Mark Twain: “The American Claimant” (1892)

“What a civilization it is, and what prodigious results these are! and brought about almost wholly by common men; not by Oxford-trained aristocrats, but men who state shoulder to shoulder in the humble ranks of life and earn the bread that they eat. Again, I’m glad I came. I have found a country at last where one may start fair, and breast to breast with his fellow man, rise by his own efforts, and be something in the world and be proud of that something; not be something created by an ancestor three hundred years ago.” (525)

As with its predecessor, The Gilded Age, Mark Twain’s The American Claimant explores the division between aristocratic England and democratic America. In one way, its plots works in an opposite direction from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In that novel an American works to overthrow the tyranny of chivalry and aristocracy. In An American Claimant, Colonel Sellers (returned from The Gilded Age with a new name) is hoping to acquire the trappings of English aristocracy, in this case an empty earldom. At the same time, the real heir goes to America as a radical leveler, much preferring the democracy of America. He changes his name and takes on a new identity, made easier with a disastrous fire which destroys the evidence of his real position. He ends up working for Sellers as a painter. The real heir, now with the name Tracy, falls in love with Seller’s daughter, who rejects his advances because she assumes he just wants her father’s newly acquired title.

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Given Tracy and his social values, there is a lot of reflection on the difference between aristocracy and democracy and its impact on society. To an obsessive reader of American literature this does not seem fresh on the surface. Of course it is indeed true that America was less bound by the trappings of status. Tracy was enamored at the changes in language. “Everybody calls himself a lady or gentleman, and thinks he is, and don’t care what anybody thinks him, as long as he don’t say it out loud.” (531) The interesting twist is that it is the American who wants to become the aristocrat and the aristocrat who is enamored with American democracy. The darker message here is that American democracy is a bit of a facade and that aristocratic pretentions are perhaps weaker. “There isn’t any power on earth that can prevent England’s thirty millions from electing themselves dukes and duchesses to-morrow and calling themselves so. And within six months all the former dukes and duchesses would have retired from the business.” (533) In effect, it would expose them as “the Duke and the King” from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Mark Twain, another photo

Mark Twain, another photo

This still leave us with the awkward desire of Colonel Sellers to pursue his aristocratic claim. This may simply be evidence of the strange American fascination with the aristocracy. For the first hundred years, Americans had their own aristocracy in the vile and disgusting Southern slaveholders. After that, they turned to foreign royalty to live out their fantasies of privilege. Is it a longing for the past? Is there a democratic aspect to this, where everyone can image that they are part of the aristocracy? (If you do not have a Cherokee princess in your family history, you can find your coat of arms by paying a genealogist enough.) Or maybe it is a final escape from failure. Like “the Duke and the King,” Colonel Sellers is a failure. By clinging to aristocratic pretentions, someone who lost the game (and in democratic capitalism we are allowed only to blame ourselves) can create a false reality. Or maybe it is just silly consumerist vanity? Or, is it that democracy—that brutal equality—just plain boring? Life in a palace is much more interesting than slaving away at a factory job.

Of course, we have Colonel Sellers is still at his old schemes. This is the fun of the novel. The best is the invention that automates swearing at sailors on a ship. Since sailors only listen to vulgar, verbally-violent captains, more timid masters could use this device to ensure their workers are properly yelled at. In a sense, the claim to the earldom is simply another of Sellers’ schemes and therefore a continuation of his failing participation in democratic capitalism.

The American Claimant is probably only read these days by the most devoted Twain followers. I found it hard to get into. Many of his other works deal with these themes equally well. If there is truth to the claim that Twain was losing his wit around this time due to his traumas with the Paige typesetter, this novel could certainly be part of that argument. But I have a question. Sellers’ failed schemes in this novel certainly were shaped by the experiences with the Paige typesetter, but they also extend from a novel written two decades earlier. Twain was both very aware of the hucksterism of the “Gilded Age.” He gave it a name. So why was he so willing to invest most of his money into one machine. Why did he send those checks month after month?

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