Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays: 1871–1879

The 1870s were productive years for Mark Twain, but not too active in the short fiction he started his career with. Having settled in Hartford Connecticut, he spend the decade working on some of his most well-known works: Roughing It, The Gilded Age, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Tramp Abroad. While several of these were not published until the 1880s, he was working hard on them. At the same time he remained engaged in politics, extensive travel, and lecturing. Reading the chronology of his life, we learn that Twain was very engaged in the publishing of his books, often changing publishers or contracts to improve income, and public life, often taking in visitors. His output is impressive. The collected short writings for the decade, much of it speeches, fits into 200 pages.


Mark Twain was a brilliant hacker. There is a piece that suggests his method. In 1875 he had “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” translated into French and then back into English. The results are humorous enough. It seems that he is doing the same thing, translating his wit through the period’s various assumptions and values such as scientism, pretentious public speaking, and journalism. I want to focus today on his fascinating with science. It was not really there in his writings from the 1860s but it comes up again and again in the 1870s. Twain was fascinated by technology and science. He wasted millions (in present dollars) on investments. And while not blindly optimistic (more on this when we look at A Conn. Yankee), he was interested in the way scientists presented their ideas and the assumptions they made about their audience and reality. It is hard not to read his hacks of scientism without feeling skepticism about the claims of scientists. I think we need a voice like Twain’s to mediate in the climate change debates.

A collection of Twain's sketches, released in 1875

A collection of Twain’s sketches, released in 1875

One of his more playful teases of scientism comes in “The Danger of Lying in Bed” warning that beds are much more dangerous than trains because so many thousands more die on their bed. More rich are “A Brace of Brief Lectures on Science” which juxtaposed the confidence of paleontologists about he lives of “Primeval Man” with the apparent ignorance of Twain’s contemporaries in solving a simple case of murder. I do think he is genuinely fascinated with the scientific process, how knowledge is expanded and gained, but is aware that it is a dynamic and changing processes, where knowledge is not static. “Science is as sorry as you are that this year’s science is no more like last year’s science than last year’s was like the science of twenty years gone by. But science cannot help it. Science is full of change. Science is progressive and eternal.” (538) All humor and doubt aside, this is a beautiful observation. And I do not mean this in the way of climate change denialists, but in the sense of someone who is eager to learn of new discoveries. (Some of which may change the rigid definitions of what it even means to be human, and therefore knock off one more set of chains.) Along the same theme is “Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls in Three Parts,” which is about sentient animals digging up and learning about long dead human societies. About mid-way through this set of fables the arrogance of scientism is laid bare. “Surrounding these fossils were objects that would mean nothing to the ignorant, but to the eye of science they were a revelation. They laid bare the secrets of dead ages. . . . We believe that man had a written language. We know that he indeed existed at one time, and is not a myth; also, that he was the companion of the cave bear, the mastodon, and other extinct species; that he cooked and ate them and likewise the young of his own kind, also, that he bore rude weapons, and knew something of art; that he imagined he had a soul.” (625–627)

Twain had a similar approach to the general economism and money-grubbing of what he would coin “the gilded age.” In “The Facts in the Case of George Fisher, Deceased” he documents how a single family milked the government of thousands, generation after generation, for the possible 1813 burning of the family farm during Indian wars. Summed up in “The Revised Catechism” this ethic that reduced everything to a dollar amount and created an economy of robbing the guy next to you is: “Money is God. Gold and greenbacks and stock—father, son, and the ghost of the same—three persons in one: these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme; and William Tweed is his prophet.” (539)

My favorite short piece in this set was “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” about a man who is able to exile his conscience. By doing so, the narrator is able to become a superman of the age. “Out of this with your paupers, your charities, your reforms, your pestilent morals! You behold before you a man whose life-conflict is done, whose soul is at peace; a man whose heart is dead to sorrow, dead to suffering, dead to remorse, a man WITHOUT A CONSCIENCE! In my joy I spare you, though I could throttle you and never feel a pang!.” (660) He uses his powers to enter into a murder spree, but is ready to profit by it by selling bodies to medical colleges. Such was the brutality of the conscience-less gilded age.

I think people should also take a look at “The Great Revolution in Pitcairn,” which uses the Bounty mutineers as a metaphor for social development and revolutionary turmoil. It concludes that no amount of reform can redeem tyranny. The call of the tyrant at the end of the story is that of all states in the face of the angered masses. “I freed you from a grinding tyranny; I lifted you up out of your degradation, and made you a nation among nations; I gave you a strong, compact, centralized government; and, more than all, I have you the blessing of blessings,­—unification. I have done all this, and my reward is hatred, insult, and these bonds.” (720)

Nice Librivox recording of “The Great Revolution in Pitcairn.”

