A. J. Liebling, “Uncollected War Journalism” (1939-1963): Infrapolitics and Resistance

Haven’t they any cooperatives? It is to the interest of the dairies to be clean. Then they would get a premium for the milk. It is just like the ships. If you have a good ship, with the proper number of watertight compartments and all new safety things, then you pay such a low insurance rate, you know. And if you treat the crew right, it is a good crew, and then you don’t have to pay so many men. In Denmark it has all worked out beautifully. In a cooperative one bad one hurts all the others. (596)

Is it not amazing that we find in a small report by an overweight American journalist about the fate of the Danish navy during World War II, such a concise argument for anarchist principles of organization? I argued in my last posts on A. J. Liebling’s World War II writings that we see in the fighting of the war plenty of unrealized potentialities. Here, perhaps, is another one. In any case, readers of the New Yorker cannot say they were not by none other than a Danish sailor.

Liebling’s reports from the Second World War are insightful on many levels. They speak of the experience of common soldiers, the character of commanders, and the perceptions of war from the home front. Of most long-term significant is what his stories reveal about the winning of the war and the power of vernacular forms of protest. As important as the military was to the victory, the painting Liebling presents of occupied Europe is one a Gulliver being tied down by thousands of little strings. Liebling had a fascination and love for France, which comes through in his writings. He even wrote an entire book on the French resistance, The Republic of Silence (of which two selections are included in this collection). Their contribution was not simply armed resistance, but a great diversity of infrapolitics (a term coined by James Scott for unseen and underground political action).


One of the most memorable in this collection of war reports to the New Yorkers (pp. 573–815 in World War II Writings) is about the “V” campaign. The campaign used radio to encouraged people in occupied territories to write the letter “V” on public buildings with chalk. The letter was given different meaning depending on the local language. When transformed into morse code, it became the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In effect, this turned a piece of German music into an international symbol of resistance (to the great annoyance of the Germans). Liebling estimates that this cheaply run campaign kept two German divisions from the front in attempt to suppress graffiti, but the use of a musical phrase for resistance was impossible to repress.

The radio broadcasts encouraged other forms of day to day resistance to the occupation, which may have had a cumulative effect that shaped the war’s outome. The colonel in charge of the program said in one broadcast:

This week I’m asking you to buy anything and everything and leave nothing for the Germans. Buy before your money becomes worthless. . . . Farmers, soon you’ll be getting your harvests in. The Germans want to get their hands on your crops, but there are ways to hide them. You will neede to keep your families from starving during the winter, and if you can save a little more than you need for yourself, it will be worth its weight in gold. . . . A lot of you city people have insurance policies. Nearly all the insurance companies have been bought up by the Germans, so every time you burn a hole in your carpet or break some china, don’t forget to claim; bury the Germans in paperwork. And if you can’t do any of these things, mark up the V where they’ll see it. Beat out the V rhythm. (608–609)

Of course, the effectiveness of this sort of thing could not be determined by the bureaucratic institutions that ran the war, but they likely helped cultivate an anti-fascist ethos in these countries and may have helped prevent its reemergence.

“The Lancaster Way” shows how small industries in small towns in England became critical production centers in for the war effort, while also sustaining a strong working class culture and spirit of autonomy. The vernacular ingenuity of these smaller urban spaces was, according to Liebling, nothing short of stunning.

Another set of articles I would like to highlight are those dealing with the French press under Nazi occupation. Liebling was interested in how the press in a city could keep its independence while also suffering from increasing corporate centralization. His 1964 book The Press is about the threat to democracy by centralized media ownership. While we might think that the press was completely restricted under the Nazis, we find the opposite was the case. “The only great nation with a completely free press today is France. All valid French newspapers are illegal.” (653) The press, in open rebellion of this censorship flourished. I suppose by the same logic, the most repressed spouse is the most likely to seek out affairs. Liebling describes the various major underground newspapers, their varied perspectives, and how they got into print. Repression created a solidarity of varied perspectives, which ultimately proved a boon to the left. “The Gestapo called them all Communists. This is an example of Nazi and collaborationist propaganda that had boomeranged. . . . the words ‘Communist’ and ‘patriot’ in the French popular mind. . . became synonyms, which gives an increased impetus to the Leftward tendency caused by the treason committed by the great industrialists.” (655) Had the Germans allowed some press freedom, what may have emerged was a waffling “neutral” newspaper that was politically anodyne and a complicit supporter of the occupation. Through censorship, the Germans created a radical French media culture. Later, Liebling suggest this contributed to the post-war alliance between the French working class and the intellectuals.


