Legendary Writer Gave A Name To The Era In Which He Lived
By SUSAN DUNNE
March 14, 2013
In 1873, Mark Twain and his friend, Charles Dudley Warner, were complaining about the sorry state of contemporary literature. So their wives challenged them: If books today are so bad, then write a better one.
So they did. Twain wrote the first 11 chapters, then Warner wrote 12 more, then the remaining 40 chapters were written by either Warner or Twain. What came out of this literary ping-pong match was "The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today," a satire of greed and corruption whose title became synonymous with the last quarter of the 19th century.
"When something is gilded, it's had a veneer put over something of lesser quality," said Patti Coogan Philippon, curator of the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. "There's a rotten underbelly covered by something shiny and pretty."
That era, specifically as it played out in Twain's beloved adopted city, is the subject of "The Gilded Age of Hartford," now on the walls at the Farmington Avenue historical site.
"The issues they lampooned we're dealing with today," Philippon said as she hung the exhibit, which opened Thursday, March 14. "Political scandal, vote buying. And in 1873 there was a financial crisis in the United States, which showed how different it was between the haves and the have-nots."
At the time of the publication of "The Gilded Age" — the only book Twain ever wrote with a collaborator — Hartford was one of the nation's wealthiest cities, home to thriving business, industry and more than a dozen publishing houses, one of which lured Twain to relocate from his home in Buffalo, N.Y. "It's interesting to think of Hartford that way," Philippon said. "Twain loved this city so much and wrote so much about it, for and against. He complained about widening of the sidewalks and snow shoveling and phone reception. He had something to say about everything."
One segment of the exhibit that speaks to that age is dedicated to Aetna president and former mayor, Connecticut governor and U.S. senator Morgan Bukleley. "He was a real political animal. Some of the things he was involved in were sketchy," she said.
The exhibit is dominated by two ceiling-high paintings on loan from New Britain Museum of American Art, "Hartford Government" and "Hartford Industry," painted by William Gedney Bunce and Louis Orr. The former shows the State Capitol and Trinity Chapel, while the latter shows busy factories on a riverfront.
The city at the time also is seen in two engravings by Charles Platt, one of the Bulkeley Bridge, and the other of children fishing off a pier in a run-down neighborhood that, as Philippon says, "has a Twainian look to it."
"It tells a lot about Hartford to see a neighborhood like this, working class," she said. "These are the people who went to work every day welding the trolley track, laying the line, digging pipes, working on the Colt factory floor."
A large map of the city, from 1877, shows a lot of the landmarks still in the city today, including the Capitol and the Colt factory. Two portraits, acquired by the Twain House from Hartford Steam Boiler, show two major industrialists of the era, Jeremiah Allen and Charles Noel Flagg. They hang near a print of Elisha Bliss, who published Twain's "An Innocent Abroad," and a prospectus for the book "The Gilded Age."
The section of the exhibit dedicated to small business has artifacts of Brown Thompson, huge topaz cufflinks that Twain bought from jeweler D.H. Buell, dishes made by silversmiths and a painting by a tenant at the Hartford Decorative Arts Society, Charles Ethan Porter.
"The Porter also points to the African American experience in Hartford, post Civil War," Philippon said. "There wasn't quite equality yet."
The showy center of the industry segment is a penny-farthing style bicycle made by Pope Bicycles, next to a black poofy women's bicycle-riding costume.
One running theme is that despite the change in times, and the change in Hartford's fortunes over the decades, that many elements of the city endure.
"The Retreat for the Insane is now the Institute of Living. The orphanage is now the Village for Children and Families. The Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb is now the American School for the Deaf," she said. "The Union for Home Works is now the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
"We still have Austin Organs, the Smith Worthington Saddlery. People have been deeply invested in the community for a long time."
"THE GILDED AGE OF HARTFORD" will be at Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Ave. in Hartford, until Monday, Sept. 2. Museum hours are Wednesday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 5:30 p.m. Admission to the house and museum is $16, $14 seniors, $10 for children ages 6 to 16, free for children 5 and younger. Details: www.marktwainhouse.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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