Friday, April 08, 2011

What Would Mark Twain Say?

This April 21 is the 101st anniversary of the death of Samuel Clemens, the man we know better as Mark Twain. Last year his unexpurgated autobiography, not available in his lifetime, was published by the University of California Press - to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Twain's death. In these pages, Twain was at liberty to skewer sacred cows of his era. He still had his sense of humor but it was much sharper in attacks on:
  • Religion (see for a portion of this),
  • Congress (There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." Following the Equator),
  • Fat cat industrialists who were skewered irreverently even in his first novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today coauthored with Charles Dudley Warner
  • Hypocrisy “This nation is like all the others that have been spewed upon the earth--ready to shout for any cause that will tickle its vanity or fill its pocket.”
  • Nationalism (see The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Updated at,_Updated), and
  • Imperialists like Teddy Roosevelt (Twain never liked his jingoistic style).
These jabs still speak to issues of our times and indeed several people have wrapped this idea up in a famous question "What would Mark Twain say?"
You can see one take on this idea in a small video at:

There you can see quotes that are applicable to such things as Wall St bonuses - “It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not to deserve them.”

He hated the idea of an incompetent celebrity. I was reminded of his feelings while seeing Donald Trump being interviewed recently. He might respond this way - “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.”

Perhaps our citizenry has not learned from past electoral errors. Mark Twain famously pointed out the need to take the appropriate learning from our mistakes this way:
“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it - and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit on a hot stove lid again - and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”
Clearly he would have hated Karl Rove's “Truthiness" campaigns, and the manufactured facts & manipulative talking points delivered slavishly on Fox News. Twain would have hated the damage this does to the language and the corruption of thinking. As shown in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he worried about a person being "trained" or conditioned by the people around him to (in Huck’s case) accept slavery and other injustices. Indeed he worried extensively about the path of our democracy and addressed it in his usual ironic fashion –
"Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain't so." Mark Twain's Notebook
I was reminded of this in another quote on unpreparedness during the Wall St. meltdown –
"The calamity that comes is never the one we had prepared ourselves for."
It makes me wish that Twain could have extended his thinking in light of “The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein.
Twain’s writing is full of irony and I see a sour smelling irony in this.The wealthy gaggle of Wall St. financial experts do seem to have taken a special message from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It is just the wrong lesson. They haven't taken a humanist message about village life by a great river, where summer childhood seems to stand still like a nostalgic fantasy. Instead the lesson they seize is about whitewashing, not just fences but messages. They have out Tommed Tom in how to get others to do your bidding.

As he aged Twain spoke not just about the general failings of society. He had special things to say about religious people, religious beliefs, and the connection to political beliefs. Here are a few of his observations:

"In religion and politics, people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination." -- Mark Twain (that training idea again)

“One of the proofs of the immortality of the soul is that myriads have believed in it. They have also believed the world was flat.” -- Mark Twain, Notebook (1900)

In some circles there is much discussion about the danger of Sharia law coming to America. But Twain might have asked why this question on religion imposed on a society is mainly directed at American Muslims. It's a good question to ask of religious fundamentalists of all stripes. Twain captured this in his usual ironic style - “Irreverence is another person's disrespect to your god; there isn't any word that tells what your disrespect to his god is.” -- Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger
The lack of a humorous sense and deeper understanding in religious folks and the role of religion in human life he framed in several ways:

“I cannot see how a man of any large degree of humorous perception can ever be religious -- unless he purposely shut the eyes of his mind & keep them shut by force.” -- Mark Twain, Frederick Anderson, ed, Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals (1979), notebook 27, August 1887-July 1888, quoted from James A Haught, "Breaking the Last Taboo" (1996)

"Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion - several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven." Mark Twain

"Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand." -- Mark Twain

I’m sure that Twain would be protesting our "3" wars. In Twain’s mid-life the US took steps toward imperialism when it declared war on Spain in 1898. Twain’s early anti-colonial enthusiasm at liberating Cuba later turned sour with a savage, elitist, colonial occupation of the Philippines. Twain disguised the ideas of elitism and colonization in several books. In The Prince and the Pauper he challenges the elitism of royalty by using a liberal, American narrative that shows the reality of human equality. Colonization is a strong sub-theme voice in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. There Hank Morgan, “a Yankee of the Yankees,” travels through time (and across the ocean) as an advocate of the American republican, but also for the Protestant ethic mixed with a capitalist ideology. The colony is to be Camelot, the fabled center of aristocratic tradition. Hank’s advanced technological understanding can conquer and occupy a 6th-century England which is essentially a Third World country, and so a target land of opportunity for Hank who can “introduce” the benefits of civilization. To do this he must slaughter legions of knights using a Gatling gun leaving a land so toxic that people die from it and Hank's satanic factory society fails.

By 1900, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, Twain publicly declared, “I am an anti-imperialist.”  Understanding this perspective it is not surprising to see Twain’s less disguised critical rants on the colonization & exploitation of indigenous people. Occupying acts of violence were labeled as “the blessings of Progress,” a hypocrisy that lead Twain to write essays like “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (1901) & “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” (1905). A sense of their message is contained in "The Mysterious Stranger” which was published posthumously. It included this diatribe on war: "Look at you in war -- what mutton you are, and how ridiculous ...  There has never been a just one, never an honorable one -- on the part of the instigator of the war. I can see a million years ahead, and this rule will never change in so many as half a dozen instances. The loud little handful -- as usual -- will shout for the war. The pulpit will -- warily and cautiously -- object -- at first; the great, big, dull bulk of the nation will rub its sleepy eyes and try to make out why there should be a war, and will say, earnestly and indignantly, "It is unjust and dishonorable, and there is no necessity for it."

For a video reading of Twain's War Prayer poem, written so people might feel and think about about how war is justified and its effects see
The photo below is from

which discusses a video by Markos Kounalakis, who was affected by Twain's words when he covered the war in Yugoslavia in the early 90s. Markos made "The War Prayer" into a short animated video for release on the Memorial Day 2007 weekend.


lucette said...

I have not read Mark Twain's autobiography, but I have read a review. Apparently Mark Twain is a total racist. Anybody knows about it?

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Calling Twain a racist based on his Autobiography would be big news to me. He does take on Christianity and TR/imperialism in a big way in that work. You can see an 8 minute PBS snippet on the book but even better is a FRESH AIR interview you can read and listen to at:

He is sometmes called a racist, not because of what is in his Autobiography, but because of his use of the N-word in Huck Finn. But people miss his irony in this work.
Huck is a poor white boy growing up in the antebellum, slave-holding South. He is an outcast looking at Southern life. Twain has him voicing the cultural belief on which slavery depended. The scholar Railton put that belief this way:

"That African-Americans are somehow less than human, which is what that 'n' word means to him. He uses that word very thoughtlessly to refer to black people, but Twain is using that word very carefully to reveal how before you can enslave somebody, you have to deny their humanity, and so that particular word has an enormous amount of work to do to keep blacks from being seen as human."
The Fresh Air interview says it this way:
"the book is designed to heap ridicule on racism. It's designed to make fun of people like Pap Finn. It's designed to show that even Huck, who is a - who's a small little racist, a little redneck, even Huck is unable fully to grasp what's going on and also not to shed it. That is to say, even though he's friends with Jim and manages to act out a friendship for him."

Huck's story shows that Jim is far better human being than the people who enslave him.
As I noted, in other works Twain is a moralist on the side of the oppressed, although his characters may be part of that oppression.

Don Wharton said...

Gary is right. people can be a bit disconcerted by the N word because it is typically only used by black comedians and real rascists in the modern age. The portrait of Huck Finn growing in his respect for Jim seems to be a strongly anti-rascist and anti-slavery story.