Liebling’s Second World War writings teaches us that the people can trap the state in its own rhetoric, immobilize it through non-participation, and silence it. The tools and strategies used by the European resistance are still available to us even if they will look different in application. The power of infrapolitics has never really declined.

A. J. Liebling: “Mollie and Other War Pieces” (1964)

Besides the Jews, the Corps [Franc] had hundreds of political prisoners from labor camps in southern Algeria—Spanish Republicans who had fled to Africa in 1939, anti-Nazi Germans who had come even before that, and French “Communists and de Gaullists,” to employ the usual Vichy designation for dissidents. . . In the Corps Franc, they were at liberty to march and fight until they dropped. They were also a fair number of Mohammedans, good soldiers, who had joined to earn the princely wage of twenty-three francs a day. . . I remember a former carabinero who had fought in the Spanish Loyalist Army, and a baked of Italian parentage from Bone, in Algeria, who said, “I am a Communist. Rich people are poison to me.” 320–321

Corps Franc

Corps Franc

This passage from A. J. Liebling’s Mollie and Other War Pieces reminds us of how broad the anti-fascist alliance was in the 1930s and 1940s. Leibling focused a great deal on the French resistance and the French home front in his World War II writings. France was his second home after New York City and he seemed to never tire of going there. The fall of France and the return to Paris (The Road Back to Paris) defined the major arc of the conflict. A group like the Corps Franc was made up of thousands of the defeated and colonized, but participated in this anti-fascist struggle. Although Liebling does not quite get to this point, I do think there were the seeds planted for some alternative post-war worlds. One thing that is clear in this reading is that it was by no means the will of many of the participants on the allied side that capitalism would emerge from the war triumphant. It was not the values of empire and capital that won the war (although sometimes their mechanized logic did seem to shape the conduct of the war).


Mollie and Other War Pieces came out in 1964 and, along with The Press, was one of the works left incomplete at his death. Mollie and Other War Pieces is mostly collection of his war correspondence, picking up where The Road Back to Paris left off, starting in the North Africa campaign, continuing to D-Day and the defeat of Germany in France, and ending with a lengthy description of a war crime in rural France that seems small when compared to the scale of the war, but summarizes Liebling’s view about the moral necessity of fighting fascism. The story on the soldier Mollie open the book. “Mollie” was a Russian-American soldiers who was killed in action in North Africa. He was a memorable soldier, given the handle Molotov by his comrades. He was a good solider, a bit extravagant in his living, but also politically radical and often in trouble (one report has him court-martialed a couple dozen times but always getting off). Liebling goes back to New York and digs up the personal history of Mollie and finds that he was a union man (but negligent about his dues) and sustained a rather infamous life. I think this piece is important to read for its insight into the diverse points of view that made up the US Army during the war and the radical politics of so many soldiers coming out of the Great Depression.

It cheers me to think there may be more like him all around me—a notion I would have dismissed as sheer romanticism before World War II. Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience. He has become a posthumous pal, thought I never knew him when he was alive. He was full of curiosity—he would have made a great explorer—and fond of high living, which is the only legitimate incentive for liking money. He had faith in the reason of his fellow-man, as when he sensed that the Italians at Sened were no more eager to fight than he was. The action that earned him his Silver Star cost no lives. It saved them. (342)

Several soldiers pass through Liebling’s narrative of the war which values perhaps similar to those of Mollie. Liebling spends a great deal of time looking at the French home front where we similarly find a great diversity of political perspectives, but a strong tendency toward the left among the anti-fascist forces. He discusses collaborators as well, but his focus is on the resistance. His section on the free French press during the occupation is wonderfully fascinating if only for the evidence that it was largely a movement of the left. These resistance movements against the Germans fed into traditional French revolutionary politics.

