Saturday, February 11, 2012

Walter Scott in The Gilded Age

Teaching Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's The Gilded Age (1873) this week for the first time in a few years, I was interested to find early evidence of Twain's apparently profound and persistent dislike of Walter Scott (the kind of thing that would find much fuller and franker expression in, say, Life on the Mississippi (1883)).

The first moment comes in a discussion of the antebellum reading habits, and subsequent child-naming proclivities, of families in the early West:
In those old days the average man called his children after his most revered literary and historical idols; consequently there was hardly a family, at least in the West, but had a Washington in it and also a Lafayette, a Franklin, and six or eight sounding names from Byron, Scott, and the Bible, if the offspring held out. To visit such a family, was to find one's self confronted by a congress made up of representatives of the imperial myths and the majestic dead of all the ages. There was something thrilling about it, to a stranger, not to say awe inspiring.
One of Colonel Sellers' sons is named Roderick Dhu, no less. The second moment - similar in its expression, but perhaps more pointed in its criticisms - comes in a description of Laura Hawkins' (deleterious) reading habits:
There was another world opened to her a world of books. But it was not the best world of that sort, for the small libraries she had access to in Hawkeye were decidedly miscellaneous, and largely made up of romances and fictions which fed her imagination with the most exaggerated notions of life, and showed her men and women in a very false sort of heroism [...] There were also other books histories, biographies of distinguished people, travels in far lands, poems, especially those of Byron, Scott and Shelley and Moore, which she eagerly absorbed, and appropriated therefrom what was to her liking.
The seeds of her destruction are sown. What re-reading The Gilded Age also confirmed to me was that I don't know enough about Charles Dudley Warner - more of which soon.