I will return to Mark Twain’s short writings after a while, but for now I have to tackle some of his longer works. In order, they will be: Roughing It, The Gilded Age, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Life on the Mississippi.


Mark Twain: “The Innocents Abroad” (1869): Part Two

“Gray lizards, those heirs of ruin, of sepulchers and desolation, glided in and out among the rocks of lay still and sunned themselves. Where prosperity has reigned, and fallen; where glory has flamed, and gone out; where beauty has dwelt, and passed away; where gladness was, and sorrow is; where the pomp of life has been, and silence and death brood in its high places, there this reptile makes his home, and mocks at human vanity. His coat is the color of ashes; and ashes are the symbol of hopes that have perished, of aspirations that came to nought, of loves that are buried. If he could speak, he would say, Built temples: I will lord it in their ruins; build palaces: I will inhabit them; erect empires: I will inherit them; bury your beautiful: I will watch the worms at their work; and you, who state here and moralize over me: I will crawl over your corpse at the last.” (387)


Mark Twain was inspired to write these words by visiting the “Holy Land.” He saw both the decline of the Ottoman empire and the relics of ancient empires that existed in the Levant. In the same section, Mark Twain suggest that the tourists, himself and his companions on the voyage, were not much better than grave robbers or perhaps necrophiliacs in their fetish of these fallen worlds. He uses the term “tomb-desecraters” for his companions, adding that “whithersoever they go they destroy and spare not.” (390)

The second half of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad continues the adventures of the band of mostly Christian tourists on board the Quaker City as they explore all the required sites of the Mediterranean. After braving their way through France and Italy (including a risky venture to the known dangerous Mt. Vesuvius). They prepared to head to Russia and the Ottoman Empire, two empires frequently at war. Thankfully they survive all of this and return home safely have their experiences documented by the then obscure Western writer Twain. They will live on in history as some of the great explorers of the nineteenth century.

The dark cloud over The Innocents Abroad is the end of wild spaces. Even the apparently underpopulated regions of the Ottoman Empire that they visited were prepared for the tourists, with all the necessary wares, transportation modes, and proper sites. I suppose it is much worse today, as Holy Land tourism is booming. Twain acknowledges the tedium of tourism when the Quaker City reached a Russian city (Odessa I think), where there was nothing important to see according to the guide books. Of course, this created an interesting moment in which they group could enjoy a slightly more authentic day, without having everything planned, arranged, and commercialized. In contrast is the visit to the pyramids where they were surrounded by people eager to take them to the summit. “Of course we were besieged by a rabble of muscular Egyptians and Arabs who wanted the contract of dragging us to the top—all tourists are.” (496)

I rather enjoyed the moments documented by Twain when the ship’s crew got a good laugh at the tourists’ pretentions and self-confidence. These sailors were more likely than the middle and upper class tourists to be real adventurers. After bumping into the Russia royalty while in Southern Russia during their Black Sea component of their tour, the Americans fell into awe of the spectacle of the empire. I never quite understood what Americans (or British for that matter) saw interesting in the British royal family. I suspect that the answer to why—despite an anti-monarchical revolution—Americans still like to gawk at nobility can be found somewhere in this book. Anyway, on the return to the ship, the sailors had some good fun recreating the silly tourists and the feeble attempts impress the Russian nobility. One suspects the sailors had no such desire to lick the boots of those authority figures. They particularly enjoyed mocking the silly address that the tourists wrote. The sailors have a point, as Twain realizes. It did open with the silly: “We are a handful of private citizens of America, travelling simply for recreation,—and unostentatiously, as becomes our unofficial state—and therefore, we have no excuse to tender for presenting ourselves before your Majesty.” (321)

I think there is something quite fascinating about the Ottoman Empire’s relative success at diversity. This was not uncommon in early modern Asian empires (the Manchu Qing and the Mughals had similar ethnic openness), but did run against the trend of nineteenth century European empires based as they were on scientific racism and nationalism. I am less pro-imperial than I am anti-nationalist, and I find the apparent ease at which the Ottomans lived with diversity fascinating and something we can learn from. Twain certainly noticed that during his visit to Constantinople and other locations in the Empire. At the same time, Twain was impressed with how modern Constantinople seemed to him. He felt the railroad to the city looked out of place.

