Zora Neale Hurston: “Tell My Horse” (1938)

Our history has been unfortunate. First we were brought here to Haiti and enslaved. We suffered great cruelties under the French and even when they had been driven out, they left here certain traits of government that have been unfortunate for us. Thus having a nation continually disturbed by revolution and other features not helpful to advancement we have not been able to develop economically and culturally as many of us wished. These things being true, we have not been able to control certain bad elements because of a lack of a sufficient police force. [. . .] It is like your American gangsters. (482–483)

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Zora Neale Hurston wrote Tell My Horse in 1938 after she completed field work in Haiti and Jamaica in 1936 and 1937. In some ways the book is a follow up to Mules and Men looking at the survival of African traditions in the New World. She explores voodoo (switching to this spelling, so I will too) in both works. As expected, the tradition is much more fully developed in this book surveying life in the Caribbean. Hurston is also interested in the overall question of black self-rule. While the stories in Mules and Men clearly emerged from a biracial society and reflect the emotional and creative needs of a people oppressed from within, Tell My Horse shows a people capable of self-rule but suffering the exploitation of an entire world system, policed by the United States (Haiti was occupied in much of the 1920s by the United States).

The book is broken up into three parts. The first too provide a general history, examination of social conditions, and political background of Jamaica and Haiti. The theme for both of these is the legacy of slavery and resistance to slavery. In Jamaica it is explored through a surviving maroon community. In Haiti is more overly politicized through the historical memory of Haitian revolution. (And by the way, I have noticed while working on this blog how often Haiti comes up in US writing.) The third part of the book is the longest and constitutes the bulk of the material is an anthropological accounting of voodoo in Haiti. The book ends with some Creole language songs, many of which are discussed in the texts in their full context.

As I hinted above the major tension in the first parts of this book is between self-rule and an empire posed from above. I opened this review with a quote by a Haitian physician, recorded by Hurston. He is basically showing how the burden of empire has caused a social breakdown in Haitian society. The options are authoritarian policing or a total violent breakdown of social order. In fact, these are the same things. Police emerge as a reflection of the annihilation of society. It also seems to speak to the problem of empire. The disorder on the ground in Haiti and other Caribbean nations was the constant justification for US imperialism. Yet, to look on the bright side, the signs of the capacity of self-rule and democratic order from below are there.

Hurston’s visit to the maroon community of Accompong is important in her general interpretation of the Caribbean. It is an example of black self-rule going back to the seventeenth century, an experiment centuries longer lasting than the United States.

Here was the oldest settlement of freedmen in the Western world, no doubt. Men who had thrown off the bands of slavery by their own courage and ingenuity. The courage and daring of the Maroons strike like a purple beam across the history of Jamaica. And yet as I stood there looking into the sea beyond Black river from the mountains of St. Catherine, and looking at the thatched huts close at hand, I could not help remembering that a whole civilization and the mightiest nation on earth had grown up on the mainland since the first runaway slave had taken refuge in these mountains. They were here before the Pilgrims landed on the bleak shores of Massachusetts. Now, Massachusetts had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Accompong had remained itself. (294)

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As a self-contained, society with a tradition of self-rule they are a constant reminder of the alternatives that existed to empire and capitalism. In contrast, Haiti is for Hurston an example of the crushing burden of empire on societies.

When Hurston arrived in Haiti for her field work, the memory of the recent US intervention was strong among the people she talked to. What may have been—from the US perspective—a passive phase in foreign policy, was for Haitians a reminder of the betrayal of the revolution. Hurston and her sources are unequivocal in their blame on both external manipulation and the failure of the Haitian elite to do something with their “democracy.” She compares the opportunistic elite in Haiti, prone to ideological and rhetorical flourish, to the black “race leaders” in the United States, who Hurston sees as being displaced by the “doers,” a more silent class but more influential in improving conditions.

Much of this “doing” that Hurston likes so much is reflected in the religious traditions in the Caribbean. It developed very much into a counter-culture, complete with its own social hierarchy and traditions. For every opportunistic political leader, there were dozens of “clans” that run function quite well, empowered by the tradition of voodoo. Hurston points out that structurally, these communities have much in common with the male-dominated African clan. She even entered into a harsh verbal confrontation with a man who debated her about the merits of gender equality. Yet, within voodoo there was a place for women to be active. She talks about a Madame Etienne who had a strong foundation of power and influence in Archahaie.

