Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1852–1865)

So it begins. According to a roughly sketched out plan, I will be spending the next seven weeks providing some modest commentary on the works of Mark Twain. The Library of America collects Twains major (and some minor) writings in seven volumes. There is also a small volume of writings about Mark Twain, which I will look at with the conclusion of this series. Basically everything important in in those seven volumes, except the autobiography. (I do not know if that is slated for publication by the Library of America or not.) I will examine these works as chronologically as possible.

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Mark Twain is one of our guides to industrializing America and the profound social changes that came along with the Civil War, Reconstruction, Westward expansion, the hegemony of capitalism, and the rise of the American Empire across the continent and the Pacific.

Reading the timeline of Mark Twain’s life, I was struck by how central death was to his the first years of his life. First, as a boy he faced his own death as he was often sickly. He first witnessed death in 1844 (he was nine years old) when he found a dead man in his father’s office stabbed to death. The next year, he witnessed a shooting on the streets of Hannibal, Missouri, where he grew up. His father died in 1847 and young Samuel Clemens observed the autopsy. Later that year he witnessed one drowning and found the body of another drown slave. In 1850, he saw a woman shoot the leader of a gang trying to break into her home. A cholera epidemic in Hannibal killed 24 people in 1851. In 1852, he gave matches to a town drunk who later burned down the jail with matches, dying in the process. In 1858 he was overwhelmed by grief when an accident on a steamboat he was working on exploded, killing a friend of his, right after he quit. And even when not personally witnessing death, he saw the ramifications of the Mexican War as a child and later served as an irregular for the Confederacy during the Civil War (only for a short time before moving to Nevada). Although that Confederate service seemed to consist mostly of him and some other young men from Hannibal camping out and gallivanting around. Over the course of these weeks, I hope to understand what, if any, impact these events had on his writing.

As a teenager he got his start in the newspaper business, working for and writing for various newspaper in Missouri. Nevada proved to be a breakout year for Clemens. He wrote on local politics and published heavily in the Territorial Enterprise. In 1864 and 1865 he started writing for California newspapers as well, eventually publishing his famous “jumping frog” story, after moving to San Francisco. This will lead to another turning point in Mark Twain’s life, as he moves back East and publishes his first collection of stories (1867).

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One theme that seems to run through these early sketches and tales is people putting on false airs, not being who they are. Or even if they are serious, they fail to be up to the task at hand. Like the jumping frog of Calaveras County, many of Twain’s characters seem to have a belly full of quail shot. In the very first story collected here “The Dandy Frightening the Squatter,” the “dandy” approaches the squatter with bravado. And: “The squatter calmly surveyed him a moment, and then, drawing back a step, he planted his huge fist directly between the eyes of his astonished antagonist, who, in a moment, was floundering in the turbid waters of the Mississippi.” (1) Sometimes this is reaches metanarrative levels, as in the story “A Touching Story of George Washington’s Boyhood.” The narrator had forgotten the story he intended to tell and wrote instead on amateur musicians and their impact on neighbors.

Perhaps this comes from his journalistic roots, but Twain’s early writings also seem to express the absolute absurdity of mid-nineteenth century American democracy. Observing much on the subject from the Nevada during the writing of its state constitution, while also seeing a mad rush of people to make money from the mines of the territory certainly made him skeptical of the American tendency to try to get something from nothing. This came together when the constitution failed due to a tax on mines, which would only really affect the large miners, but everyone with a claim, dreaming to get rich, opposed the tax. Twain seemed to have gotten great pleasure over the strangely hobbled together state seal. “It had snow-capped mountains in it; and tunnels, and shafts, and pickaxes, and quartz-mills, and pack-trains, and mule-teams. These things were good; what they were of them. And it had railroads in it, and telegraphs, and stars, and suspension-bridges, and other romantic fictions foreign to sand and sage-brush.” (67) Where things actually matter, politics was more like the jumping frog competition or endlessly playing an accordion within earshot of neighbors. Someone will end up the victim.

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Much of this early writing blurs the line between fiction and news. There is one story (“Petrified Man”) which I really cannot determine if it is satirical or not. We know that “A Bloody Massacre Near Carson” was so convincing that other newspaper ran it as a true story about a man’s murder of his family. In fact, it seems to have been Twain’s attempt to construct a polemic against the power out of state banks had over local investors in the Nevada mining bubble and the tendency of the media to promote these strategies. “The newspapers of San Francisco permitted this water company to go on borrowing money and cooking dividends, under cover of which cunning financiers crept out of the tottering concern, leaving the crash to come upon poor and unsuspecting stockholders, without offering to expose the villainy at work. We hope the fearful massacre detailed above may prove the sadder result of their silence.” (58)

This is not to say that Twain was polemicizing everything or that under every piece of satire from his pen was an edgy message. The reason most of these stories exist is for our pleasure. And while in that case, I can do nothing but urge you to read them yourself. (The unfolding of “Whereas” had me laughing out loud again and again.) Yet, it is hard to read these sketches without realizing that Twain was seeing himself in a world getting progressively more silly, brutal, and indifferent.

 

Herman Melville, “Billy Budd” (published 1924): Farewell Melville

The text of Billy Budd was found among Herman Melville’s personal papers after he died. It was not complete and would not published until 1924 and then only after editing. Thus we have both a “reading text,” which was prepared by editors by filling in various gaps, and a “literal text,” which was what Melville left us. The Library of America gives us only the “reading text.” It seems to me that this text, like so much of Melville’s work, is ultimately about power and the relationship between the individual and the organizations that they find themselves in. It is there in all the major works, beginning with Typee, when the narrator fled a whaling ship due to poor conditions. With Moby-Dick this theme reaches its climax with the authoritarian Ahab and the diverse Pequod. As Melville aged and began working on this work, returning to prose after years of only publishing poetry, he returned to this theme. He was no less cynical about the nature of power and its desire and ability to crush the individual.

