You Can’t Judge a
Country by its Cover
As immigrants began to flood into America in the late 1800's and early 1900's, they had hopes of a miraculous new life in the Land of the Free. They may have thought that they would not have to live in cramped and unsanitary conditions as they had in their old homes. They may have had hopes of finding a great new career that would skyrocket them to fame and fortune and allow them to live like the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Morgans did. It could be possible that all their hopes were assured once they caught sight of the New York City skyline, expanding as far as the eye could see and stretching like arms spread welcoming home a loved one. The sun may have been shining bright and golden, bathing the not-so-distant city in a fantastic light. At a distance it was quite possibly one of the most exquisite sights that their eyes had ever come upon. However, the land that looked so beautiful and grand from the distance was actually filled with greed, corruption, and opportunists. That is how America can be described during the Gilded Age. The wrapping was pretty, but the present was awful.
Such wealthy entrepreneurs as the Rockefellers and Carnegies helped to make America the beauty that she was on the outside, but to an extent they also contributed to the rotten inside. America’s new European residents lived in cramped apartments and worked in unsafe factories. The factories housed the latest technology of the Gilded Age, the assembly line. The mass production that the assembly line brought about made the rich richer, but did nothing to help the poor. They were working long hours in sometimes extremely dangerous conditions. Injuries and even deaths would occur due to faulty machinery or exhausted employees, but these occurrences were often ignored or covered up to avoid any bad publicity. As the immigrants flooded the big cities seeking jobs, other Americans headed west with the expansion of the railroad. However, nobody seemed to take into consideration that they would be intruding on the American Indian’s territory. It also seemed that no one cared. America was greedy for land that lay to the west and would be quite deceitful in getting the land that they wanted. The American Indians were pushed further and further west, and their tribes began to dwindle. It seemed as if in this age that no one was winning but the wealthy white man.
Who was to expose the corruption and opportunism that flowed throughout the Gilded Age? The authors of this time took it upon themselves to show how America was mistreating its own. Authors and orators such as Seattle, George Washington Cable, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain focused on the themes of corruption and opportunism that were manifest in the Gilded Age. One such example of a work featuring the theme that corruption was spoken by the Indian chief, Seattle, and transcribed for preservation by those interested in Native American concerns.
"There was a time when our people covered the lands as waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since has passed away with the greatest of tribes that are now but a mournful memory" (228). So says Seattle in "Our People Are Ebbing Away Like a Rapidly Receding Tide." In this commentary spoken by the chief of the Suquamish and Dewamish, Seattle tells of how the American Indian tribes are shrinking into a near oblivion due to the corrupt white man. However, Seattle knew enough that to deprecate the white man would cause his work from being acknowledged and cause more disapproval towards himself and his people. Therefore, he describes the deceitful white man in a way that might be identified as tongue in cheek. An example of this approach occurs when he says, "The Great–and I presume–good White Chief sends us word that he wishes to buy our lands but is willing to allow us enough to live comfortably" (228). Seattle knows very well that the money that they will be paid will most likely be small and that the land which they will receive will be the worst that there is to offer. Seattle proceeds to thank the White Chief for paying them for the land because, being the Native American, they have no rights and this gesure is seen as being extremely generous. Not long after that Seattle says, "our great and good father, I say, sends us word that if we do as he desires he will protect us" (228). This statement is not a form of generosity, but instead, it is the manipulation of the Indians done by the more powerful white man. Seattle is covert when showing how corrupt the people of the Gilded Age could be. Seattle was not the only one to deal with an overtly honorable but covertly disreputable land swindler. George Washington Cable also dealt with the issue, but in a more intimate family atmosphere.
In "Belles Demoiselles Plantation" Cable shows that corruption can exist within a family and not just between two separate groups of people. The story deals with Colonel Chaleau and his relative Charlie. The two main characters come from a mixed family, the Colonel of French nobility and Charlie from the Choctaw Indians. The Colonel owns a grand plantation that sits atop a levy. It comes to the Colonel’s attention that the land is crumbling apart and falling into the river and soon his marvelous plantation could drop into the river along with the mud. The Colonel decides to try to buy Charlie’s land which lies within the city. He goes to Charlie and makes him an offer for his buildings that is much more than what they are worth. Charlie becomes suspicious of the Colonel’s dealings. The old Indian inquires why the Colonel would offer to pay such a large sum for his buildings and sell his own Belles Demoiselles for such a low price. It is then that the Colonel truly becomes deceitful and does something that goes very strongly against Creole tradition. He betrays his own kin. The Colonel tells Charlie that he wants to sell his plantation for no other reason than to live in the city. In the end the Colonel pays for his lies as he and Charlie witness his magnificent plantation, along with his beloved daughters, collapse in the river. It definitely seems as if Colonel De Charleu pays for committing the ultimate sin against his family; whereas, Editha, from William Dean Howells’s short story, never gets what she deserves.