Zombies come across almost as an extension of the greater political narrative of Haiti as Hurston sees it. By turning free people into thralls, the houngan (those voodoo spiritual leaders) betray the victory of the revolution, turning self-rule into dependency. It is a revival of the master-slave relationship. The fact that such practices are signs of evil and resisted by most (there are elaborate burial rights used to prevent being turned into zombies), is a parallel to the hostility that most Haitians felt toward the opportunities government.

Although it is not a pretty picture at all time at the grassroots of Jamaican and Haitian society, Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse is detailing the unending tension between empire and self-rule. The signs seem to point to the endurance of self-rule, cultivated through counter-cultures, secret societies, deviant religious practices, and various other transgressions. I was reminded often of Bryan Palmer’s book Cultures of Darkness which looks at these secret societies as a necessary component of capitalism.

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James T. Farrell, “Judgment Day” (1935): How to Sleep Through a Revolutionary Moment

Grim-faced men in working clothes and overalls with an interspersing of women in their ranks marched slowly along a high fence surrounding a factory in a mid-western town, watched by special deputies who stood at regularly-spaced intervals with clubs and truncheons ready. Above the geometrically patterned factory windows, two chimney’s smoked. (594)

He paused at South Shore Drive and looked across at the arched entrance-way to the club grounds, wondering again what should he do now. Carroll Dowson had just joined South Shore Country Club, he remembered, and was getting up in the world. Well, the day would come when Studs Lonigan could join a swell club like that if he wanted to. (739–740)

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The final volume of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, Judgment Day, reads like a guidebook on how to squander a revolutionary movement. In the first two volumes of the series we see Studs Lonigan squander his intelligence and potential in a half-hearted resistance against the institutions that dominate his life. His rebellion is only passive and usually unacknowledged. Studs rejects the “American” values of hard work. He rejects Catholic sexuality and religious practices. He even rejects his community, disregarding friends and family for short-term psychological advantage. Yet, into his late 20s and early 30s, Studs is still capable of resting his identity on these very structures. This is him in response to yet another leftist trying to awaken his political imagination.

Studs laughed at the crazy bastard. A Bolshevik. He supposed the guy was a nigger lover, too. Well, let the Bolshevik get tough. They’d be taken care of, just the same as the shines were during the race riots of ’19. (709)

This is meant to be embarrassing to read, especially after we have been following Studs with no amount of concerned interest for seven hundred pages. He treats the post-World War I Chicago race riots in the same what he treated his childhood brawl with a classmate. He turns what was a vulgar and ugly affair, with no redeeming features, into a celebration that long out lives the event. When looking at the previous volume in the series, I tried to approach the dilemma of Studs’ resistance to institutional confinement along with his embrace of those very structures as his personal identity. Two things make all of this harder to watch. First, Studs is getting old quickly. A life of drinking, smoking, and chasing women has left him worn beyond his years. He is around 30 now and has nothing to show for his life. Second, Studs has been placed in a moment of historical transformation. The novel is set in 1932, during the election campaign that would bring Franklin Delano Roosevelt to office. Studs is surrounded by revolutionaries and revolutionary activity. More so than in the other words in the series, Farrell populates this book with news, trying to hit home that Studs is sleeping through a storm.

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It is time to examine Farrell’s politics. He was from a union family; his father was a teamster in Chicago.  His writing career began in journalism, writing columns and book reviews for newspapers. In his mid-20s, while writing Young Lonigan he advocated racial integration at the University of Chicago dramatic association. After the Great Depression began, Farrell was writing articles for New Masses. His career is largely literary but he engages in political actions such as May Day marches and picketing publishers that fired leftists. By the time he was finishing the Studs Lonigan triology in 1935, Farrell was fully part of the leftist opposition in the United States. He became a follower of Leon Trotsky and was greatly affected by his murder, having earlier travelled to Mexico to support Trotsky in his legal difficulties there in 1937. During the Cold War, Farrell continued his vocal defenses of leftist writers and thinkers and also worked to support the growing United Auto Workers. In many ways, Farrell’s biography reads like a model example of Great Depression era American radicals. Knowing this makes it easier to read Studs Lonigan as a leftist critique of American working class provinciality and false consciousness.

Back to the tale. In Judgment Day, Farrell places Studs Lonigan in a revolutionary situation. Lonigan does everything he can to avoid facing the historical moment he was in. Instead he continued to shuffle through his life, which is becoming increasingly pathetic to watch. Some of his friends are in jail or dead, but this is not as tragic as Lonigan’s own living death. It also suggests the costs of his earlier recklessness. While we do not want to condemn every (or even most) efforts at pleasure seeking, Lonigan refused to ever examine critically the world he lived in, despite being given insight from many of the people in his life. The costs of this is he is impotent to do anything but accept the guidance of others.

