A while back I ordered the 29-volume Oxford Mark Twain collection. However, only 28½ of the volumes are actually by Twain. The oddball volume is the novel The Gilded Age, by Mark Twain and Some Guy. (Who, you ask? Charles Dudley Warner. Yeah, but who's that? Some guy. Thank you, drive through.)

A story from Twain's frog book that really set the tone for a lot of what followed was "The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn't Come to Grief." Like an Onion article, once you've heard the title you can guess the rest. Twain's half of The Gilded Age is beat-you-over-the-head satire of bad little politicians, con artists and murderers who don't come to grief: votes are bought and sold, and this is treated not as the central scandal of the novel but merely business as usual; the fast-talking "colonel" never really gets his comeuppance; and as for the murderer? The jurors, carefully selected for maximum stupidity, let her go free on account of she's reel purdy.

But half of the book is written by Some Guy, and he's a conventional, sentimental moralizer who lays on the melodrama with a trowel. Twain had never written a novel before, and many of his chapters read like they were recycled from humor columns or cannibalized from his travelogues. But if Some Guy was supposed to bring discipline to the project, it didn't work; yes, he acts as a countervailing force, but he does so by contradiction rather than by synthesis. Instead of taking Twain's interesting material and grounding it, he adds a dull love story like a million others and, rather than adding nuance to Twain's broad satire, undercuts it. Remember that murderer? Twain concludes that segment by having her not get away but rather find herself remanded for life to an institution for the criminally insane: "Better almost to have died, than to slowly go mad in this confinement. —We beg the reader's pardon. This is not history, which has just been written. It is really what would have occurred in a novel. If this were a work of fiction, we should not dare to dispose of Laura otherwise. True are and any attention to dramatic properties required it. The novelist who would turn loose upon society an insane murderess would not escape condemnation. [...] What actually occurred when the tumult in the court room had subsided the sagacious reader will now learn. Laura left the court room, accompanied by her mother and other friends, amid the congratulations of those assembled, and was cheered as she entered a carriage, and drove away."

HA-ha! Twain writes. She did get away with it! She's a Bad Little Girl Who Didn't Come to Grief! Forget your moralizing novels! That's how life works!

Some Guy's response to this is to have Laura go home, think back on what she's done, and die of a broken heart.

Let's enjoy that again.

Pages after the narrator crows about how this isn't one of those books where injustice is always punished one way or another, another narrator has the murderer die of a broken heart.

Can you imagine what the rest of Twain's career might have looked like had he continued to collaborate with Some Guy? Huck Finn in Chapter 2 says, "So then I looked back on what I'd written and thought, 'My, that sounds rather uneducated!' and got myself some proper schooling!" The Gilded Age would hardly have been a great book had Twain written it himself, but at least it wouldn't be divided against itself.

Return to the Calendar page!