In another village, also in Brittany, an officious gendarme tried to make the farm wives stop baking, because the farmers are suppose to deliver all their flour to the government. Enraged women dumped him into a horse trough. In the Yonnee departments, farmers hide requisitioned horses and cows; in Loir-et-Cher, the farmers deliver no eggs, insisting that the hens stopped laying in 1940. In Seine-et-Oise, the peasants have formed committees to demand high grain prices. Everwhere the peasants unite to hunt informers, just as farmers in Iowa, not long ago, used to chase process serves. La Terre holds up the example of the scorched earth set by the Russian peasants. (452–453)

Liebling builds up these stories about the French resistance to the fight to liberate Paris on the eve of the American arrival to the city. This did not prevent appreciation for the Americans who helped make the liberation possible but did allow the Parisians to “feel they earned it [liberation].” (524)

Libération, 23 août 1944

The book also contains Liebling’s description of D-Day, which he observed from a boat in the English channel. While of interest to those who want to see another perspective on that big battle, I am more interested in seeing the war from the margins, fought not by generals and states but by the motley crew of anti-fascists. This side of the war—the one that did not just fight for the idea of liberty but tried to live in their actions during the war—needs to be told more often.

A. J. Liebling: “The Road Back to Paris,” (1944): Part Two, The Values that Won the War

If one American division could beat one German division, I thought then, a hundred American divisions could beat a hundred German divisions. Only the time was already past when Germany had a hundred divisions to spare from the Russian front, plus God knows how many more to fight the British, plus garrison troops for all the occupied countries. I knew deep down inside me after that that the road back to Paris was clear. (308)


In The Road Back to Paris, A.J. Liebling is interested in the values that won the Second World War (or in 1944 made victory inevitable). His approach to the war was patriotic but not irrationally so. If he could not resist pro-American statements that come off as rather shallow, such as his claim that American soldiers would do well in the war because of how competitive Americans were on the basketball court, he was in the main an internationalist and much of his war journalism is trying to get at the underlying solidarity of working people that won the war. Nowhere is this made clear more than in the central events of the book, Liebling’s trek back to the United States on a Norwegian cargo freighter in the winter of 1941. It is placed centrally in the book. It is also a central in the sense that when he set out America was not in the war, but when he returned to New York it was. Finally, it is thematically central. Through the sailors on the freighter we learn about the values of the working people who won the war.

I opened this post with the final passage in the book, which rightfully reduced war to a number games. Earlier in the text, while following the Americans in North Africa, Liebling pointed out that Washington wanted a 100% mechanized war. The result of a bureaucratic conflict, run by technocrats applying cost-benefit models. Of course, this is part of the ideology that won the war, a rather inhuman technocratic logic. But I do not think that was all that was at work nor would it have been enough. More impressive is the massive international democratic solidarity, rather striking in a world that was becoming progressively less free during the first half of the century. The first half of the book spent time describing the rising tide of fascism in France and such sentiments were even positioned in in the army (and we know similar movements were power in the United States during the Great Depression).

The Chapter “Westbound Tanker” is a window into this solidarity and a discussion on bravery during a war run by actuaries. While the 1%–2% loss rate on trans-Atlantic freighter voyages was something Liebling himself could brush off, only making one voyage. For the sailors who were committed to the service in the merchant marine during the war, this was an oppressive fact of life, without dramatically affecting their performance. A similar experience was shared by bomber crews that strangely listened to melancholy music before missions. In addition to the risk, they faced rapid changes in destination and a general uncertainty about the future. The war was out of their hands; the same was true for the soldiers.

When you are in a convoy it is sometimes impossible to remember whether a thing happened yesterday or the day before yesterday or the day before that. You watch the other ships and you read whatever there is to read and you play jokes on the ship’s cat. (195)

If  Liebling’s reportage is to be believed, the time was also spent getting to know each other. Liebling reveals the histories and stories of many of these common, unheroic (in the classical sense) sailors. Christmas dinner became a time for sharing experiences, stories, songs, and drink. Mostly Norwegian (the ship was ordered to Allied ports when the Germans invaded Norway) but had crew members from other allied nations. Ideologically they were diverse as well, with some communists on board, but these were not barriers to the crews solidarity, which was quite strong and reinforced as often as possible with drink and merriment and trying to catch a glimpse of “bathing girls” while cruising past Miami Beach. What is coming through to me, more than anything else, is just how much the war was fought by a motley crew.

