January 1889, lithograph, colored: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

“‘I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.’” (Twain and Dudley Warner, location 2837)

Various historical eras in American history have been making a comeback in film and TV lately. A few years ago the Roaring Twenties was revitalized with the new film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. More recently, a story appeared about the creator of Downton Abbey heading for one of America’s most vibrant periods in history with a mini-series titled The Gilded Age. A BBCAmerica article calls this series “the next best thing” to Downton Abbey and maybe in terms of the opulent wealth that series represents, this is true. But as my opening quote makes clear, the Gilded Age wasn’t so much about how much money you had as how much you made everyone think you had. It was a time of excess, gaudiness, hope, and fear.

There is some dispute as to what constitutes the time frame we know as the Gilded Age. Most historians and scholars that it began in the 1870’s but some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push the end all the way to 1900. For my purposes, because the new century brought about the Progressive Era (subject of a future blog post), I prefer to consider the stopping point as more the mid-1890’s.

The publication of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today in 1873 coined the term. Ironically, the title wasn’t meant as a label for the era but as a tongue-in-cheek dig against it that turned out to be wildly accurate. As Ben Tarnoff, in his book The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature points out, the title chosen by Twain and Dudley Warner “ [suggests] a thin layer of prosperity [that disguises] a deeper decay” (pg. 228). With a sharp eye and sardonic humor, Twain and Dudley Warner observed what was going on around them and used it as fodder for their fiction. The result is “a novel about contemporary America [that draws] a bleakly funny portrait of the country as a gambler’s paradise populated by knaves and fools and sycophants” (Tarnoff, pg. 228).

What was happening in America was pretty dismal if awe-inspiring and, in the context of the time, understandable. When Twain and Dudley Warner published their book in 1873, America had just gone through a rather heavy recession that ended in the Panic of 1873. Subsequently, people were determined to bounce back financially and politically with full force to show the United States could compete with other global giants in Europe and elsewhere. But since finance and politics are, let’s face it, inherently dirty, many used dirty methods to do it. Indeed, “[n]early every day the papers carried reports of wide-spread corruption, from the endless scandals of Ulysses S. Grant’s sleazy administration in Washington to the thuggery of Boss Tweed’s Tammany machine in New York” (Tarnoff, pg. 288). Money and commercial interests ruled. And then, just as now, big business ruled government interests, as “[p]oliticians bought elections, stole taxpayer dollars, and cut backroom deals with plutocrats” (Tarnoff, pg. 228). In an effort to encourage the kind of development that could rival European markets, American became, as the saying goes, too big for its britches.

gilded age pic

This painting represents the kind of gaudy glitter and extravagance that was common with the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained with large dinner parties and balls.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Hofball in Wien. Aquarell, Wilhelm Gause, 1900, Historisches Museum de Stadt Wien: Andrew0921/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old)

All this wheeling and dealing created a new class of wealth. Novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about “old money” families that had always ruled society who were forced to make way for the nouveau riche. Many of these rich social leaders of the upper class weren’t about to hide their wealth.

So the Gilded Age became notorious for gaudy, show-offish displays of the socially privileged. Shady dealings made millionaires out of people of humble origins who were eager to get into society. A notorious example is Simon Rosedale in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, a rather unpolished, seedy character whose rags-to-riches rise made him an unavoidable parasite in the New York social circle in which the protagonist Lily Bart moves. In addition, “[t]he Panic of 1873 had produced a long depression, sharpening the class antagonisms of the Gilded Age” (Tarnoff, pg. 245). Subsequently, the very rich became very extravagant, sometimes ridiculously so, displaying their money and social power in ridiculous ways even in the face of growing poverty and working class resentments that would explode into the unions and reforms of The Progressive Era.

Twain and Dudley Warner take some of these Gilded Age stereotypes and create colorful characters of them. The most colorful of them all is Colonel Sellers. Drawn from a relative of Twain’s, Sellers is “a frontier hustler forever on the verge of getting rich” (Tarnoff, pg. 233). A more insightful character in the book is Phillip Sterling, an upper-class young man who has stepped out in the world to make his fortune. Inherently honest, Sterling comes up against the graft and corruption of the railroads and, later, politics. He observes:

“[H]e was born into a time when all young mean of his age caught the fever of speculation and expected to get on in the world by the omission of some of the regular processes which have been appointed from the old.” (Twain and Dudley Warner, location 5476-5480)

In other words, Sterling is the 19th century answer to the Entitlement Generation.

Needless to say, Sterling’s prosperity is slow in coming. And yet, keeping in tune with the optimism of the age, he is anything but discouraged because, in this era of growth, he recognizes that anything is possible:

“He might [be] a ‘railroad man,’ or a politician, or a land speculator, or one of those mysterious people who travel free on all railroads and steamboats, and are continually crossing and recrossing the Atlantic, driven day and night about nobody knows what, and make a great deal of money by so doing.” (Twain and Dudley Warner, location 5480-5484)

One of my fascinations with historical fiction is the possibility of seeing characters who are not only products of their time but also rebels of it. In a sense, the characters of Vivian and Jake Alderdice, daughter and son of the Alderdice family in my upcoming Waxwood Series and rebels, though their rebellion is more of a result of the complex family dynamics that begins well before they are born and makes up their psychological reality. For example, Jake, like many sons of wealthy families, turned his back on the workaholic trend of his grandfather to spend the money rather than make it. But, unlike many of those young men, who spent their time on useless and excessive pleasures (like horses, liquor, and women), Jake spends his time cultivating his artistic talent.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today did not do well. An important critic of the day, author William Dean Howells, neglected to review it but “[p]rivately… called the novel ‘dyspeptic,’ blaming it for failing to digest ‘the crude material with which it is fed’” (Tarnoff, pg. 233). It’s interesting to note Howells’ criticism refers more to the style and scope of the work (at over six hundred pages, the narrative does tend to ramble and go off on tangents) rather than the book’s intent (a satire of the age). Yet, it is a seminal work even if not a particular successful one or favored one among the Twain canon (personally, I liked the book much more than Twain’s more famous works). As Tarnoff points out, “[The book] gave a name to the postwar era whose financial fragility had just been exposed …” (pg. 228). For us, in the modern age, it gives us a new way of looking at the social and psychological implications for Americans living today.

Works Cited

Tarnoff, Ben. The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. The Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014. Kindle digital file.

Twain, Mark and Warner, Charles Dudley. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Project Gutenberg, 2006 (original publication date: 1873). Kindle digital file.

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