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WILL CUNNINGHAM University of Kansas “I Won’t Stay in this Dead Country”: The Gilded Age and the Problem of Geography IN MARK TWAIN AND CHARLES DUDLEY WARNER’S THE GILDED AGE (1873), the Hawkins family is catapulted on a reckless adventure from their small town in Tennessee to Hawkeye, a “pretty large town for interior Missouri” (52). Over the next decade, Judge Hawkins and his family “made and lost two or three moderate fortunes” (42) until the Judge passed away, forcing his children to make difficult decisions about the affairs of his tenuous estate. Two months after the death of his father, Washington Hawkins returns to Hawkeye to resume his duties in the office of General Boswell. Having declined previous invitations to dine with the Sellers family after the death of his father, Washington decides to “give the Colonel a pleasant surprise” (81) and drop in for a casual dinner. After arriving unexpectedly and exchanging the normal pleasantries, Washington is ushered into the kitchen where he “contemplated the banquet, and wondered if he were in his right mind. Was this the plain family dinner? And was it all present? It was soon apparent that this was indeed the dinner: it was all on the table: it consisted of abundance of clear, fresh water, and a basin of raw turnips—nothing more” (82). As is his custom, though, Colonel Sellers is untroubled by the scant victuals presented to his guest and immediately dives into a soaring monologue concerning the amazing properties of the “fruit,” as he calls it. Pausing for a moment, Sellers passes Washington the bowl of water, assuring him that “there’s plenty of it.—You’ll find it pretty good” (83). As Washington begins to choke down the raw turnips, Sellers insists that he examine them and see how “perfectly firm and juicy they are.” He proclaims that he imported the turnips from New Jersey, and that they are a strain which cannot be produced anywhere in the world except one orchard. Again insisting that Washington take more water with his turnips, Sellers “lets the cat out of the bag” that the real reason for the over-indulgence in turnips is because the “Asiatic plague that nearly de-populated London” is 536 Will Cunningham followingtheGulfStreamandwithinthreemonths“willbejustwaltzing through this land like a whirlwind!” (84). Notwithstanding the immediate and unfortunate impact on Washington’s intestinal system, Colonel Sellers’s meal of turnips and water foregrounds three revelatory aspects of The Gilded Age that signify on larger geographical paradigms of the nineteenth-century American political economy. First, by connecting the turnips to New Jersey—a place far removed from the backwoods of Missouri—and then to the “Asiatic plague” that apparently swept through London, Sellers demonstrates the growing interconnectedness of a global, capitalist economy. That Twain and Warner composed this text in 1873—a text that would come to name an era twenty-seven years before that era had evenexpired—demonstratesanunbelievableprescienceconcerningthe direction of both the American and global economies, especially when one considers that Twain and Warner accurately predicted America’s dependence on global capitalism rather than on an overt imperialist agenda. While industrialization had begun to accelerate the commercial flow of goods in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, it was not until after the Civil War that new technology began to disseminate information and goods over huge distances with unprecedented speed. Twain and Warner, only eight years into this age of expansion, saw the vital dependency on foreign connections required to construct the infrastructure to transport these goods: in fact, European investments were responsible for almost a third of the capital generated for the construction of the United States’s railways after 1865 (Ratner et al. 327). The second issue foregrounded by Sellers’s meal of turnips and water is the changing nature of place-attachment brought about by global capitalism. It cannot be said with absolute certainty, but readers should be fairly safe in assuming that the Colonel’s turnips did not, in fact, come from New Jersey. The “Early Malcolm” strain of turnips so lauded by Sellers probably came from the merchant store down the street, or, even more likely, from his own backyard. Yet...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 535-558
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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