Liebling’s arrival in North Africa (with gout as a symbol of his relative privilege) leads to some interesting observations. One is that a fascist apologist ruling clique in North African towns (Oran in Algeria is highlighted) being put into a revolutionary situation by the mere presence of this motley crew. Before 1939, this town was a center of radical leftist politics and the fall of France made it possible for the bosses to solidify their rule. In a model copies again and again, capital found undemocratic systems—especially fascism—quite useful in entrenching their power. A result of their triumph, Allied sympathies were high in the town among these suppressed leftists. Of course this situation seemed to exist across North Africa and led to the creation of the seemingly impressive “Corps France d’Afrique.” “Jews, Moslems, foreigners held in concentration camps, former soldiers of the Foreign Legion, and anybody not formally enrolled with a regular class of the Army Reserve could volunteer in a new catch-all organization . . . which was promised immediate service in the front lines.” (231) I wonder if this was modelled off the International Brigades in Spain. The fact that we may have here a model for a broad anti-fascist movement involving such a diverse group in the Muslim world makes it worthy of future study.

French troops in Oran

French troops in Oran

There is no reason to think that the grassroots organization, solidarity, and resistance that struck Leibling as so power worked to be an effective counter to the growing bureaucratic nature of the war. The fact that actuarial tables at insurance companies had to be reformulated when the war broke out should be morally troubling, but it is likely just a sign of the times. Insurance companies knew how likely it was a sailor would due on a voyage, just as commanders new how likely it was soldiers would return from a particular mission. War had become a number games. (As Ambrose Bierce taught readers decades earlier war become a numbers game in the nineteenth century.) These are competing sides of the allied war efforts and even if the number games won the war, it is the diversity and solidarity that allowed many on the Allied side to begin to imagine a very different world.

A. J. Liebling: “The Road Back to Paris,” (1944): Part One, Ideologies and People at War

The circumstances of a man’s capture are more significant than this tone of voice in replying to the interrogating officers. It is to a prisoner’s interest to be cocky, after capture, for he is under the surveillance of his fellows and the governance of superiors whose Naziness is likely to be in proportion to their rank. The Geneva Convention was never drawn up to cover an ideological war; there is no inducement for the German prisoner who is democratic or just anti-war to let anyone know what is on his mind. Vanity also counts in the prisoner’s attitude. He likes to think of himself as a Teutonic heor even when he knows he has quit cold. (71)


A historical analysis of the failures of political anarchism in the twentieth century needs to come to terms with the central events of that century: the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and the Second World War. The horrors of ideologies at war, backed by triumphant and largely unquestioned state power is troubling to ponder. One thing that is clear from my reading of A. J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris, a collection of Liebling’s war correspondence published while the war was incomplete, if not undecided, is that the ideological nature of the war was comparatively weak among the largely working class soldiers. As the prisoner of war camps in France show, it is actually quite difficult to get people to kill and die for the state. Even prisoners required constant surveillance by superiors in order to enforce their commitment to the Nazi cause.


The Road Back to Paris is divided into three parts (“The World Knocked Down,” “The World on One Knee,” and “The World Gets Up”). From these titles, the general narrative of the world parallels a general interpretation of the war as a catastrophe followed by a difficult and hard-won victory. What Liebling does not give us is a general military history of the conflict. His columns followed his life as a war correspondent, first in France and then after the fall of Paris in Britain and North Africa. He did cover D-Day and returned to Paris, but is documented in another collection of his war writings. As we recall from his other journalism, Liebling was very interested in how things worked at the vernacular level. His examinations of aspects of New York City are really at the gutter level and his findings about how cities actually work are striking. It is the same with his reading of the war, which he often covered from brothels, cafes, and prisoner of war camps.


In the first part of the book, Liebling encounters numerous people who were not very interested in fighting. German leadership aside, it did not seem that there was anyone who was particularly interested in another war. Liebling reported that the English seemed to have found a “new form of patriotism” based on the principle of fighting a war without war. Of course, that was from the rather subdued period between the conquest of Poland and the conquest of France. Now I do not find his to be a compelling case for pacifism, nor am I very interested in debating the moral necessity (or not) of the Allied war effort, merely to point out that it took a violent autocracy to convince its people to fight and even then it was not an easy sale as the prisoner of war camps suggested.

