“The Mark Twain Anthology” Part Two: Mark Twain in the Cold War and After

Historically this is but a part of that larger conflict between older, dominant groups of white Americans, especially the Anglo-Saxons, on the one hand, and the newer white and non-white groups on the other, over the major group’s attempt to impose its ideals upon the rest, insisting that its exclusive image be accepted as the image of the American. This conflict should not, however, be misunderstood. For despite the impact of the American idea upon the world, the “American” himself has not (fortunately for the United States, its minorities, and perhaps for the world) been finally defined. So that far from being socially undesirable this struggle between Americans as to what the American is to be is part of that democratic process throughout which the nation works to achieve itself. Out of this conflict the ideal American character—a type truly great enough to possess the greatness of the land, a delicately posed unity of divergences—is slowly being born. Ralph Ellison, pp. 254–255

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

This will be my final post about Mark Twain, unless the Library of America decides to publish his autobiography or 1601 or some of the other “forgotten” works. The Mark Twain Anthology is a collection of articles, reviews, and analyses of Mark Twain and his works from a diverse group of writers, many non-Americans. In my last post, I looked at the first half of this collection where I found writers attempting to come to terms with first the rise of Twain’s unique voice and then confronting his overwhelming cultural power. I discussed how some saw him as the first unreflective American writer (that is American by nature, not as part of a rebellion against European writers and culture). Many non-American writers were interested in Twain as for his anti-colonial stance. In the later 20th century, writers started to impose on Mark Twain a variety of different political perspectives. Identity politics is reflected in much of the commentary on Twain, as was the Cold War.


I noticed three competing narratives about Mark Twain during the Cold War. The first is pursed largely in the United States and concerned identity politics and the quest to define America at a time when the global stakes were high. At times, it was simply a matter of imposing on Twain one particular group perspective, such as in Leslie Fiedler’s attempt in “Come Back to the Raft, Ag’in, Huck Honey” to suggest that Huckleberry Finn was part of a common trend in American literature to idealize same sex love. Fiedler wants to look to how children would have read these relationships. He goes so far as to call it a mythos in American literature. For T. S. Eliot, Huckleberry Finn, through the use of the River, provides a broader understanding of the American. He sees “no wisdom” in Twain’s later cynicism and pessimism, but sees hope for American unity in the relationship between Huck and Jim. Ralph Ellison suggests that “the Negro body” is the symbol of man in American literature, providing its moral center and the foundation for some cultural unity. “It is not accidental that the disappearance of the human Negro from our fiction conincides with the disappearance of deep-probing doubt and a sense of evil.” (263) In the context of the Cold War and the struggle for civil equality, Ellison suggests this is a necessity.


A second trend is reflected in W. H. Auden’s essay comparing Huck Finn and Oliver Twist. Auden, an English poet, like many others was struggling with the definition of “Western Civilization,” emerging in the context of the Cold War. Like writers knew, the political alliance between England and the United States betrayed significant cultural divisions running through “Western Civilization.” Auden points out a different view of nature. Americans see nature is a savage other to be endured, while in England nature is a cozy and caring mother, subdued and conquered. He also noticed a different human nature. For Americans human nature’s perfection has not been reached, hence stories like Huckleberry Finn look toward moral progress. He also looks at money. While the English see money as power, Americans saw money as “something you extract in your battle with the dragon of nature, represents a proof of your manhood.” (250)


Taking the same question to the Pacific we have a wonderful article by Kenaburo Oe, who read Huckleberry Finn as a child when Americans bombs were dropping on Japanese cities. For him, Huck Finn represented an image of personal freedom, self worth, and moral heroism at a time when Japanese youth were taught to kill themselves at the emperor’s command. Oe is still troubled by the fact that American imperial violence in Vietnam shared little in common with what he saw of American in its literature.

This does not concern the superficial amusement of finding the heirs of Huckleberry in hippies and calling all other average Americans, all together, squares, along with Tom Sawyer. Rather, in my clear and extensive impression I might even call classical, I felt, in today’s America, for example on Fifth Avenue, in New York, the existence of Americans with their destitute hearts listening to the calls of nighthawks and the barks of dogs in the depths of forests. I think I will think about it anew as one way the Americans who are the descendants of the Oscar Handlin’s so-called “uprooted” can exist in the great forest of ultra-modern civilization.

