The notorious difficulty of assigning authorship to specific parts of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's The Gilded Age (1873) is a formal correlative of its allegory: all characters are deluded whenever they make the ordinary reading assumption that language must have natural origins and referents. “Gilded” names a condition of illusory authenticity. The danger of arbitrary signs is demonstrated diegetically when characters pursue mirages induced by writing and cultural artifacts; these end in madness or new illusions. The theme is reinforced by paratextual elements—title, preface, epigraphs, parabases, and the expensive, tipped-in diagram of Sellers's speculative dream. Twain had earlier evoked such a labile world, foreshadowing the Derridean “postal,” in travel writings and tall tales narrating the delusions of author- and reader-surrogates. Twain's later writings will describe the “gilded” world as one without any viable alternative to Tom Sawyer or as wholly unreal, as in The Mysterious Stranger.
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