We can also see from Liebling’s account that if the Second World War was a war of ideologies, no one seemed very sure of the ideology on their side.

Remoteness from the war affected everybody, but there were at least two groups in our country that tried consciously to minimize our danger. They were precisely these that had worked to the same end in France—a strong faction of men of wealth and the Community party. The money people wanted to prove fascism more efficient than democracy, the Communists that democracy offered no protection against fascism. A military victory for the democracies would shatter the pretensions of both. (120)

True enough, but in Liebling’s mind, democracy was a hard sale during those dark years of 1940 and 1941. Something Liebling did not take up (at least as far as I have read) is how much the values of democracy and equality would be both pushed to the limit and betrayed over the course of the war. As far as he got in this direction was his desire for an early start to American involvement because of the needs of governmental “war powers.”

After the fall of France, Liebling returned to the United States for a while where he signed up for the draft (he was still in his thirties although over weight). After this he returned to war correspondence for the New Yorker by sailing to England on a rather perilous trek amid German submarine warfare. In London, Liebling reported on how the impact of the war on people’s lives. One striking passage is about a young woman who had to get herself drunk everytime German bombers hit the city, leading to a perpetual cycle of hangover and drunken binges.

While Liebling did not have many encounters with soldiers, he did start the book with some anecdotes about American soldiers in North Africa. These soldiers were incredibly creative. One invented a new way of making coffee he was sure could have made him rich. They created their own cultural life and did what they could to make their relatively small world (for wars are fought by people largely ignorant of the battlefield) livable. The common soldier is not so unlike any of us, being pulled by forces rather outside of our control (capital, urban planning, institutional imperatives). What is not on their mind was the slugfest of ideologies that supposedly drove the war.

If these ideologies are often missing from the perspectives and experiences of the soldiers and citizens fighting the war, they still had an impact, as a conversation with a  Polish member of the government in exile who saw anything less than the dismemberment and total destruction of Germany as treason. Liebling’s friend responded to this understandable—if destructive and irrational—hatred with: “It was so disgusting, so human, so deplorable.” (155)

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1880–1890: A Political Turn

“There was a time for sneering. In all the ages of the world and in all its lands, the huge inert mass of humbler mankind,—compacted crush of poor dull dumb animals,—equipped from its centre to its circumference with unimaginable might, and never suspecting it, has made bread in bitter toil and sweat, all its days for the feeble few to eat, and has impotently raged and wept by turns over its despised housholds of sore-hearted women and smileless children—and that as a time for sneering. And once in a generation, it all ages and all lands, the little block of inert mass has stirred, and risen with noise, and said it could no longer endure its oppressions, its degradation, its misery.” (“The New Dynasty,” 885)

If we consider Mark Twain’s first published writings in 1852 as the start of his career, the early 1880s marks the half-way point in his career, but only a decade into his national fame that began with the travel narrative Innocents Abroad. By all accounts, the 1880s were a productive year for him. Twain’s income from his books was significant enough to afford him various investments (including in the Paige typesetter beginning in 1889, which would almost bankrupt him). His major works from the 1880s are The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The American Claimant, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. As people who are familiar with Twain’s biography know, this decade also was the last before financial woes and the death of Susy (his favorite daughter) led him to begin to look at the world in new ways. Throughout the 1880s, though he is riding high, and focused on his writing and professional obligations.


Many of Twain’s shorter works from this period are speeches delivered in Hartford or nearby areas. He even joked about how prolific he was as a public speaker and how people like him should stop hogging the stage. Yet his voice was in high demand.