With these two articles, we see that in the Cold War, there was a search for understanding among allies and Huck Finn was not uncommonly at the center of those musings. Notice also, that while in the early twentieth century, Mark Twain was being seen as the American ambassador to the world. But by the 1950s and 1960s that role had been taken over by Huckleberry Finn.

A third trend during the Cold War musings on Mark Twain was the voices coming out of the Communist world. While Americans and their allies explored questions of identity, Russians and Chinese were using Mark Twain to remind the world of the moral failings of the United States. They gravitated toward the more pessimistic Twain who wrote on the faults of American capitalism, slavery, and the horrors of empire. Lao She hits all of these points in his 1960 speech “Mark Twain: Exposer of the ‘Dollar Empire.’” These themes get picked up in some of the post-Cold War writings on Mark Twain by Americans, when questioning America’s empire and its place in the world became more common.

I do not think it is a bad thing that we find people all around the world using Twain to ask questions that shape their lives. He was the sort of undogmatic writer who is sometimes difficult to pin down. Like Richard Wagner, who wrote each opera with a unique theme and sound, Twain’s novels are distinct. Even individual works often contain several motifs. In A Tramp Abroad we get descriptions of German university life alongside retelling of American folklore. As this blog is attempting to get at the anarchist heart of the American literary tradition, the fact that a giant like Mark Twain is so hard to nail down is significant. One thing that almost everyone agreed on, however, was that the moment when Huck Finn chose the struggle for freedom over the values of community is the heart of Twain’s moral vision. If that is in truth the central moment in American literature, it may be enough to make my case.

“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.


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.

Mark Twain: “No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger”: Labor and Automation

This final novel of Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, was left unpublished when he died and existed in a handful of radically different manuscript forms. The version collected by the Library of America is the most complete of the manuscripts and the only one with an ending, with the title No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. At its most overt philosophical moments, the novel is in line with Twain’s later writings on human nature: human beings are automata who receive their knowledge from the outside. At times the writing is even more nihilistic than this. Nothing exists; all is a dream. God—man—the world,—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars: a dream, all a dream, they have no exitence. Nothing exists save empty space—and you! (984) As I have already address my feelings on this cynical approach to human nature and the meaning of life in my last post and elsewhere in this blog, I wanted to focus on an aspect of the manuscript that, as far as I can tell, has been neglected. The settings for No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger is in print shop in an Austrian castle, just a few decades after the inventing of printing.


The characters are the various apprentices and journeymen of the print shop along with the master and his family. A deep conflict given at the beginning of the novel is between the mystical, superstitious vernacular culture of rural central Europe and the role of printing in promoting a culture of reason and progress. The members of the printer’s guild are not immune from these superstitions but are aware of the historical importance of their discipline, which they treat with appropriate reverence. The master is closer to a Renaissance figure than a backwoods laborer.

He was a scholar, and a dreamer or a thinker, and loved learning and study, and would have submerged his mind all the days and nights in his books and been pleasantly and peacefully unconscious of his surroundings, if God had been willing.

His wife also reflected a religious temperament but was very much materialistic, interested above all in making money. All members of the community believed strongly in the craft, which is why they were taken aback by the sudden rise of Number 44, New Series 864,962—the title’s “mysterious stranger.” It is his quick rise, made possible by clearly supernatural forces that led to one of the breakdown of this community of worker-scholars. When No. 44 was promoted from working for room and board to an apprentice, he was asked about his studies. The response of the other workers again reflects the importance of knowledge, languages, sciences, and philosophy to the guild. Their value and their pride rested on their knowledge. From their perspective, No. 44 was a scab. He became much more than that when the workers go on strike over No. 44’s rapid elevation in the guild. His presence is directly connected to the supernatural events taking place. The most dramatic is that during the strike, invisible workers and later duplicates of the guild workers complete the contract, much more efficiently than normal. The fate of the guild, being replaced by what is in essence machines and automata parallels the history of industrializing America, which is referenced several times through the novel as No. 44 has some sort of trans-temporal consciousness. As they are economically sidelined, they are also phased out of relevance to the novel. Twain writes on length at the replacement of human labor with the labor of the “invisibles,” and in the process described a post-industrial horror where human labor is unnecessary, absent, and discarded.

