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Not Quite Hope and Other Political Emotions in the Gilded Age$
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Nathan Wolff

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780198831693

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198831693.001.0001

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Cynical Reason in the Cranky Age

Cynical Reason in the Cranky Age

(p.126) 5 Cynical Reason in the Cranky Age
Not Quite Hope and Other Political Emotions in the Gilded Age

Nathan Wolff

Oxford University Press

Drawing on Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), this chapter tracks shifts in Mark Twain’s political imagination to help interrogate “cynicism” as a feeling and a hermeneutic. After the 1881 assassination of President Garfield by Charles Guiteau, some commentators looked back to Twain’s The Gilded Age (1873) for his satire of the insanity defense, which Twain saw as a cynical ruse. Yet when Twain returns to a character from The Gilded Age in The American Claimant (1892), the eccentric Colonel Sellers, he rejects the violence of legal reason and affirms a species of lunacy as an irrational-but-necessary optimism. Through a reading of these novels’ unstable tone, this chapter shows how cynicism is defined by the intensity of its own affective involvement in politics (expressed aversively as a smart form of bitterness) and a deep suspicion of others’ “positive” affects as signs of unthinking credulity.

Keywords:   cynicism, Mark Twain, James Garfield, Charles Guiteau, insanity, optimism, Peter Sloterdijk, civil service reform, insanity defense, lynch law

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