The most striking of these speeches for me was “The New Dynasty,” a speech delivered in March 1886, but not published until the 1950s. I wonder how many Mark Twain fans even know of this importance speech. It was delivered in the context of the Knights of Labor agitating for typesetters. The details are note quite clear from the text; it is more of a broader polemic of power. It is delivered in perfect seriousness. It speaks to American values and history while also making a case for the necessity of revolution against the powerful. It warns of the growing power of the elite and the emerging “dynasty” of a united labor, a group he expresses deep sympathies with. Now, I know of the anti-imperialist Mark Twain, but I was never exposed to this side of him before. I suppose most do not. “The New Dynasty” begins with a general discourse on power. “Power, when lodged in the hands of man, means oppression—insures oppression: it means oppression always.” (883). He moves from the kings of old to the “horse-car company,” engaged in its new industrial forms of oppression. Twain argues that it was in America that this was first and most substantially challenged, not from the works of founders or a simple republican form of government, but from the voices of the underclass. “But when all the children in a little world cry, one is roused out of his indifference by the mere magnitude of the fact­—and he realizes that perhaps something IS the matter; and he opens his ears.” (887) He then moves to the rising power of labor in America. In an almost Marxist analysis he says that they will seize power and use it to oppress the minority. “He will oppress the thousands, they oppressed the millions; but he will imprison nobody, he will massacre, burn, flay, torture, exile nobody, nor work any subject eighteen hours a day, nor stave his family.” (888) And in sharp contrast to much later nineteenth century rhetoric on labor, he calls the organized workers the highest stage of American civilization.

Emblem of the Knights of Labor

Emblem of the Knights of Labor

"Harpers" magazine refusing to take sides

“Harpers” magazine refusing to take sides


How I would have loved to have been there to see this speech delivered. This for me is the highlight of this set of documents, but there are some other nice themes Twain considers.

In “Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims,” a speech delivered before the New England Society of Philadelphia, Twain assaults the cult of the Mayflower and the strange devotion Americans had to these founders. He is in full Promethean mode when he assaults the slavish devotion to odd heroes who (he humorously points out) largest claim to fame was getting off a boat; staying on the boat would have been more remarkable. His bolder interpretation of American history comes later in the speech, when he sets his solidarity with the people oppressed by the New England Puritans: religious dissenters, witches, slaves, Indians. “The first slave brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine—for I am of a mixed breed, an infinitely shaded and exquisite mongrel. I’m not one of your sham meerschaums that you can color in a week. No, my complexion is the patient art of eight generations.” (783–785) I guess he is speaking as America—that mongrel and projectoral nation—in this speech.

Two documents refer to his (I guess in jest) attempt to raise a statue to Adam, in which he tries to move beyond a narrow identity as an American. He does this at a time when the United States was mad with commemorations to heroes from the founding era and the Civil War. By proposing a statue to Adam, Twain was calling for a more inclusive commemorations project, that does not simply speak to the values and history of one nation. He wanted it as an alternative to the Statue of Liberty, for Adam was the true outcast.

If anyone is interested in Twain’s experiences in the Civil War, “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed” is useful. It goes beyond autobiography and becomes an anti-war polemic. His experiences in the Civil War took place over a couple of weeks and mostly involved camping out with friends, practicing shooting, and running away from rumors of Federal Army advances into their area. There was a tragedy however. He describes his involvement in the killing of a stranger who approached his camp. “And it seemed the epitome of war; that all war must be that—the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it. My campaign was spoiled. It seemed to me that I was not rightly equipped for this awful business.” (880)

If young Samuel Clemens was a deserter because he refused to take the lives of another human being, than he is a great hero. We need more such heroes, and maybe a few more monuments to deserters instead of soldiers.  


Mark Twain, “A Tramp Abroad” (1880): Part Two

“In German, all the Nouns begin with a capital letter. Now that is a good idea; and a good idea, in this language, is necessarily conspicuous from its lonesomeness.” (379)

Something I thought about often while reading A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain was the fact that just because someone observing absurd customs is a foreigner and does not understand those customs, does not mean that those customs are not indeed objectively absurd. I am not here talking about the real oppressive aspects of foreign cultures that need to be struggled against, but the day to day absurdities that it sometimes takes a foreigner to point out. This can be true even if that observer is from a rising, arrogant, imperial nation.


It seems we live in a much more defensive age than Twain did, and, without a doubt, over a century of Europeans and Americans telling others how to live had contributed to this sensitivity. In some cases, it may even be justified. It seems Americans have little to teach the world about high finance, for instance, and should probably stop speaking on the question in order to avoid certain humiliation. But that aside, I find I miss the good-natured ridicule of foreign cultures we see in A Tramp Abroad. Germany, like the United States, was a rising imperial and industrial power in the 1870s, fighting for a place in the sun in a world crowded out by British dominance, yet significant enough to enjoy being part of the ruling civilization. If any two nations were equals at the time, it might have been Germany and the United States. This makes what I am trying to say a bit awkward. There is thus not the imperial overtones in A Tramp Abroad that there may have been in Innocents Abroad, when Twain toured parts of the decaying Ottoman Empire.


