Pine Nuts: The Gilded Ages of 1873 and 2021

One night over dinner, away back in 1873, the wives of Mark Twain and neighbor Charles Warner challenged the two distinguished authors to collaborate on a book about a sensational murder, and paint that murder with political satire. hat challenge was met, and we have The Gilded Age to enjoy today.

The murder was based on an actual murder of great sensation in 1870, when Laura Fair boarded a ferry boat in San Francisco Bay and shot her married lover at point blank range. But much more than that, this novel would launch political satire into the rare atmosphere that commands our attentions today.

In working up the romance that leads up to the murder, these two capable authors, to my mind, are trying to sound like Jane Austen and failing. But the book becomes relevant when American political satire is born in the showy Gilded Age of 1873, soon to blossom into the Platinum Age of 2021.

It might be safe to say that in 1873 a politician could be bought, but one would be hard pressed to find a politician in 2021 with morals and ethics high enough that he will stay bought.

The book’s characters are colorful. “Col. Sellers was one of the best fellows who ever looked through the bottom of a glass. It was beautiful to hear him talk when his heart was full of thankfulness for the manifestation of the divine favor of extracting oil from turnips.”

Clemens would later point to Jay Gould as the mightiest disaster that has ever befallen this country. People desired money before his day, but he taught us to fall down and worship it. The dollar was Gould’s god, how to get it his religion. At one point in his own life, even Sam Clemens would have to confess, “I realized money was the source of all evil, and I wanted as much of it as I could get.”

Hiding amongst nuggets of searing satire in The Gilded Age, one can find a few solid nuggets of truth. “No country can be well governed unless its citizens as a body keep religiously before their minds that they are the guardians of the law, and that the law officers are only the machinery for its execution, nothing more.”

I had the honor of dining with my favorite Twain biographer, the late Justin Kaplan, one evening, and he told me, “Clemens was notoriously reticent about dealing with mature sexual and emotional relationships, but he did write a kind of pornography of the dollar in The Gilded Age.”
 Sam and Charles should never have accepted the challenge their wives offered to collaborate on a novel, for in the writing of novels, two heads are never better than one. But allow me to leave you with my favorite quote from The Gilded Age, “Uncle Silas peeled off one of the bulliest old-time blessings, with as many layers to it as an onion, whilst the angels was haulin’ in the slack of it.”

Learn more about McAvoy Layne at

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User