Two Giants of the Gilded Age

Article excerpt


Philip McFarland's book Mark Twain and the Colonel is a hybrid biography of two of the most colorful figures of their era and a fascinating look at America at the beginning of the 20th century.

Both Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) and Teddy (Theodore Roosevelt, 1859-1919) shared common characteristics. They wrote books, loved the limelight and were masters of self-promotion - well adept at firing off quotable phrases. Both possessed a curious boyish quality. Yet their temperaments and outlook on life were quite different, with Twain becoming highly critical of President Roosevelt. Roosevelt represented the new, vibrant century, advocating in his essays a strenuous life for an America emerging as a global power, while Twain in his notebooks reflected, The twentieth century is a stranger to me.

The United States changed rapidly upon arrival of the new century - from a rural country into an urban nation. Enormous fortunes were made by names still synonymous with money - Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan. Twain gave the era the definitive title, the Gilded Age. Burgeoning wealth was matched by increasing immigration: Between 1860 and 1900, the population soared from 36 million to 76 million. Many immigrants sought work in industry as trade unions rose to battle corporations. A capitalist economy organized on a purely secular basis replaced an older America more in touch with the social and spiritual needs of men and women.

Henry James, disgusted with America's emphasis on having instead of being, left for England. Twain stayed home, reveling in its money-making potential. Says Mr. McFarland: [S]atirist of the Gilded Age, he was an avid speculator who relished his friendships with the captains of American industry and grumbled when President Roosevelt hectored them.

A printer-newspaperman turned successful author, Twain purchased Webster and Co., a publishing firm that in 1885 published two enormous best-sellers - his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the now sadly neglected classic Grant's Memoirs - earning Gen. Ulysses Grant, dying of throat cancer, more than $400,000 for his family. However, the firm went bankrupt in 1894. Twain landed further into insolvency, investing in a newfangled typesetter machine. To extinguish his debt, Twain left America in 1885 with his family on a five-year worldwide lecture tour.

Twain reminds one of Benjamin Franklin, another printer-turned-writer also known by a pseudonym (Poor Richard). Intrigued by new inventions, both men were materialists who enjoyed being wittily irreverent. …