William Dean Howells’ "Editha" is an example of the opportunist that existed during the Gilded Age. She is a character whose mind refuses to see the harsh realities of war, but instead sees the romantic side of war that she reads in her patriotic novels. She throws her romanticized views of war up in her fiancé’s face, convincing him that it would be best for him to join the army. She realizes that Gearson could be injured or possibly die in battle but seems not to care, for then attention would be focused on her and she could act as the heroines in her novels act. Howells shows Editha’s twisted4 fantasy as she thinks of Gearson losing his arm in battle when he writes, "She thrilled with the sense of the arm around her; what if that should be lost?" (368). Editha is manipulative when it comes to Gearson. She manipulates him using ideas that she may have read in her books. It is not heartfelt when she says, "‘I am yours, for time and eternity–time and eternity’" (368), for after she utters this phrase she thinks to herself that these words "satisfied her famine for phrases." Gearson does end up dying, and Editha acts in the way that she has read that she should. She becomes "sick" and wears black. Editha and her father go to see Gearson’s mother, but the mother sees right through Editha’s facade. Gearson’s mother confronts Editha asking "‘What you got that black on for?’" (371) because she sees Editha for the manipulative, self-serving, opportunist that she really is.
Howells was the exact opposite of what Editha would be. He was a realistic thinker and put others before himself. He detested romantic literature and felt that fiction should be realistic and focus on normal people who lived normal lives. He accomplished this with Editha while also showing the effects that the romantic literature could have on one’s mind. It could cause one to question if Editha would have had a different attitude toward war if she had not been influenced by the romantic war stories that she read. Howells rebelled against the corruption and opportunism of the time by working to help others. He assisted some authors that may have not gotten the notice that they deserved because they were not white males. Some of the authors that he helped were Sarah Orne Jewett, Emily Dickinson, Paul Dunbar, and Charles Chestnutt. Some of the writers’ careers that he helped get started did so well that they became more popular than Howells. Alas, his spirit of helping those less fortunate than him did not stop with his writing companions. Howells was an advocate for the NAACP, he stood in defense of the Haymarket Anarchists in 1886, and he thought socialism was the answer to the widening chasm between the wealthy and the poor. Mark Twain, Howells’s good friend, was also annoyed with the corruption and opportunists that permeated the Gilded Age.
Mark Twain’s "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg" tells of a small town that is known for its honesty and strong moral values, and just how easily those values can be corrupted. The reader is told at the beginning of the story that there was a stranger who visited Hadleyburg in the past and was treated shabbily by the inhabitants of the town. The stranger derives a plan into motion. He delivers a sack of money and an envelope to the poor Richards. He tells Mrs. Richards that he was in the town a year before and a stranger delivered some words to him that changed his life. Mrs. Richards is told to watch over the sack and to deliver the envelope to the newspaper editor. Once the envelope is delivered, the vengeful stranger’s plan is set into motion. An announcement is put in the newspaper that one should come forward and pronounce the words that were spoken to the stranger. This good Samaritan would then receive the large reward which he or she so greatly deserved. The result is that each of Hadleyburg’s most up-standing couples is shown to be the quite dishonest and corruptible. No one in the story comes out as a winner, especially the Richards who die with the guilt of their sin in their minds.
The ending is certainly tragic, but Twain shows the corruption of the Gilded Age as no other author could. Possibly influenced by his good friend William Dean Howells, Twain also abhorred the corruption and opportunism that was flowing through the Gilded Age. He was upheld as a loyal leader for American democracy and took the side of "the mighty mass of the uncultivated" (266) rather than "the thin top crust of humanity" (266). His sympathy towards the poor may have derived from growing up poor himself. However, even though he grows up poor, he looked back fondly on the days prior to the Gilded Age.
In the years that would follow the Gilded Age, great reforms would take place that would change the ways of life for women, immigrants, blacks, and Indians. America as a whole was in for a big change, and much of the credit was due to the authors of the Gilded Age. Without such writers as Seattle, Cable, Howells, and Twain the Roaring 20s that followed the Gilded Age may have been nothing but a purr.
Cable, George Washington. "Belles Demoiselles Plantation." McQuade,
et al. 2: 513-
Howells, William Dean. "Editha." McQuade, et al. 2: 362-371.
Seattle. "Our People Are Ebbing Away Like a Rapidly Receding Tide."
McQuade, Donald, et al., eds. The Harper American Literature.
2nd ed. 2 Vols. New
Twain, Mark. "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." McQuade, et al. 2: 311-342.
Adam Caheely, then a junior in Musical Education, wrote this essay for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 2131 class during Spring 2001semester.