Twain saves his most depressed commentary on empire for the journey through the Holy Land, which he constantly sees as a tomb, depopulated and abandoned. (Now I know that some ink has been spilled over these descriptions in respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The suggestion has been made, I forgot by whom, that Palestinians are an invented people. That Twain saw so few of them in the 1867 suggests that they were not true occupiers of the region. According to my reading, the region was sparsely populated by a diverse group of people,—“particularly uncomely Jews, Arabs, and negroes”— but I will let the experts go at it). The vision of an impoverished and devastated “Holy Land” is clearest in his descriptions of Magdala, full of “vermin-tortured vagabonds,” beggars, and the crippled. It seems Jesus checked out before he completed his task. These places where which were more “wild” in the sense of being untamed by profit motif are easily seen by tourists as backward and dangerous.


I found the most powerful moments in this book to be Twain’s often sad commentary on the fate of empires and the relationship of a forward thinking people without history to the past. I am reminded suddenly of the Chinese tourist who defaced an Egyptian artifact. Such a crime is only possible from someone who has lost all connection to their own past and is thus unable to respect the past of the others. But how is it better to fetishize the past? In any case, the defacement of the Egyptian tombs started when they were opened up to tourists, not when the Chinese youth took out his carving knife.

The engraving by a Chinese student

The engraving by a Chinese student

Egypt, Open for business

Egypt, Open for business


Mark Twain: “The Innocents Abroad” (1869): Part One

With this post, I start looking at the Library of America Volume containing The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It. As always, page numbers are from the LOA editions. If you need to track down a citation I hope you will not have difficulty locating the right volume. I will be reading these chronologically, which will necessitate moving between volumes.


The Innocents Abroad is Mark Twain’s first book-length work, constituting a travelogue of his participation in a tourist voyage in 1867. The Quaker City voyage was the first American cruise ship to visit Europe and the Holy Land. Over the course of several months, it visited North Africa, France, Italy, Russia, and various locations in the Ottoman Empire—including the Levant. We can divided the participants in this voyage into a few groups. The tourists, of which Mark Twain was one, were mostly upper class (the cost of $1,250, plus expenses would have made the trip impossible for most Americans). Twain’s fee was covered by one of the newspaper he was working for, hoping to profit by publishing the letters and observations that resulted. Most of the group were Christians eager to visit the Holy Land and other religious sites, such as those in Italy. Another group is the crew of the Quaker City, who reflect the only working class element on the trip and often are there to mock the pretention of the tourists. Broadly speaking a third group are the numerous people in the different ports hoping to profit from the growth of American tourism. It is surprising how well prepared some of the locations and people were for American tourism (although the results are often comical). The Innocents Abroad came out in 1869 and is mostly a collection of the letters he wrote during the trip and some of his public comments in the following years. The first half of—this very long—book deals with the European part of the voyage.


Let me first say that I find tourism a rather vulgar business. I am a historian who would rather visit a towns most popular clubs than its historical landmarks. I share with Twain his belief that travel can help shatter prejudice and provides an education, but in most cases tourism is something else and this apparently has not changed much since the 1860s. One travels to predetermined places—based on a guide book or on the dictates of a travel company. The sites a tourist sees are those that are deemed important. These locations are often overrun with vendors. Tourists take photos, which create a false memory of their time. While this describes a contemporary tourist package, it is not so different from what Twain went through in 1867. I much prefer living in a city for a long period of time, studying it from a gutter’s eye perspective. Anyway, enough of that. Tourism is a bourgeois luxury anyway, but what makes it odious is its fakeness.

We are therefore surprised that Twain is able to juxtapose the various locations he observes with the reality of social inequality in industrializing Europe. When viewing Versailles, a place people go to witness the grandeur of monarchical France. But around the corner: “All through this Faubourge St. Antoine, misery, poverty, vice and crime go hand in hand, and the evidence of it stare one in the face from every side. Here the people live who begin the revolutions. Whenever there is anything of that kind to be done, they are always ready.” (125) Notice with me that Twain sees these marginalized figures as historical actors, all the while his main purpose as a tourist is to visit dead places. Even though he fears that “Louis Napoleon had taken care of all that [revolutionary potentialities],” he does seem to place history in the hands of those on the bottom.

