This book gives a fascinating insight into the development US politics. And while much has obviously changed since it was published in 1873, echoes of its themes can be found in the recent cases of Ted Stevens and Rod Blagojevich.
Its depiction of negative attitudes towards `lobbyists', while the whole town of Washington DC is engaged in this activity in one way or another, could also stand today.
But where it's really on the money is in the descriptions of the world of speculation. These could have been written about the banking crisis that is still hitting many people right now:
"She was nothing but a woman, and did not know how much of the business prosperity of the world is only a bubble of credit and speculation, one scheme helping to float another which is no better than it, and the whole liable to come to naught and confusion as soon as the busy brain that caused them ceases its power to devise, or when some accident produces a sudden panic."
NB The reference to a lack of female understanding is ironic. The women in this novel are generally more sensible and powerful than their male counterparts who are the ones cooking up grand speculative schemes.
It is not often that one gets to define an age, but that is precisely what Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner did with "The Gilded Age". As Ward Just points out in his introduction, "The Gilded Age" is "the first (novel about Washington) of consequence in American writing." The full title of the book is "The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today", and it was published in 1873. Charles Warner was a good friend of Mark Twain and this is the only novel which Twain collaborated with another writer, and it was also the first novel which he wrote which was not based on his own life and travels.
The novel is focused on a poor Tennessee family, whose patriarch tries to improve the status of his family by making money on land he has acquired. Never satisfied with the amount offered, he dies failing to sell the land, and the story continues with focus on his adopted daughter Laura. In addition there is a parallel story about two men seeking their fortunes through speculation. The first of these stories is largely by Twain, while the second one is by Warner. While those characters are the focus, much of the action takes place in Washington D. C., and the satire of the government and those involved is timeless.
"The Gilded Age" is certainly worth reading, as is everything Twain ever wrote. I don't personally consider it among his best, but as the novel which defined an age and the only book which he co-authored, it has a unique place in history, both of Twain's writing and of the country. Twain's gift for satire had not yet reached its peak in this novel, but it is still very good, and one can only imagine what changes there would have been if Twain had authored this book by itself. The Oxford Mark Twain edition includes an introduction by Ward Just and an Afterword by Gregg Camfield, and both have insights to offer into the book and the environment which faced the authors while writing it.