I wonder how an essay entitled “The Awful Chinese Language” would be received today (especially in China). Or take this bit from Twain’s comments on German journalism. “What can be found in [German newspapers]? It is easily answered: A child’s handful of telegrams, mainly about European national and international political movements; letter-correspondence about the same things; market reports. There you have it. That is what a German daily is made of. A German daily is the slowest and saddest and dreariest of the inventions of man. Our own dailies infuriate the reader, pretty often; the German daily only stupefies him.” (399) I choose this because it is a two-way ridicule, but I still wonder if set the critique elsewhere if we would read it the same way. This is one of the cost of empire, perhaps. After over a century of benefiting from colonialism and now global capitalism, the West lost the rights to ridicule.  It must be said, that one reason that A Tramp Abroad works so well is Twains honest attempt to understand the United States through his time in Europe. We see this through the many asides Twain writes on American folklore and customs (sometimes critical, often praising).

From "A Tramp Abroad"

From “A Tramp Abroad”

The second half of A Tramp Abroad covers more or Twain’s time in Germany, his travels through Switzerland and through the Alps, and finally his time in Italy. It also includes some appendices on aspects of German life. Twain is still fully in character as a humorist at this stage of his career, although this came of his (in some ways) more serious The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (That is, if endlessly funny, Tom Sawyer is completely serious about the meaning and actualization of freedom.)

Readers of A Tramp Abroad will find plenty of evidence of what it means to live in a still monarchical and hierarchical society. It goes beyond the conspicuous castles and enduring power of royalty. The Bavarian king’s ability to demand a private showing of Wagner’s operas is one examples. Other examples of the simply more democratic society in the United States includes the personal relations between people on the streets. In regards to women on the streets of Europe he writes: “[A] lady may traverse our streets alld ay, going and coming as she chooses, and she will never be molested by any man; but if a lady, unattended, walks abroad in the streets of London, even at noonday, she will be pretty likely to be accosted and insulted—and not by drunken sailors, but by men who carry the look and wear the dress of gentlemen. . . . Even the most degraded woman can walk our streets unmolested, her sex and her weakness being her sufficient protection. She will encounter less polish than she would in the old world, but she will run across enough humanity to make up for it.” (830–831) This is a nice thought, but perhaps runs too close to the nose of how Americans liked to think about themselves: vulgar, unrefined, but good-natured. Yet, throughout A Tramp Abroad runs a deep feeling that Twain is living in a class society (of the old rigid type that is remnants of slave societies, peasant societies, and monarchies).

An interesting thing about Twain’s approach in this book is that he often gets things wrong in an interesting way, in that he observes a phenomenon that is real enough (the higher death rate in European cities for instance), but then fumbles the explanation (European preference for ice water). The observation is correct and worthy of investigation and perhaps suggestive of something deeply wrong in European society. Hitting the solution too much on the nose would have moved Twain out of his comfortable position as a humorist.

Mark Twain, “Roughing It” (1872): Part Two

“His flesh was stripped from the bones and burned (except nine pounds of it which were sent on board the ships). The heart was hung up in a native hut, where it was found and eaten by three children, who mistook it for the heart of a dog. One of these children grew to be a very old man, and died in Honolulu a few years ago. Some of Cook’s bones were recovered and consigned to the deep by the officers of the ship.” (919)