We were paralyzed; we couldn’t move a limb to get away, we couldn’t even cross ourselves, we were so nerveless. And we couldn’t look away, the spectacle of those familiar objects drifting about in the air unsupported, and doing their complex and beautiful work without visible help, was so terrifyingly fascinating that we had to look and keep on looking, we couldn’t help it. (866)

This situation is acceptable to the master who can have his contracts met, but works to slowly anger and alienate the skilled workers who stood at the heart of the guild. Another way to look at this is through the theme of a divided self, which Twain plays with throughout the novel. According to 44, everyone had a material and a dream self.

You know, of course, that you are not one person, but two. One is your Workaday-Self, and ‘tends to business, the other is your Dream-Self, and has no responsibilities, and cares only for romance and excursions and adventure. It sleeps when your other self is awake; when your other self sleeps, your Dream-Self has full control, and does as he pleases. It has far more imagination than has the Workaday-Self. (898)

This puts a more positive spin on the end of work that the guild members are facing. If we are truthful, 44 is correct. Work is boring, tedious, and damaging to our imagination. We should hope for (and struggle for) a time when our Workaday-Self can be abolished through technology. The Luddites were misguided in their struggle. While the new automated looms certainly were designed to expand the profits of their employers, by destroying them they destroyed the means to post-scarcity and the end of labor all together. This is the promising and uplifting message in this otherwise dark tale.

Twain in 1909, a year before his death.

Twain in 1909, a year before his death.

I am not quite done with Twain. More to come.

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1906–1910

Who devised the blood? Who devised the wonderful machinery which automatically drives its renewing and refreshing streams through the body, day and night, without assistance or advice from the man? Who devised the man’s mind, whose machinery works automatically, interests itself in what is pleases, regardless of his will or desire, labors all night when it likes, deaf to his appeals for mercy? God devised all these things. I have not made man a machine, God made him a machine. I am merely calling attention to the fact, nothing more. It is wrong to call attention to a fact? Is it a crime?

The last five years of Mark Twain’s life were devoted to religious speculation. Most of his published and unpublished writings from this period focused on two related arguments, both of which are developed most formally in “What is Man?” The first of these is about the lack of human agency (“man as a machine”). The second argument is about the basic self-interest of human and the impossibility of real selflessness. These are essentially related because Twain believed that humans were by nature and design selfish and could not choose to be altruistic. This extends the problem of evil in an interesting way. God is the direct cause of human evil as the creator of a flawed animal.

“What is Man?” was published during Twain’s lifetime, but not under his name. It is presented in the form of an extended dialogue between an old man and a young man. The young man is idealistic and a believer in selflessness, individual merit, and freedom. The old man breaks down all of these concepts by showing that people are machines with set natures, like animals, and do all things out of selfishness. Even the charitable person, who gives his last cent to a poor woman is doing this either for self-satisfaction or for the praise of others. The dialogue ends with the young man pleading to the old man never to publish his ideas, as they will have a horrible effect on human society.

These arguments are very troubling to libertarians, but these are ideas that need to be taken on, especially since people have been making compelling arguments that free will may be a myth. What meaning can liberty have when free will is an illusion? Often these arguments can be used to justify the state, prisons, police, and asylums. We require protection from our fallen nature. The best we can hope for is freedom in the form of amor fati, acceptance and love of fate.

What this argument does give us is a rejection of hero worship and the claim that the wealthy and powerful are somehow worthy or more deserving of their share of the world’s bounty.

Personal merit? No. A brave man does not create his bravery. He is entitled to no personal credit for possessing it. It is born to him. A baby born with a billion dollars—where is the personal merit in that? A baby born with nothing—where is the personal demerit in that? That one is fawned upon, admired, worshiped, by sycophants, the other is neglected and despised—where is the sense in it? (737)

Perhaps in this we can extract a type of argument for socialism, since individual merit does not account for individual success. But it does not see very convincing as an argument for freedom.

