Mark Twain: America’s historical conscience?
A century after Twain's death, Peter Messent describes how the author used his books to attack his compatriots' attitudes towards race and imperialism
This article was first published in the April 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
In January 1900, Mark Twain welcomed the new century by declaring: “My idea of our civilisation is that it is a shabby poor thing and full of cruelties, vanities, arrogancies, meannesses and hypocrisies. As for the word itself, I hate the sound of it, for it conveys a lie; and as for the thing itself, I wish it was in hell where it belongs.”
Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was one of America’s most celebrated authors and public figures in the post-Civil War and turn-of-the-century period. He was the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) – the book Ernest Hemingway said “all modern American literature comes from” – and he was a national and international celebrity, known for his striking appearance and brilliant comic wit. A hundred years after his death (on 21 April 1910), his literary and cultural importance remains enormous.
By 1900 (then 65 years old), Twain did not think much of his America – or the ‘civilised’ world. He had adopted an often blackly humorous and relativist view of human history, and a scathing attitude towards mankind, “a noisome bacillus whom Our Heavenly Father created because he was disappointed in the monkey”. In 1904, he called it “that noble race… made out of the excrement of angels”.
Such opinions, voiced in Twain’s late writings, are signs of a deeply ironic misanthropy, yet he never abandoned the moralist and reformist impulse which also informed his writing. In this, he served as his country’s liberal conscience, though in a variable and sometimes indirect way. His positioning on two of the most crucial moral issues of his time – the aftermath of slavery and imperialism – serves as illustration. Twain was raised in the frontier slave-holding Midwest. His father traded in individual slaves and, as justice of the peace for Hannibal, Missouri, enforced the local slave ordinance through public whippings. Early in the Civil War (1861–65), Twain briefly joined the Marion Rangers, a local volunteer group with Confederate sympathies, before going west and avoiding further part in the conflict. Any pro-slavery sympathies, however, evaporated following his 1870 marriage into the racially liberal Langdon family of Elmira, New York.
Such liberal values informed his writing. The degree of political and social liberation attained by African Americans immediately following the war was cancelled out as the white south, supported by the nation as a whole, gradually re-established a network of racial oppression that would remain more or less intact until the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Thus the ending of Huckleberry Finn can be read as a critique of racial politics in the period.
“The slave”, in the words of WEB DuBois, “went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” Jim’s role in the final ‘evasion’ sequence of Twain’s novel mirrors this larger historical reality. Re-enslaved following his river escape with Huck, he suffers indignities and painful torments in his prison-house as Tom Sawyer (fully aware that Jim has already been liberated by his former owner) works an elaborate and lengthy plot to set this already free slave free again, to gain his own playful benefits in the process. Shelley Fisher Fishkin reads the episode as, “a satire on the way the United States botched the enterprise of freeing its slaves”.
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The oblique nature of this message is, though, typical of Twain’s fiction: for his popularity and financial success depended on comedy, not social criticism. But the liberalism of Twain’s racial attitudes is clear elsewhere. Friends with educator Booker T Washington, he co-chaired the 1906 Tuskegee Silver Jubilee fund-raiser at Carnegie Hall. He also personally helped fund one of Yale Law School’s first African American students, and explained his actions thus: “We have ground the manhood out of them [African Americans], & the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it”.
And in his late travel book, Following the Equator (1897), he crossed boundaries of time and space to connect the sight of a “burly German” giving a “brisk cuff on the jaw” to a native servant in Bombay to his own Hannibal childhood and the unjustified racial violence there.
Twain’s overt criticism of American social and political norms was more evident in his anti-imperialist activities. He described Theodore Roosevelt, directly associated with the American imperialist upsurge at the turn of the century, as a grown-up Tom Sawyer, “all pow-wow, all bluster, all gas”. His novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), is a prescient early parable of imperial power yoked to a modernising impulse and the havoc it thereby causes.
A vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League from 1901 until his death, Twain showed his political astuteness in agreeing to introduce Winston Churchill’s New York lecture on the Boer War in December 1900, but using the occasion to critique British and American foreign policy. With both nations “kin in… blood… religion… ideals” and “now… kin in [imperialist] sin,” Twain ironically declared, “the harmony is complete, the blend is perfect”.
His non-fiction writing opposed imperialist activity in the Belgian Congo, the Philippines and China, and made him one of the strongest such voices of his time – and a model for the response of later American humorist, Kurt Vonnegut, to George Bush’s policy towards Iraq.
Yet Twain didn’t take a public political stance in all circumstances. This is unsurprising given his identity as a humorist and writer, on the margins of that society on which he cast an observant critical eye, but knowing his influence and social success depended on his popularity and the acceptability of his message. His close friend, William Dean Howells, wrote to Henry James of his own abhorrence for (American) ‘civilisation’ but ended by saying: “Meantime, I wear a fur-lined overcoat, and live in all the luxury my money can buy”.
Twain was in a similarly ambivalent position. Nonetheless, he did critique his country’s values, and act – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly – as its historical conscience. His approach to issues of race and nationhood was far more cosmopolitan, relativistic and liberal than the vast majority of his contemporaries.
Peter Messent is the head of the School of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham and author of Mark Twain and Male Friendship: The Twichell, Howells, and Rogers Friendships (OUP, 2009).
Mark Twain’s adventures
1835 Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) is born on 30 November in Florida, Missouri
1857 After working as a printer, Clemens retrains as a Mississippi riverboat pilot
1861 On the outbreak of the Civil War he heads west. He works as a silver miner and then becomes a journalist in Virginia City, Nevada
1863 Clemens adopts the pen name Mark Twain, in which identity, as a lecturer, writer and celebrity, he will become famous worldwide
1869 Twain publishes his first travel book 'The Innocents Abroad' based on his trips to Europe and the Holy Land. It is a huge success
1870 Twain marries Olivia Langdon and moves to Hartford, Connecticut. Here he writes a series of successful books including 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' (1876), 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' (1885) and 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court' (1889)
1885 A publishing business, Webster & Co, is founded by Twain
1894 Twain’s business is forced into bankruptcy and he is compelled to undertake a global lecture tour the following year to clear his debts
1896 Twain’s daughter Susy dies. He loses his wife in 1904 and another daughter, Jean, in 1909 as his final years are plagued by tragedy
1910 Mark Twain dies on 21 April at ‘Stormfield,’ his last home, in Redding, Connecticut