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This is maybe Melville’s leanest work in terms of not have anything that can be seen as excessive to the point. There are none of the long sidelooks at the nuances of sailing that plagued so many readers of his earlier works. It is also as if Melville was in a race against time to tell this tale and could only write down the most relevant material. The story begins with the impressment of Billy Budd into the British navy not long after the Great Mutiny forced the British to use this particularly vile form of conscription, during their wars with France after the French Revolution. After a while Billy Budd is approached by other impressed seamen for recruitment into a conspiracy of mutiny but he refuses. Eventually, the master at arms, Claggert, accuses Billy Budd of conspiring to mutiny. His stutter makes it difficult for him to defend himself so he strikes his accuser, accidently killing him. The captain, Vere, is conflicted. He knows that Billy Budd was innocent of the accusation, but he cannot allow a murder to go unpunished in the post-mutiny climate. Billy Budd is sentenced to death and executed. The final chapters look at Vere’s fate, shows how the news reports differed from the reality, and gives a hint of how the truth remained alive in the culture of the seamen.

The first act of the novella is an act of violence against liberty, as Billy Budd is conscripted from the aptly named merchant ship The Rights of Man. He is transferred to the Bellipotent. The dueling names suggest much: individual liberty against imperial authority. This was a phenomenon across the British Atlantic during wartime. Despite the pleas from the merchant ship master who testified to Billy Budd’s calming effect on his crew, the young “Handsome” sailor was brought into the Royal Navy. The power of the sailors battled with the power of the British state on different levels. Impressment was in part a response to the Great Mutiny, an earlier act of rebellion against British military discipline. In a sense, Billy Budd enters a military order already engaged in a Civil War. His good humor, trustfulness, and affability perhaps make him ill-suited for that position.

Here is a BBC presentation of the Britten opera based on Billy Budd.

Melville takes pains to describe the major characters in good terms, especially Billy Budd and Captain Vere. He is not interested in a polemic against the naval captain here. He is largely interested in the institution. It is the institutions (the sailor’s solidarity, the Navy, the British state) that drive the actors, not personal malevolence. Billy Budd is described as without “visible blemish . . . as with a lady.” (1362) His stutter is his only defect. Vere is practical, educated, fair-minded, and loyal, as well as an ally oof “peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.” (1371)

What happened to Billy Budd was therefore the product of institutional forces. I was reminded while reading this of how much it thematically pairs with David Simon’s The Wire or Paths of Glory, which so influenced Simon. In all three of these works, good people make horrific decisions due to the logic of the institution rather than the logic of humanity. (Earlier in this blog I discussed some of these ideas.) Melville goes so far as to present the unlikely situation where Billy Budd is, if not happy with being impressed, affable enough to not face any difficulty in the transition to military life.

Billy Budd’s violence against Claggert, comes from his inability to speak, due to his stutter. It is important that after he kills Claggery, Billy Budd’s stutter goes away, suggesting that the institution has silenced Billy and that his act of resistance revived his voice, even if only in time for his execution. This is an important point, for this is the fate of most of the world’s working people, institutionally confined from speaking. In the workplace, we all have a stutter.

Vere was tormented by his decision, knowing that Claggery falsely accused Billy Budd of mutinous designs, but he was bound by the law and the new policies implemented in the Navy after the mutinies. His moral anxiety is authentic, but rather pointless since the logic of the institution will always win out. This is the dilemma of the middle-manager, who has to work closely with the people at the bottom but being responsible for the laws and regulations of the top. He could, of course, have opposed the law and suffered as a consequence but this would have been an unlikely heroism and is really only possible from someone like Captain Ahab or Jack London’s Wolf Larsen.

The news report on the execution is significant because here we see the media taking the position of the state, not of Billy Budd (of course), but also not of the Captain. Now this may be because Vere had to report to his superiors in a way that minimized the ambiguity of the case. However, it happened the public report has Budd killing Claggery with a knife, being a foreigner, and having a central role in a mutinous plot. It also mentions how all mutiny was suppressed on the ship. We do not believe this anymore than we should believe the rest of the report. To borrow again from David Simon, it is like a big drug bust or high profile arrest being sold to the people as a great victory in the War on Drugs, when in fact the street market for drugs remains unaffected.

“Dope on the table” scene from The Wire:

In the final section we see that however false the official memory of the event may be, the brotherhood of sailors maintained a different message.  And with this, the sailor’s eulogy to Billy Budd, this blog will say goodbye to Melville, the man who inspired it major themes.

“Everything is for a term venerated in navies. Any tangible object associated with some striking incident of the service is converted into a monument. The spar from which the foretopman was suspended was for some years kept trace of by the bluejackets. Their knowledge followed it from ship to dockyard and again from dockyard to ship, still pursuing it seven when at last reduced to a mere dockyard boom. To them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross. Ignorant through they were of the secret facts of the tragedy, and no thinking, but that the penalty was somehow unavoidable inflicted from the naval point of view, for all that, the instinctively felt that Billy was a sort of man as incapable of mutiny as of willful murder. They recalled the fresh young image of the Handsome Sailor, that face never deformed by a sneer or subtler vile freak of the heart within. This impression of him was doubtless deepened by the fact that he was gone, and in as measure mysteriously gone.” (1433-1434)

It is this deep memory that those who sustain authoritarian systems should most fear, for it is where we will find solidarity when those with wealth and gold demand of us mutual indifference.