A second major late work of Twain’s was not published during his life is “Letters from Earth,” which consists of reports by the devil to God about the progression of his creation. It is largely a restatement of “What is Man?” but adds some mockery of Biblical literalism and the manifestation of religion among the humans. He also adds that people seem to take satisfaction in the reality of the problem of evil.

Then, having thus made the Creator responsible for all those pains and diseases and miseries above enumerated, and which he could have prevented, the gifted Christian blandly calls him Our Father! It is as I tell you. He equips the Creator with every trait that goes to the making of a fiend, and then arrives at the conclusion that a fiend and a father are the same thing. (905)

As with his arguments for political hierarchy, Twain believes that humans prefer to be unfree, not responsible, and controlled.


Several months ago, I questioned the utility of cynicism when looking at Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Although Twain is much more thoughtful than Bierce in his lampooning of human nature and human motivations, the result is the same comfortable inaction. Twain is probably aware that he is establishing a self-fulfilling philosophy. By arguing that optimism is an odious immaturity and saying that moral progress is impossible, he justifies inaction and therefore a lack of moral progress. Even if Twain’s cynicism is largely right (at least for humanity since the rise of civilization), his arguments can easily be used to accept the world as it is. While this attitude may have helped give birth to the Duke and the King, it did not create Huck Finn and cannot explain his moral progress and courage.

It seems to me there is little liberty to be gained in attempting to define human nature. Perhaps that is my prejudice as a historian. Even the worst historians can tell you that humans have lived in a great diversity of social structures with a great diversity of values. Mark Twain’s approach in later life, moving from a critique of an expanding and overly optimistic America to a condemnation of all of human, strikes me as rather lazy and without benefit. On this, I am with the young man in “What is Man?”

I will leave this systematic reading of Twain’s works troubled that the same mind that created Huck Finn could leave the world so burdened by cynicism, constantly repeating the argument that man is a selfish machine. I wonder if he had to repeat it so many times to convince himself.

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1901-1905: Displays of Power

To worship rank and distinction is the dear and valued privilege of all the human race, and it is freely and joyfully exercised in democracies as well as in monarchies–and even, to some extent, among those creatures whom we impertinently called the Lower Animals. For even they have some poor little vanities and foibles, though in this matter they are paupers as compared to us. “Does the Race of Man Love a Lord? (514)

The final decade of Twain’s writing reveals the depth of his cynicism and frustration with humanity. The Chinese writer Lu Xun believed these later writers exposed Twain as a misanthrope. At least is reveals his disgust with the world as it is, in all its pettiness and corruption. Lacking in Twain’s view of the world, at least in these later works, is a belief in the potential for human solidarity. Even with Adam and Eve is was difficult to achieve.  In this post, I will look at Twain’s writings from 1901-1905. His major accomplishments from this period include his greatest anti-imperialist writings and the completion of his series of fictional writings of Adam and Eve.


The essay, “Does the Race of Man Love a Lord?” brings forth one of the most important questions anarchists need to answer: Why is it so common on human history for one man to oppress thousands or even millions. Twain is not always the most promiscuous with answers to the conditions he critiques, but he does venture one here. He suggests we are very easily seduced by the symbols of power and distinction. Hierarchy creates a situation where any one of us can partake in the “little distinctions.” We accept a big lord because it makes us possibly a little lord.

All the human race loves a lord–that is, it loves to look upon or be noticed by the possessor of Power or Conspicuousness; and sometimes animals, born to better things and higher ideals, descend to man’s level in this matter. In the Jardin des Planets I have seen a cat that was so vain of being the personal friend of an elephant that I was ashamed of her. (523)

The same point is more of less made in “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” in which the Czar confesses that the only thing standing between him and destitution and powerlessness is his clothing. The story consists of a divine right ruler asking the same question so many anti-authoritarians have asked throughout the ages:

A horse with the strength of a hundred men will let one man beat him, starve him, drive him; the Russian millions allow a mere handful of soldiers to hold them in slavery — and these very soldiers are their own sons and brothers! (643-644)

Twain presents a quite convincing argument that it is again the accoutrements of power that matter. We have seen this in The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee, and even Joan of Arc, where Joan does little more than convince the French King that he is rightful (basically giving him a new hat).

