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“There’s Millions in It!”: The Gilded Age and the Economy of Satire
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Beautiful credit! The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises? That is a peculiar condition of society which enables a whole nation to instantly recognize point and meaning in the familiar newspaper anecdote, which puts into the mouth of a distinguished speculator in lands and mines this remark:—“I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.”

—Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age

With the introduction of the character of Colonel Beriah Sellers, Mark Twain created a rollicking satire of small-town speculators caught up in a newly nationalized economy that few, if any, truly understood. The advent of beautiful credit, and its foundation in the railroads that were rapidly expanding throughout the nation, put Sellers at the center of an American drama that Twain, and his coauthor Charles Dudley Warner, portrayed as a farce of national proportions. Published in 1873, The Gilded Age marks an important development in Twain’s career as a writer, and its topic—the current state of American life, or in the words of its subtitle “A Tale of To-Day”—represents Twain’s first and only attempt at a sustained satire of contemporary American life. The Gilded Age has been largely elided in Twain scholarship as a failed production sitting between his early sketches and travel books and his turn to the subject of the river with “Old Times on the Mississippi” and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. As a literary event and a literary curiosity, the book received substantial attention, and its promotion, reception, and transformations illuminate important facets of literary production in the era that it encapsulated, satirized, and ultimately named.

For Twain and Warner, a first foray into novel writing was fraught with conflicting ideas about how to create a success for their production. Both men had come to writing as a career later in their lives after pursuing other occupations, and both had recently settled in the Nook Farm section of Hartford to undertake careers as authors. The personality of the writer was central in the texts of both authors. Both men wrote portions of the novel, revised the other’s work, and shared the results with their wives. Far from a genteel novel, the book’s main feature was the satirical critique of American institutions far beyond what either author had produced previously—a focus that largely erased the personality of both authors. Released in the midst of Mark Twain’s own period of financial expansion and business speculation, when his books, lectures, and other ventures allowed him to be one of the most financially successful authors of the era, the novel raised questions about the connection between art and commerce that were central to American letters but were often hidden by an ideology that separated the business of letters from belles lettres.

The novel produced a sensation both before and after its publication due to its conjunction of two well-known humorists. The Gilded Age was announced and prefaced by a considerable amount of press, making it “the event of the coming season” (“Home and Foreign Notes” 639). Published via subscription, The Gilded Age was a risk as a publishing venture. No novel had been published by a subscription firm, which tended to publish travel books, memoirs, and histories. Additionally, the book was in press when the Panic of 1873 hit with the failure of Jay Cooke and Company and the subsequent closing of the stock market for ten days, due largely to unregulated speculation on railroad expansion. The Panic represented the first national crisis of industrial and financial capitalism in the United States following the consolidation and incorporation of industry in Civil War–era America. The failure of railroad speculation, along with numerous corruption scandals in the Grant administration, truly made Twain and Warner’s novel, in the words of its subtitle, “A Tale of To-Day.” By 1876, the phrase “The Gilded Age” was in use as a name for the era of political corruption (“The Gilded Age: Stripping Grantism of Its Superficial Coating”).

As a satire, the timing...

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