Gilded Age & Progressive Era
Individual liberty with mark twain
I WALKED INTO my classroom and observed the diver down flag that I had prominently displayed on my desk the day before. I could not help the smirk that crossed my face.
I was awake all last night, thinking about the famed and iconic figure of the Gilded Age we were to meet today.
History refers to him as America’s first celebrity, although the monetary fortune that usually accompanies such a title eluded him. Through his influence and writing, he was able to show the world what was really going on inside America during the time of the industrial boom. He was a voice for the people. In fact, his works are considered to be the first literary voice the common man ever had in America. He stressed that individual liberty was for all Americans, not just the political and business elite.
Pitter-patters of feet echoed down the hall, seeping through my cracked classroom door and I knew my Band of Patriots had arrived.
“Why can’t you just think like a normal person . . . just for one day?” Raven nagged Jax, following Moe and Amelia into the classroom.
“Because then I would be boring like you,” Jax snickered.
“I like your ideas and all,” Moe said over his shoulder. “They’re inventive. One day you’re bound to have an idea that actually works.”
“Plenty of my ideas work,” Jax countered. “This one didn’t, but I’ve got a good track record, you guys.”
I stood tall in front of them as they took their seats. Crossing my arms, I studied each one of them, landing last on Jax. “Do I even want to know?”
Jax shrugged. “Probably not . . . I’m only saying that to protect you, Mr. Franklin.” He beamed.
“Oh, God. Is anyone hurt?”
“Hmmm.” He thought momentarily. “No, no one’s hurt. I didn’t score any points with Principal K though.”
“Do I want to know what you did?”
“Nooo,” Amelia, Moe, and Raven said in unison.
“Jax was just being Jax,” Amelia answered as she rolled her eyes. It was cute because in her own way, she was defending Jax.
“Whatever,” Jax retorted. “What do you think, Mr. Franklin? Is it better to push the limits of accepted reality or just have a regular old brain?” I gazed over to his classmates, poking his thumb into his chest. “I push the limits.”
“You are so dramatic,” Amelia scoffed.
“Well,” I intervened, tapping my knuckles on the desk. “I don’t think that anyone has just a regular old brain. I think that everyone’s thought process is unique and everyone can come up with something creative. It just depends on what you want to do with your creativity; if and how you choose to channel your own personal creativity.”
They all looked up at me confused.
“Okay, if I may start now, I’d like to poise a question. Who coined the term The Gilded Age?”
Again, I was met with four blank faces.
“What do you mean?” Moe asked. Like who said it first?”
I nodded. “Or wrote it first.”
“A reporter?” Jax asked.
“Do you have a name for me?”
“Can I get a name for five-hundred, please . . . No? I have no idea.”
“Well, you’re not wrong,” I answered, “although that is not the main reason that history has remembered his name. He was also a riverboat pilot, an entrepreneur, and an inventor, but he is not known primarily for those things either.”
“Jack of All Trades for a thousand!” Jax exclaimed.
Raven giggled. “Enough with the Jeopardy, Jax. Geez. We’re never going to get the answer.”
“No, but that is an accurate assessment,” I replied. “The first Jack of All Trades was identified long before this person ever came into existence.” I paused for a long moment. “So does anyone else have a guess as to who I am talking about?”
“Albert Einstein?” Amelia asked while everyone else shook their heads.
“Have you heard of Mark Twain?” I said, outstretching my arms.
Familiarity spread across their faces and they were all smiles. “Oh yeah,” they said in unison.
I sat on my desk. “Mark Twain was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri.”
“Wait one second,” Jax hollered, raising his hand. “Was he born in Florida or Missouri?”
I clasped my hands over my knee. “Both actually. He was born in the town of Florida in the state of Missouri.”
Jax pointed at me. “You’re tricking us! Why would they name a town after a state that the town isn’t even in?”
“Maybe it was wishful thinking,” Moe suggested.
“What do you even mean?” Jax responded, gesturing to both Amelia and Raven who were both perplexed.
Moe shrugged. “Well, you know, maybe they lived in Missouri but wished they lived in Florida, so they named the town they lived in Florida so they didn’t have to travel anymore but they would still have made it to Florida.” He took a deep breath. “Confusing stuff.”
Jax thought about this for a long moment before replying, “Oh, I get it. That is smart. That sounds like something I would do.”
“You mean the definition of cutting corners?” Raven chimed in. “Yeah, you would do something like that.”
“You see, that’s what you fail to comprehend. Where you see a shortcoming, I see innovation and opportunity.”