Quaker City

Quaker City

Twain is very interested, throughout The Innocents Abroad, in the tourists’ relationship to the past. He is quite aware that he is not even being shown an accurate view of the past, which leads to his wonderful entertaining sketches poking fun at how places such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Coliseum are presented. Very enjoyed attempting to translate these sites into Americanisms, as when he wrote a handbill for the Roman Coliseum. However, he does know that a more authentic past is never shown to the tourists, and indeed cannot be shown to them. This comes home to us in his thoughts on the Venetian archives. He knows the riches that this archive contains and he also knows it is hidden to him. “They fill nearly a hundred rooms. Among them are manuscripts from the archives of nearly two thousand families, monasteries and convents. The secret history of Venice for a thousand years is here—its plots, its hidden trials, its assassinations, its commissions of hireling spies and masked bravoes—food, ready to hand, for a world of dark and mysterious romances.” (186) Of course the group is taken instead to the standard sites.

The reader experiences with joy, Twain’s descriptions of the often silly attempts by the towns in Italy to prepare themselves for American tourists. It is an ignoble beginning of a long tradition. My favorite was poorly translated signs promising the best rooms in Italy. But honorable mention goes to the stores that advertise having English speaking staff only to disappoint. Despite communication difficulties the locals sell their wares and advertise the relics of their town or city, and the American tourists come away thinking they saw something grand. I suppose I should not be too hard on them.

I do not want to over interpret any of this book. Twain clearly wrote it to give a pleasurable and humorous account of naive, rushed, and materialistic Americans—people without a past—visiting places with deep pasts. He enjoyed exposing the silly differences between Americans and the people he met (read the section on Europeans relationship to soap for a good laugh). What we find when we put people without a past to historical sites is a debasement of their value. They become reflections of their own desires and perspectives. I feel at times that Twain is showing that it is truly impossible for Americans to understand the historical burden that these places contain. The Coliseum, for instance, for American Christian tourists is a site of martyrdom. Twain is unique in trying to see it as a place of community gathering, not unlike the theater. So this is the fundamental problem with tourism. Twains brilliance is his use of American “innocence” to expose elements of the real history underlying the regular “historical sites.”


Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1866-1870)

“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.

Regulating the urban poor, Sing Sing

Regulating the urban poor, Sing Sing

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)

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.


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).


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.


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.


Francis Parkman, “The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” (1849), Part One

“One morning, a piece of plank, standing upright on the summit of a grassy hill, attracted our notice, and riding up to it, we found the following words very roughly traced upon it, apparently by a red-hot piece of iron. MARY ELLIS, DIED MAY 7th, 1845, AGED TWO MONTHS. Such tokens were common occurrence. Nothing could speak more for the hardihood, or rather infatuation, of the adventurers, or the sufferings that await them upon the journey.” (56)


My apologies for beginning my look at Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail with this bit of pathos. Indeed, I am not particularly interested in stressing the hardship and suffering of the trail. Any high school text book can do this adequately. But this makeshift tomb did strike me as an impressive piece of Americana for another reason. The Oregon Trail was created by thousands of working people, from many different nations, men and women, adults and children, through interactions with local people. Sure, the government had a thin role through forts and the occasional army presence, but the trail was a vernacular creation. This tomb was just one of the small relics left behind by these people. Ah, forgive me, I feel I am still within the mythology of the American past: The rugged individual staking out, with courage, the settlement of the West. Is it possible to tell this story (especially through the mind of someone like Francis Parkman) without regurgitating these myths? Nevertheless, let me stand by this. The Oregon Trail, according to Parkman anyway, was created by a motley, international crew of settlers, some Romantic frontiersman, some practical patriarchs and matriarchs, some Indians who through the participation may have helped ensure the end of Indian autonomy in the West. The state seemed distant at best. Perhaps this is really a story of bottom-up vernacular creation. Maybe the myths are correct.


Francis Parkman, the great historian whose epic history of the British and French empires in North America I looked at earlier in the year, experienced the Oregon Trail in 1846, after graduating from law school. He did not go as a settler, but as a reporter. During his investigations he participated in a buffalo hunt with the Sioux. He returned and experienced a collapse in his health, something that would plague him for the rest of his life. Out of his experiences came The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, appearing first in serial formation in 1847 and in book form in 1849 (as The California and Oregon Trail, to profit off the gold rush). He had already hoped to work on Pontiac’s revolt, his first major historical work, and his reportage was a place holding work toward what he felt was a more important historical investigation.

