“The Mark Twain Anthology” Part One

Culture is hardly a new idol but I long to hurl things at it. Culture can scarcely burn anything, but I am impelled to sacrifice to the same. I am coming to suspect that the majority of Culture’s modern disciples are a mere crowd of very slimly educated people, who have no natural taste or impulse; who do not really know the best things in literature; who have a feverish desire to admire the newest thing, to follow the latest artistic fashion; who prate about ‘style’ without he faintest acquaintance with the ancient examples of style, in Greek, French, or English; who talk about the classics and criticize the classical critics and poets, without being able to read a line of them in the original. Nothing of the natural man is left in these people; their intellectual equipment is made up of ignorant vanity, and eager desire of novelty, and a yearning to be in fashion. Andrew Lang (79–80)

The Mark Twain Anthology is a rather odd volume in the Library of America series. It is one of a handful of special publications that is still officially in the series list (along with a similar volume on Lincoln and American Earth). This volume is a collection of short pieces by “great writers” about Mark Twain. It may have been more useful to read in parallel with the others Mark Twain volumes. That said, I find it rather surplus to the project. A much-needed volume on Margaret Fuller would have better served. It is perhaps too much hero worship for my tastes. Yes, the world agrees on Mark Twain’s contributions, but I rather enjoyed discovering those on my own rather than listen to “great  writers” tell me what to think about his works. As a collection of contemporary reviews on commentaries of Twain, it has value and the global scale of the anthology is at the very least interesting. A fair number of left libertarian writers found Mark Twain rich in meaning. He was also popular globally among anti-colonial activists. I will highlight some of these.

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Jose Marti—a Cuban nationalist and radical writer—identified Twain’s importance in his sympathy for the people at the bottom and his disgust with hierarchy and privilege.

He has been in the burning workshops where the country was forged: with those who make mistakes, with those who fall in love, with those who rob, with those who live in solitude and people it, and with those who build. He liked to wander and once he had seen man in one place, he took his leave, longing to see him in another. . . . He knows men, and the trouble they take to hide or disguise their defects; and he loves to tell things so that the real man—hypocritical, servile, cowardly, wanton—drops from the last line of this story like a puppet from the hands of the clown who toyed with it. (50)

In this way, Twain was a writer who understood that looking at the world from below meant getting a bit dirty. Working people, the marginalized, the exploited are not saints and their stories are not often pretty. Marti sums up very well the importance of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as a document about class struggle and the odious nature of privilege.

Jose Marti

Jose Marti

One thing that anti-colonial history teaches us is that the essential values of freedom, equality, and the potential for human progress existed across the world. In my view one of the greatest of these voices (and one of the most important to be revived at a time when the Chinese state is expanding its power and state capitalism is tightening its noose around Chinese working people) is Lu Xun. The selection here is just his introduction to a Chinese translation of Eve’s Diary and reveals little of his broader libertarian values, but like Marti, Lu Xun was a nationalist, but a nationalist whose values were focused first on expanding human freedom. The state-makers of modern China co-opted Lu Xun for their purposes, the fate of many nationalist writers.

Lu Xun

Lu Xun

Many writers were drawn to Mark Twain because of his informal and free style of writing. This is particularly true of William Dean Howells: Twain’s good friend. “He would take whatever offered itself to his hand out of that mystical chaos.” (88) This is rare and potentially powerful in the hands of a person with a great ability to observe and understand the world. If, as Italian writer Livia Bruni said: “[Mark Twain] remained an enthusiast for liberty, truth, and justice, a staunch enemy of every kind of oppression,” this is because he was recording the world as it was, without overly intellectualizing or organizing the facts.

Many foreign writers seemed to look at Mark Twain as the quintessential American writer. George Ade pointed out that his long period abroad made him well known, but never risked his status as an American writer (unlike, one suspects Henry James). Ade, an American, called him “the best of our emissaries.” (126) And foreigner writers seemed to always talk about Twain not just as an American writer, but as a student of American democracy, finding his backwoods upbringing and unpretentious lifestyle crucial elements in his work. For class-conscious and aristocratic Europe, this was striking. Jorge Luis Borges wrote that “Mark Twain is only imaginable in America.” (177) Yet, the comparison with Voltarie and Cervantes is made by a handful of writers. It is likely significant that the world was coming to know America through Mark Twain at a time when America’s rise was clear to observers. No longer a distant and insignificant republic, the US was becoming an empire. For all of his anti-imperialism, perhaps Twain serviced this empire in a strange way, for he was often describing an America long dead in the age of industrialism and capital.

H. L. Mencken contrasts Twain with Hawthorne, Poe, Whitman, and Emerson. Of these writers, only Twain was American in an unalienated sense. The others were great amid “a very backward state of culture.” (145) For Whitman, democracy was “simply a figment of his imagination.” (145) Twain was of America and his greatness emerged from America of reality, not of ideals. Mencken may be suggesting that this makes Twain the first post-revolutionary American writer (although he does not say that). In a revolutionary era, culture had to be self-conscious, idealistic, and work in the world of abstractions. The very non-ideological nature of Twain’s writings, which made him so difficult to label or interpret, is at the heart of his libertarian Americanism.

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