Raven rolled her eyes.
“Is the town still there?” Amelia asked.
I nodded. “Yes, and it even has a lake dedicated to Mark Twain. According to the latest records, there are only about nine people who live there.”
“Nine? That’s it?” Raven asked.
“See,” Moe spoke up again, “that settles it! They probably did have wishful thinking . . . And way back when the town was founded, there was probably only one family, and they all took a vote to not go any farther. Instead, they opted to bring Florida to them.” He beamed.
Jax slammed his palm down onto his desk.“There’s no Disney World in that Florida.”
Amelia just couldn’t take it anymore. “Uh, not for nothing, but there wasn’t a Disney World in the state of Florida at that time either.”
“Sure, but no matter what time period it was, that ground was always destined to become the happiest place on earth, so your argument is kind of irrelevant.” Jax smirked at Amelia.
“Anyway,” I said, trying to loudly clear my throat, “Mark Twain was born with the name Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Who knows what Mark Twain is most famous for?”
Amelia raised her hand. “Mark Twain is most famous for writing the great American novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and later The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“Very good,” I answered. “But did you know *that he also wrote the popular The Prince and the Pauper as well as over forty published novels, essays, and lectures?”
“So…wait a second…” Jax said. “You said his name was really Samuel Langhorne Clemens?”
Jax spread his arms high over his head. “Then how did he get the name Mark Twain?”
“And what does his writing have to do with the Gilded Age?” Raven asked. “I know he was influential, but I don’t get the connection.”
I stopped and stared across the room before I answered, “You know what? I think those are all excellent questions for Mr. Twain himself.”
I took the timepiece out of my pocket, and before I was even able to set it to the right date, the kids had all gathered around me eagerly, ready to begin our journey.
I laughed slightly at their impatience and quickly set the timepiece. Within just a few moments, we were easily flowing through space and time, whirling and swirling in and out of the stitches of time, until we had finally reached our destination.
We landed precisely in front of the home of Mark Twain and my Band of Patriots didn’t waste any time getting acclimated, taking no notice of the girls’ proper dresses and the boys’ three-piece suits.
They were on a mission. They all gawked at the large, impressive home in *Redding, Connecticut, where Mark Twain would reside until his passing at the age of seventy-four on April 21, 1910.
I knew that I was excited, but I had underestimated the enthusiasm the kids would have for meeting Mark Twain. I followed them as they raced towards the famous writer’s house.
The only wild card that I feared as we all met up at Mark Twain’s front door was whether or not he would be in the mood and the attire to talk.
History states that throughout the years, Mark Twain became extremely interested in his image and would only like to be photographed in a particular white suit. Yet, history didn’t say whether he would take the same care in receiving unannounced guests.
Oh well. I guess we are just going to have to find out, I thought as Jax knocked on the door.
It took a long moment for the door to open, but when it did, the iconic image of Mark Twain was standing there. His hair, tousled and messy and sticking out on all sides, was the same color as the white three-piece suit that he always showed to the public in photographs.
“Kind of looks like Einstein,” Amelia whispered.
“Well, hello,” he said to us quickly, smiling widely. “Can I help you?”
“Hi! Are you Mark Twain?” Jax asked eagerly.
“Indeed, I am. And you?”
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” I said, reaching out my hand over the kids. “My name is Waldo Franklin, and this is my class–Jax, Raven, Moe, and Amelia.”
“We’re the Band of Patriots,” Moe told him.
He smiled warmly. “I like that.”
“Thanks!” Amelia replied. “And my name is with an A like America.”
He laughed hard, his body barely filling out his suit.
“We have been talking about you and your many publications,” I observed. “I just wanted to take a trip up here to see if you were at home. We were just wondering if we could talk to you.”
“Well, of course you can,” he answered boastfully, shaking my hand again earnestly. “Please come in and have a seat,” he said, motioning to the long table just around the bend of his foyer.
It was slightly strange why he was so keen to have company, but since he was welcoming us with opened arms, I figured we should just be grateful that he did not turn us away.
Personally, I wondered if his willingness to talk, especially outside, was something of a ploy to assure the public that he was doing well—even if he really wasn’t.
Mark Twain sat down with a wide smile across his features, and I wondered if we were really seeing the real him. Though, again, since he was willing to speak with us, I didn’t want to pry too much.
“So, what would you like to know about me?” Mark Twain asked, sitting down in his chair.
“How did you get your name?” Jax asked without missing a beat then added, “Your real name is Samuel Langhorne Clemens, right?”