Almost immediately the reader gets a sense of the transnational solidarities of the participants in the Oregon Trail. “The passengers on board the Radnor [the boat Parkman used to navigate the Missouri River before setting off on the land route] corresponded with her freight. In her cabin were Santa Fe traders, gamblers, speculators, and adventurers of various descriptions, and her steerage was crowded with Oregon emigrants, ‘mountain men,’ negroes and a party of Kanzas Indians, who has been on a visit to St. Louis.” (9–10) Some of the characters he describes meeting are almost out of film stereotypes of nineteenth century frontiersmen. Sorry to quote again, it is too lovely. “As I stood at the door of the tavern, I saw a remarkable looking person coming up the street. He had a ruddy face, garnished with the stumps of a bristly red bread and a moustache; on one side of his head was a round cap with a knob at the top, such as Scottish laborers sometimes wear: his coat was of a nondescript form, and made of a gray Scotch plaid, with the fringes hanging all about it; he wore pantaloons of coarse homespun, and hob-nailed shoes; and to complete his equipment, a little black pipe was struck in one corner of his mouth.” (11–12) Parkman’s early impressions seems to have been that the people he was surrounded by (did I mention a large group of Mormons?) were much more interesting than the rather dull environment.

I do not want to give too cheery a picture, however. Fear was real, and Parkman described in on the faces of some of the pioneers he encountered, whether bachelors or entire families. Difficult alliances were formed among groups for protection against Indians, forcing the creation of makeshift councils and decision-making structures.

The infamous conflicts with the Indians are here as well, but Parkman’s narrative shows them for a bit of a facade. He reports violence from time to time, but neither side dared open confrontation if it could be avoided. The Pawnee, for instance, looked upon the wagon trains as a source of income (and the train prepared for theft as simply part of the cost of doing business on the train). Shows of bravado and intimidation occurred, but avoidance of large confrontation was the rule. For example, when Parkman’s group was out hunting for buffalo they ran into a group of Pawnee. “The amazement and consternation were mutual. Having nothing but their bows and arrows, the Indians thought their hour had come, and the fate that they were no doubt conscious of richly deserving, about to overtake them. So they began, one and all, to shout forth the most cordial salutations of friendship, running up with extreme earnestness to shake hands with the Missourians, who were as much rejoined as they were to escape the expected conflict.” (63) On the next page we learn that Parkman bought the friendship of people from the same group with a half-pound of tobacco, while a neighboring group of emigrants lost one man to the Pawnee and were forced to huddle in camp for a day or two. I do not want to give these encounters, based on threats and sometimes violence, a too festive atmosphere, but I get the sense that what was happening was a bit of a game (perhaps like drug dealers and police) that often ensnared people tragically, but when carefully played, left both sides intact. Unfortunately, it seems too few of the emigrants fully understood the rules.

When examining power on the Oregon Trail, it seems there are four forces, but none of them dominate enough to control the other three. One center of power were the emigrants themselves, forming organizations to protect themselves and survive. They were armed, provisioned, and organized (to a degree). A second group was the United States government, but they were largely absent outside of visits to forts. Their power was not projected outward very much, at least not in 1846, when Parkman was there. A third group, more extensive than the government, were transnational corporations such as the American Fur Company (owned by a US citizen, but many of the employees were French-Canadians and Indians). As Parkman said of Fort Laramie, “Here their officials rule with an absolute sway; the arm of the United States has little force; for when we were there, the extreme outposts of her troops were about seven hundred miles to the eastward.” (97) The final group, were the Indians, who seemed—according to this account—more interested in securing a steady income from the emigrants than preventing the migrations entirely. It seems that there is a space here for taking seriously the vernacular organizations formed by the emigrant themselves, but I do not know of any scholarship that does this.

American Fur Compay's Fort Laramie

American Fur Compay’s Fort Laramie

Most of the rest of The Oregon Trail details Parkman’s time living with the Sioux. What we can learn about his attitudes about them and the nature of their society will be reserved for my second post on this excellent example of early American reportage.