Display of power

Display of power

In Twain’s later life, the most grotesque abuse of power was the expansion of the European and American empires across the globe. This inspired his two great anti-imperial essays, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” and “King Leopold’s Soliloquy.” Both are satires addressed to the victims and enemies of empire. The later exposes the vapid and brutal reality of Belgian rule in the Congo, and by presented the defense, he exposes the argument’s weakness. In both articles, the argument presented in favor of empire is also a matter of accoutrements, in this case civilization, business, and Christianity. These are all elements of American presumption that Twain has been at war with for much of his career. What the West was exporting to the rest of the world were precisely its most ridiculous, hypocritical, and anti-social characteristics. As Russia was forced to muse: “It is yet another Civilized Power, with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other. Is there no salvation for us but to adopt Civilization and lift ourselves down to its level?” (465) “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” is a more brutal document, inspired by the exploitation of the Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. King Leopold is presented as a self-conscious man, needed to defend his actions from the public, the press, missionaries, and the English critics. Of course Leopold has a point that his critics often had shameful records of their own and shares with Leopold the view that “Civilization” is so valuable that any degree of violence is acceptance in achieving it. In this way, the argument is not that far from the one in “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” but instead of thee display of power being used to gain popular support for hierarchy, they are being used as a more direct justification. Civilization is the ultimate accoutrement of power in the age of imperialism.

This is their style! I furnish “nothing!” I send the gospel to the survivors; these censure-mongers know it, but they would rather have their tongues cut out than mention it. I have several times required my raiders to give the dying an opportunity to kiss the sacred emblem; and if they obeyed me I have without doubt been the humble means of saving many souls.

By closing the article with King Leopold’s confession, “I know the human race,” we get the sense that Twain connected empire with his earlier questioning of why it was possible for the few to rule the many.


Twain’s answer to this harsh reality of human nature seems to be Adam and Eve, those original rebels who refused to submit to the lawmakers. The most moving aspect of Twain’s series of tales about the life of Adam and Eve is how they started as strangers with great differences and end up with a profound and convincing solidarity. Adam’s gasp at Eve’s grave sums this up”

Whosesoever she was, there was Eden (709)

Eve’s explanation for their bind was based on difference. She loves him not because of his many good qualities and labors, but because he is masculine and “mine.” We also observe that their relationship is based on incredible struggle and personal trauma: the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This had to be recreated in their relationship and I would like to think exists still in those examples of shared solidarity.


Mark Twain: “Following the Equator” Chapters 41–end: India and Africa

That was England, the English power, the English civilization, the modern civilization—with the quiet elegancies and quiet colors and quiet tastes and quiet dignity that are the outcome of the modern civilization. And following it came a picture of the ancient civilization of India—an hour in the mansion of a native prince: Kumar Schri Samatsinhji Bahadur of the Palitana State. (655)

Twain at the time of the publication of "Following the Equator"

Twain at the time of the publication of “Following the Equator”

There is a passage in Jurgen Osterhammel and Niels P. Peterson book Globalization: A Short History that helps put the realities of a world coming together into its proper perspective. World history tends to look at flows and by doing so cover-up questions of class and inequality and power. One of the powerful contributions of imperial history is that it reminds us that globalizations of the past were disruptive and often brutal. “It [network concept] tends to trivialize societal dimension, to flatten hierarchies and power differences, and to overlook the varying depth and intensity of relationships. The fact that networks cross or eliminate existing boundaries does not prevent them from creating new ones.” This is known (mostly) to students of empire, but often forgotten by students of globalization, especially its most eager supports in the historical profession, world historians.


Mark Twain’s Following the Equator is a powerful look this reformation of class boundaries in the global system created by mature European imperialism. Twain’s 1895–1896 tour of the world was really a tour of the Anglo-American empire. He first visited Hawai’i, then Australia and the South Pacific, then India, and finally Southern Africa. He was seeing worlds that were already heavily incorporated into the world system created by Europeans. In my first post on Following the Equator I focused on labor migration and the violence of empire. The situation changes a bit in the second half of the story, shifting to India and Africa, places where Europeans had to content with an existing culture that had deep roots and could not be easily supplanted, as in Australia. Twain devotes much of the second half of the book to understanding the culture and society of South Asia, but as the book makes clear, although the Hindu society was not at risk at being destroyed, it was under great stress and violent transformations as a result of British rule.  Chapter 41 is a good summarization of this, as he shows the local Hindu princes under increasing strain of the British modernization project. A century earlier they would have thanked the British for not overtaxing or for not “bringing famine upon them.” But, by the end of the nineteenth century the local princes’ powers were evaporated by “factories, schools, hospitals, reforms” and other institutions of colonial modernity. It was these institutions that did the job of reforming the class lines in colonial India and Africa.