He winked at Jax. “Yes, but I have made my own name for myself that suits me better, I believe.”
“That’s what I have always planned to do,” Jax answered, “but I kind of like my name.”
“Well, I certainly did not believe that it suited my writings nor my purpose for publishing my pieces. My birth name is so long; I needed to figure out something that was a little more representative of who I am and where I started.”
“So how did you come up with Mark Twain specifically?”
“Well, Mark Twain wasn’t the first signature I created. There were a few others, but I actually took the name from my time as a sailor. *Twain is a way of saying two, and when we would measure for the safe passage through an area with a low water level, sailors would yell ‘by the mark twain,’ which literally meant that according to the mark on the yard stick, there were two yards of water beneath us, which would ensure our safe passage.” He was quiet for a moment before answering, “It reminds me of my roots.”
After a moment of hesitation, Amelia asked, “Is it true that you came up with ‘The Gilded Age’?”
“Yes, Charles Dudley, who is also a writer, and I came up with ‘The Gilded Age’ to describe the world that we live in. We meant it as a bit of a joke—irony at its finest. It was first written in The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, which was published in 1873, where it was exposed that even though it seemed that the money was flowing somewhat endlessly and America looked bright and gleaming, it was really just a gold-plated, cheap metal that was rotting from the inside out.” He sighed. “Don’t get me wrong, I love this country. It has given me everything, and it has made me the man that I set out to be. However, if there are not some major changes, I fear that eventually, the façade will collapse and the inner rot will ooze out from where it has been plated with gold, exposing it to the world. If it were up to the individual liberty of the American people it would not be this way, but corrupt politicians and unregulated business have led us to where we are.”
“Sooo, you’re trying to create change?” Amelia questioned. “You’re trying to get people to see the robber barons for what they really are?”
Mark Twain shrugged slightly and answered in a calmer, more reserved manner, “I do what I can. What the industrial revolution has created is the wonder of the world, but so few are able to bask in its sunlight. When I began to write, I did so to give the common people a voice. I didn’t just want to write a novel that rich people could revel in. I wanted a novel where everyone could relate. I wanted it to be readable and enjoyable for all so that I could expose the underlying problems that people either cannot or will not acknowledge.” He smiled now and added softly, “I was taking a chance, but I felt that it was something that needed to be written . . . And people have responded well to it. The public seems to enjoy all of my works, and that brings me great joy. Remember, kids, this country was founded on the principles of liberty; not just liberty for a few but for all.”
“Your writing is an inspiration to us all,” I complimented him.
He reflected deep within himself and then gazed into my eyes. “Well, thank you very much. I appreciate that a lot. I try my best, and I hope that it is good enough.”
“I can assure you,” Raven answered, “your efforts will not be in vain.”
Now his smile faded a little as he responded, “I sure hope not.”
With this, everyone grew silent. I glanced down at the timepiece and saw that it was time for us to go.
“Well, Mr. Twain, thank you very much for seeing us. We have taken too much of your time already. We really must be going.”
“Of course! Of course! Anytime for the Band of Patriots,” Mark Twain exclaimed as he bounced back to his cheerful persona and rose to shake my hand. “I always enjoy having visitors. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
The kids all stood up too, and Mark Twain made sure to personally say goodbye to each of the kids before returning inside.
Within a moment of walking off of the front porch and back down the long driveway, I took the timepiece out of my pocket and set it so that it would take us back to our classroom.
When we returned, Amelia exclaimed, “It was great to meet someone who was willing to stand up for all Americans.”
“I agree,” Raven answered. “Mark Twain was able to stand up for the people, and in that day and age, that was important. In that day, money talked and politicians cracked the whip. He just had words to influence people and he succeeded! Plus, it was also something that was very far and few between. It seemed like no one was standing up for the common man.”
“Yeah, he was one cool dude,” Moe answered.
“Maybe I would become more famous if I changed my name,” Jax wondered aloud, seemingly not paying any mind to our conversation.
At this, the rest of us gawked at him.
“Jax, give it time,” Amelia assured him. “I am sure your personality will be plenty to allow you all the fame you could ever want, regardless of what name you go by.”
“Did you just compliment me?” Jax asked.
Looking insulted, she answered quickly, “No! It was just an observation.”
“I don’t know . . .” Moe replied, laughing roughly. “That sounded like a compliment to me.”
“Well, it wasn’t!” she exclaimed, narrowing her eyes at Moe.
Mark Twain was definitely right when he once said, “Children have but little charity for one another's defects.”