A. J. Liebling, “The Press,” (1964)

Put out a few months after his death, The Press, collects A. J. Liebling’s diverse writings on the state of journalism in the United States. In the sharp and humorous style that characterized most of his work, Liebling exposes the decline of the newspaper in the United States as an important element of civil society. This type of argument is, of course, old news by now. We have been hearing about the decline of the newspaper for years now. Media consolidation, the rise of the Internet commentators lacking the ability and skills to report, the 24-hour news cycle, and downsizing in newspaper are all clear to us, now. What strikes a 2013 reader of Liebling’s The Press is how predictable all of that was and how the roots of that decline went back to the early 20th century. I suppose Liebling’s critique has three parts. The first is that profitability of a newspaper interferes with its role in civil society. The most profitable newspapers are the only newspaper in town, making competition for stories rare and ensuring that much will be unreported (because with a captive audience one need to necessarily report in order to get buyers-or so they thought until the Internet). Media consolidation makes newspapers more profitable at the expense of the losing companies and the public good. A second critique that runs through The Press is that the newspaper is no longer speaking for the public interest and rather speaking to class interests (or some other subset). His analysis of the coverage of strikes, for instance, shows the press supporting owners while feigning objectivity.  This third critique is a bit more technical, but has to do with the ways in which news spread between papers, exaggerate claims, or carry on lies. They are essentially becoming gossip rags. Again, the fault for this seems to lie in media consolidation. With no need to compete for stories, there is no reason to have a bureau in Moscow, which means international news will largely rely on slight rewritings of wire stories. At best this is harmless, at worst it leads to the promulgation of falsehoods or exaggerations, as Liebling shows in the case of reportage on Chiang Kai-shek’s military strength.


The Press is made up of six pieces previously published by Liebling throughout his career, so these are not a deathbed condemnation of his profession. His chapter titles suggest clearly his major themes: “Toward a One-Paper Town,” “No-News,” and “Not Too Lopsided.” Liebling does very well describing what ails the newspaper industry, but what of the solutions? In fact, it seems to Liebling that the solution is quite simple. “[A] large number of competing newspapers, permitting representations of various shades of thought, are a country’s best defense against being stampeded into barbarism.” (911)  A greater diversity of views, leading not to greater amateurism but rather a greater focus on professionalism as papers compete for accuracy and relevance. That is certainly fine for his day. We have a more challenging problem today, namely, that diversity has not necessarily led to more professionalism. This blog, for example, is the product of someone who is entirely untrained in literature, politics, or philosophy but I discuss them all. In a search for Melville’s Mardi, I come up long before many real professional Melville scholars. (I mention this as one of my more commonly-viewed pages, which is also one of my worst efforts written during last Christmas over heavily spiked eggnog.) For better or for worse, good commentary, good reporting, and thoughtful analysis often gets shoved aside by. This is essentially David Simon’s renewal of Liebling’s argument. Simon is seeming to say that a one-newspaper town is acceptable as long as it has professionals, is committed to reporting on urban institutions engaged in the public interest, and (of course) financially viable. I do not recall him saying much about competition between newspapers. Maybe the hey-day Liebling recalls, when a city had half-a-dozen competing papers was too far gone for Simon to pine over.

Sorry for the string of clips:

If you watch those clips, you will see that Liebling and Simon essentially start from the same place, in a belief that the role of the newspaper is that of preserving civil society and that this job is impossible to carry out unless newspapers are not primarily concerned with the bottom line. I reckon a product-first focus would do much to aid the universities, another bastion of civil society almost completely engulfed by the profit motive, as well.

Another model that Liebling suggests, as he loses hope that competition can ever again be the force that provides objective and professional journalism is the endowed newspaper. “I think that a good newspaper is as truly an educational institution as a college, so I don’t see why it should have to stake its survival on attracting advertisers of ball-point pens and tickets to Hollywood peep shows. And I think that private endowment would offer greater possibilities for a free press than state ownership.” (698–699) Liebling hopes that an endowment model (rather than the daily panhandling for ads, would to more to ensure objectivity as long as those endowments were offered up without strings attached. I suppose this works well enough in other areas; I am not sure how often corporate sponsors of opera companies complain about what is put on each season. Yet, the news had more opportunities for opposing the interests of the elite so I am not as sure as Liebling is that the endowment model would work.

Some of what Liebling documents is just humorous and not necessarily a sign of illness. The tendency of the press to inflate stories to fill column inches (the media’s slow watch of Stalin’s death is fascinating if only because each days reporting could only report that he still lived). This may be how 24 hour cable stations now make their money but Liebling is able to present it as a fascinating piece of Americana.

As I see it, Liebling’s The Press is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of media in the United States. It is not as strong in imagining creative alternatives for the nature of reporting in free societies – Liebling was, after all, institutionalized and a professional but not so much so that he could not manage a critique of the press. One issue he did not speak much on was the division of labor among workers in newspapers. I know some anarchist publishers (AK Press) have managed to rethink how work is divided to ensure that no one person has too much power. In my brief experience with newspaper (I work at one now at a copy desk) only a handful of people in the company have any power over what appears in print and for the rest of us, the job is pretty Taylorized and repetitive. I guess that a newspaper of the future would need to be prefigurative.