In the process of these institutional changes, colonial India was becoming a progressively more violent and divided place. Twain digs up court trials, stories of American-style hucksterism, and—most significantly—a history of the rise of the Thug cult as evidence of how British rule destabilized Indian society. And while he points out that the inherent diversity of cultures in South Asia played a role in the rise of the Thuggee, he relishes in pointing out that the Thuggee were a mirror of European imperial barbarism. “We white people are merely modified Thugs; Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization; Thugs who long ago enjoyed the slaughter of the Roman arena, and later the burning of doubtful Christians by authentic Christians in the public squares, and who now, with the Thugs in Spain and Nimes, flock to enjoy the blood and misery of the bull-ring.” (703) The best example of British imperialism disrupting Indian society is the Sepoy Mutiny of the middle eighteenth century, the scars of which still existed for Twain to notice and reflect on over a century later.


Another civilizing project of the British that piqued Twain’s interest was the eradication of wild animals. “For many years the British Indian Government has been trying to destroy the murderous wild creates, and has spent a great deal of money in the effort. The annual official returns show that the undertaking is a difficult one.” (776) The reader gets the feeling that the strategy employed by the British to regulate wild animals was not much different from the approach to the Thuggee or the Sepoys a century earlier. Twain confesses that animals do seem to kill many people in India. He cites that snakes kill 103,000 in six years, to which the British kill over 1,000,000 snakes in retaliation. I am not sure if the environmental history of empire has been fully written, but we can see the consequences of the logic of the extermination of nature all around us.

Twain’s stay in Africa is considerably less lengthy and covers only the last few chapters of the book. As with India we see the institutions of law, violence, institutions of power, and economic incorporation into a global capitalist economy devastating the lives of native people. If Twain is to be believed it was as brutal in South Africa as in Australia. “The great bulk of the savages must go. The white man wants their lands, and all must go excepting such percentage of them as he will need to do his work for him upon terms to be determined by himself. . . . The reduction of the population by Rhodesian methods to the desired limit is a return to the old-time slow-misery and lingering-death system of a discredited time and a crude ‘civilization.’” (868–869) This brief section on Africa ends with a look at the diamond minds and the semi-forced labor that worked the mines. As across the British Empire, intense labor regimens, depopulation, violence, and global capitalism worked hand in hand.


Other Travels

This particular volume ends with thirteen short selections under the title “Other Travels.” Some of these were published earlier by the Library of America in the collected short works of Twain. Others expand on themes explored in some of his other travel narratives. For that reason, I will not put up what may be a redundant post about more of Twains travels. I have covered all of his travel narratives earlier in this blog.

These assorted travel narratives stretch from 1873 until 1897 and are by and large about Europe. The first and one of the last of these narratives speak to the question of empire. In “The Shah of Persia,” Twain discusses the arrival in London of the Shah of Iran. We see that the British tried to apply pressure on the Shah to change policies (through an expat Parsee population), even as the Shah was arriving as a theoretical equal. In “Queen Victoria’s Jubilee” we see a celebration of the successes of the reign of Queen Victoria. Part of the celebration was putting the empire on display. “Then there was an exhaustive exhibition of the hundred separate brown races of India, the most beautiful and most satisfying of the complexions that have been vouchsafed to man, and the one which best sets off colored clothes and best harmonizes with all tints. . . . The procession was the human race on exhibition—a spectacle curious and interesting and worth traveling to see” (1050) In both of these cases, we see the empire from the perspective of London. Like the Shah twenty years earlier, the true horrific reality of Britain’s empire building is not on display, only its grandeur.


