“It is hard to tell which is the most startling, the idea of that highest achievement of human genius and intelligence, the telegraph, prating away about the practical concerns of the world’s daily life in the heart and home of ancient indolence, ignorance, and savagery, or the idea of that happiest expression of the brag, vanity, and mock-heroics of our ancestors, the ‘tournament,’ coming out of its grave to flaunt its tinsel trumpery and perform its ‘chivalrous’ absurdities in the high noon of the nineteenth century, and under the patronage of a great, broad-awake city and an advanced civilization.” (418)
The five years after the American Civil War were quite productive for Twain and played a key role in setting up his later fame. He continued in journalism moving from the West coast to New York. In 1867, Twain went on a tour of Europe and the Holy Land on the ship Quaker Village, the record of which became the bestselling The Innocent’s Abroad. In 1870, while based in Buffalo, he got married and began work on his next book, Roughing It.
In my last post, I questioned if “The Petrified Man” was a real report or not. I could not tell at the time. According to a followup by Twain in 1870, it was indeed a satire. “As a satire on the petrification mania, or anything else, my Petrified Man was a disheartening failure; for everybody received him in innocent good faith, and I was stunned to see the creature I had begotten to pull down the wonder-business with and bring derision upon it, calmly exalted to the grand chief place in the list of the genuine marvels our Nevada had produced.” (391) While I am reading this, there is a media spectacle in Taiwan about a baby killed by a family member who put salt in the baby formula. It has become a massive media event. While the tragedy is no doubt real, I wonder if it was not real if someone would need to create it. For the people who consume news as entertainment, how important is it if the news is real of not? It certainly would not provide less pleasure by being fake. In the 1870 piece, Twain seemed actually baffled that anyone would have taken his satire as truth, but perhaps he had too much faith in the desire or readers to consume spectacle. Of course, it is better if “the Truth” is reported, but since it rarely is anyway, perhaps falsehoods can do as good of a job. I think there would be some value added to a return to the more playful frontier journalism that Twain explored in his early writings. We already have the phenomenon where many young people get their news from confessed satire (“The Daily Show”).
It is hard to identify a singular theme in Twain’s writings from these five years, but one thing I noticed is that he is analyzing the expanding power of the state over individuals. There was some of this his early Western writings, but the state was less pronounced. If anything, we saw the absurdity of attempts to create strong state structures. In contrast, you had more of a rough-and-wild feel, as with the jumping frog story. With the move East, Twain spends more time engaged with the actual institutions of power. In a brilliant short dialogue, Twain has a “slum child” talking to a “moral mentor.” While the mentor attempts to convince the child that God is the center of all creation, the child sees the origins of all things in the “Chief Police,” suggesting that he was the most important figure in his life as a marginalized urban-dweller. After learning that God created the grass the child attempts to explain what he did with it. “Puts it in the Hall park and puts up a sign, ‘Keep off’n the grass–dogs ain’t allowed.” (255) Many works from this period explore the failings of the justice system, which he suggests is simply part of the spectacle of public life in a democracy. His hostility toward the institutions of industrializing America is reflected in “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy” about a boy who stoned a Chinese. He defends the boy while pointing out a deep contradiction in America, between the institutional systems of control and the extralegal racist society. “And for this he was arrested and put in the city jail. Everything conspired to teach him that it was a high and holy thing to stone a Chinaman, and yet he no sooner attempts to do his duty than he is punished for it.” (381) I am likely going too far beyond Twain’s intention to say this, but this could also apply to the odd logic that regulated the lives of the urban poor with prisons, asylums, and police while also proclaiming the need for an entrepreneurial spirit for all citizens. The poor were fettered, punished for being poor, and then told they were unsuccessful because of sloth. But this was the ideology of the Gilded Age, and our own.
For more on his attitude toward anti-Chinese sentiment you can look at his “Goldsmith’s Friend Abroad Again,” which also takes on the issue of the institutional oppression of the working poor in America.
Twain is observing what seems to him to be a world becoming progressively worse and more irrational. This comes out in “The New Crime,” in which he posits that murders no longer take place because insanity is becoming the root cause of criminal activity. “Formerly, if you killed a man, i twas possible that you were insane–but now if you kill a man, it is evidence that you are a lunatic.” (353) In the same way, kleptomania replaces theft. (We could add for our time that “sex addition” replaces good old-fashioned adultery.) While the piece is a satire calling for the criminalization of insanity, his serious undercurrent is that society itself seems to be losing its moral bearing and the legal structures of the age were incompetent to properly define the problem. He repeats this analysis in “Our Previous Lunatic.” In another piece he points out that “Let [the American Board of Foreign Missions[ forward no more missionaries to distant lands for the present. God knows they are needed here at home.” (432)