What does the killing of Captain Cook in Hawaii have to do with territorial Nevada, despite both appearing in Mark Twain’s Roughing It? Both are part of the scope of American imperialism in the second half of the nineteenth century and both constituted domains of the emerging American empire, eventually to reach beyond the continent into the Pacific. The scale of the second half of  Roughing It is much larger than the first half. In the first half, we follow Twain as he travels by Overland Stage Coach to Nevada, via Mormon Utah. We learn about the Pony Express and the mythology of frontier desperadoes. When Twain arrived in Nevada he quickly got caught up in the silver mining bubble economy and makes an attempt at prospecting. This effort is a failure (although he was a theoretical millionaire for a few days). This put Twain into a hopeless quandary. He had gotten used to the idea of not working and now he was in need of a job. Twain documents his work history, which is quite impressive. I particularly liked his stint at a bookstore. “I had been a bookseller’s clerk for awhile, but the customers bothered me so much I could not read with any comfort, and so the proprietor gave ma  furlough and forgot to put a limit on it.” (744) Ah, that is how I felt as a copy-editor, although my furlough was self-imposed. I am in common cause with Mark Twain. Work (if we absolutely must) should be our own benefit, not for the employers.

Etching from "Roughing It"

Etching from “Roughing It”

Contained within Roughing It is an explanation of how Twain entered into work as a journalist in Nevada. It was not hard for him. Some of his writings had appeared in print before and he was given a staff job as a junior city editor with a salary of $25 a month (later raised). And then he walked a beat around Virginia City. We learn how he managed slow news days, how he got the scoop on the school budget form a competing newspaper. Most interesting is the all too familiar journalistic fascination with conflict, scandal, and violence. Murders, apparently made Twain the happiest man in the territory for it promised something to writer about.

With his job as a journalist secured, Twain eventually become a Western writer of some renown, but he does not focus too much on his career, using the space in Roughing It to discuss the social and economic conditions of the territory. The chapters on the silver boom are a useful study of an economy based on speculation. It was much like a game Old Maid where the deck had 50 Old Maid cards. Most people’s claims were worthless or near enough. So the game became convincing others of the inherent wealth of this claim or that claim. In some cases, this meant even “salting” mines with silver in order to create the impression of future wealth, but only long enough to sell the shares in the mine to some sucker. However, since everyone was in on the game, it does not seem that “exploitation” is the right word to use. Twain says less about the working class in the territory. We know that there were people who worked for wages. This did not mean they forsook the brinkmanship of prospecting.

Much of his concern is with with violence and the legal order. It is not quite right to say that the violence was a product of a lack of state presence. There were courts, juries, police, and executions. None of this really prevented the violence that was integral to the social network. If we take him seriously people’s reputations were tied up into their histories of violence. “If an unknown individual arrived, they did not inquire if he was capable, honest, industrious, but — had he killed his man?” (781) Juries existed but seemed to not convict many people (“only two persons have suffered the death penalty.”) Twain associates this violence and vice with the prosperity of the region. “A crowded police court docket is the surest of all signs that trade is brisk and money plenty.” (798) But crime was not the only sign of vibrancy. Twain puts the emergence of a literary journal at the same level.


Twain next takes us on his adventures in California and Hawaii before closing the narrative. Roughing It is as much a story of Twain’s quest for fulfillment and satisfaction with life as it is a document on the Nevada frontier. I find some commonality with Herman Melville’s early work, where characters existed in a constant state of discontent. As he described the thoughts that led him on his first trip to Hawaii, he confessed this nature. “I was out of debt, but my interest in my work was gone; for my correspondence being a daily one, without rest of respite, I got unspeakably tired of it. I wanted another change. The vagabond institute was strong upon me. Fortune favored and I got a new berth and  delightful one.” (862) His “moral” at the end of the book addresses how creativity emerges from this spirit. “If you are of any acocunt, stay at home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are ‘no account,’ go away from home, and then you will have to work.” (960)

The final section of the book explores his half year in Hawaii as a journalist and lecturer. Here we are given a darker side of the U.S. Empire as it was completing its conquest of the islands. Of course, the Empire was alive and well in Nevada as well, but since we only see the frontier there from the perspective of white men. He has a few asides about Chinese, but he simply repeats the stereotype of the model minority: well-behaved and hard working. In Hawaii, we see the full extent of American commercial power over other people through his tour of the islands and his visits to the plantations. This is carefully set aside a retelling of the story of the killing of Cook, one of Hawaii’s first blows against Western imperialism in the Pacific. However, Twain is not really interested in a story of economic exploitation in the empire (this would come later in his work). He is acutely aware at this point of the culture wars, between the missionaries and Hawaiian society. We meet, for instance, Christian converts but no plantation workers.

Early American Honolulu

Early American Honolulu