Twain used travel narratives to hack ideas of American exceptionalism. As I looked at in an earlier post, “The Cradle of Liberty,” Twain believed that Switzerland was a better example of a libertarian tradition than the United States. In a similar vein, “The Chicago of Europe,” uses Berlin as an example of rational urban development. “Some National Stupidities” does this in a more humorous way by contrasting some do the absurdities of daily life in Europe and the United States. “America could adopt this [German] stove, but does America do it? No, she sticks placidly to her own fearful and wonderful inventions in the stove line. She has fifty kinds, and not a rational one in the lot.” (1035) As Twain started to learn in the context of the American conquest of the Pacific the separation between the Old World and the New World may not have been as great as many American writers believed.

Mark Twain: “Following the Equator” Chapters 1–40: The Pacific

“In Captain Cook’s time (1778), the native population of the islands was estimated at 400,000; in 1836 at something short of 200,000, in 1866 at 50,000; it is to-day, per census, 25,000. All intelligent people praise Kamehameha I and Liholiho for conferring upon their people the great boon of civilization. I would do it myself, but my intelligence is out of repair, now, from over-work.” (443)

The last of Mark Twain’s great travel narratives, Following the Equator, was published in 1897. It is also his last major book published during his lifetime. It shows the same growing pessimism about civilization that we see in much of Twain’s later writing. It is certainly the most critical of the travel narratives. While the previous narratives tended to make fun of the tourist or “the tramp abroad,” Following the Equator is an important attack on a world system driven by greed and exploitation. It is also one of the most important anti-imperialist documents of the turn of the twentieth century. The book documents Twain’s 1895–1896 lecture tour across the Pacific, Australia, India, and Africa. It is a lecture tour through the zones of nineteenth century empire building. The result is a work that hits most of the major points of contemporary scholarship on empire.


It is not a bleak, ponderous text. It maintains much of the lively musings that made Twain’s earlier travelogues so enjoyable, but these are less frequent and are marginal to his larger goal: the exposure of the exploitation of people at the heart of empire. Like the declining population of Hawai’i shows, the rise of Europe accompanied a massive death toll. Intra-European wars of the twentieth century may have maximized the technological capacity to kill, but in many ways the cost in lives of the nineteenth century was just as great. (See Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts to see how empire devastated traditional famine relief structures leading to tens of millions of deaths.)

Twain is aware of the role unfree labor migration played in empire, both the expulsion of excess populations of criminals and the economically excessive to the colonies and the migrations of semi-forced labor to work the plantations and the ships. Twain includes hard numbers on the wages, the costs of contract labor, and the profits of sugar plantations to quantify the extent of exploitation.  It is summed up: “It is easy to understand why the Queensland sugar planter should want the Kanaka recruit: he is cheap.” (463) The labor migrations caused by the growth of plantation in the Pacific had a deep history in the transportation of working class convicts.


Another observation Twain made that was new at the time but would not surprise any historian today is the important role of the missionary in empire building in the Pacific. He exposes the missionaries as an adjunct of the capitalist exploitation of the Pacific, benefiting—like capitalists—from the openness forced on the Pacific by capitalists. They worked to enforce class discipline, bringing just enough education to prepare worker for the needs of the capitalist class, and, most dangerously, advertised the idea the European civilization has something to offer outside of terror and exploitation.

And money.

And money.

Finally, for Twain, the global system created by empire is profoundly unstable. A rather funny anecdote suggests this disorder. It is about a child who was born just as the ship was crossing the International Date Line. This child will grow up never knowing its birthday (there was debate whether it was on a Sunday or a Tuesday). This is a problem that is only possible in a world force together through incredible powers. There are many other examples of this type of disorder—cultural and economic—in this book. “The child will never know its own birthday. It will always be choosing first one and then the other, and will never be able to make up its mind permanently. This will breed vacillation and uncertainty in its opinions about religion, and politics, and business, and sweet-hearts, and everything, and will undermine its principles, and rot them away, and make the poor thing characterless, and its success in life impossible.” (457)

Through his tour of the Pacific, Twain was able to reflect on the history of global capitalism in the Pacific, intertwining as it did with empire, and revealed its most vicious consequences. By just travelling through the empires and honestly describing social realities, Twain produced one of the most important political critiques of his era.