Some of what Lonigan does in the first part of this novel include attend funerals and talk about the good old days. He had a steady girlfriend, Catherine, but he is rather indifferent to her. Lonigan realizes that she is a good hearted woman and would make a good wife, but he cannot help but think he is settling for less than he deserves because of her mediocre looks and figure. He cheats on her, they fight constantly, and the relationship goes nowhere despite a marriage proposal early in the story. He is constantly losing money in the stock market because he invests what little money he has on promises made by opportunities who (like President Hoover) promised the recovery was right around the corner. More than a game, it is one more burden on his already immobile existence. It is also evidence that Lonigan has no capacity to examine the world critically. He joins a secret Catholic brotherhood called the Order of Christopher. Of course, he fails to follow through on what membership in this group might provide to the now-middle-aged man.

Catherine properly diagnoses Studs’ problem during one of their fights. “Only you’re walking along here, so self-satisfied acting as if you were so pleased, with a head like a big balloon full of false pride, acting as if you thought yourself . . . indispensable.” (726) His response to this apt critique is the only strategy he has learned in almost 20 years on the streets. He tries to smash Catherine’s self-confidence. At the mid-point of Judgment Day Lonigan pays to sleep with a married woman who has lost her money gambling and feared to return to her husband empty handed. Yet, despite his betrayal, ridicule, and abuse of Catherine he is confident that a pleasant note preparing their reconciliation is waiting for him.

The second half of the novel really focuses on Studs rapid decline. After the argument with Catherine, he attempts to sleep with the gambler again but is humiliated and thrown out of her house. Studs, who rests much of his masculinity of a perception of his sexual prowess, is told “you don’t even know how to jazz.” (771) Failed, he returns to Catherine. After reuniting Studs rather violently has sex with her. As he apparently raped her and took her virginity, he feels instantly guilty about it and shows some humility before his friends refusing to gossip about it. Throughout their subsequent sexual relationship, Catherine insists on marrying soon. Studs knows that times are bad and he lost most of his savings in playing the stock market so I attempts to evade the commitment. The announcement that Catherine is pregnant forces his hand, but neither family understand why they must hurry to marry given the Depression. He looks for jobs and catches pneumonia and dies.

The political assertiveness of the first half of the novel falls away, for good reasons. Studs’ times for dreaming and making a name for himself ended with Catherine’s pregnancy. At that point, even if he had a political awakening (which he did not), he was forced to focus solely on the family. Responsibility got forced upon him is one way of saying it. Another way to say it is that Studs was forced into action. But is this not exactly the place the nation was at in the early 1930s? When writing this blog, I have rarely looked at what literary critics have been saying about these works, but I cannot help but see the Studs Lonigan trilogy as more than a description of working class life. Studs is a metaphor for America in the 1920s and 1930s. The Depression, like Catherine’s pregnancy, forced the nation into bold action. In 1935, Farrell has no way of knowing if the half measures of the New Deal would be enough. I suspect he would have found them limiting, which is why Lonigan has to die at the end.

In the second to last chapter, we see Studs’ father walking the street, bumping into a “Red parade.” Old man Lonigan has become increasingly fascist during the Depression, even suggesting the need for a Mussolini to help correct America’s economy with an emergency dictatorship. We are reminded at the end, through this parade, that many in the United States were not sleeping through the revolutionary moment. It also paints a sharp contrast to the street as it has been presented in the previous 900 pages. Instead of a place of rootless wandering, racial violence, and sexism, it becomes the space of re-creation and re-imagining. This takes place while Studs is dying (his father wonders if he is already dead).

Strange music filling the street, the shouts and cries of an approaching throng headed by an overcalled white man and a Negro carrying an American and a red flag, policeman stretched along the cubs in both directions, shabby people behind the line of bluecoats, a crowd constantly augmenting in front of the corner speakeasy saloon, children scampering and dodging through the group; all this befogged and confused Lonigan, and he puzzled with himself trying to figure what it was. . . The noise and music swelled in volume, and he told himself, as if in an argument with someone else, that with things as bad, why couldn’t the Reds let well enough alone. (934–935)

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Union Square Rally, 1930s

The scene goes on for quite some time, juxtaposing the lively parade scenes with the failure of Old Man Lonigan to understand that the people he condemned throughout his life were doing the promethean imagining that he and his son could not.

What shocks him above all is their capacity for political pleasure (something he never had through a lifetime of support for the Democratic Party).

He seemed happy. That frail little woman in blue. They were happy. And they didn’t look like dangerous agitators, that is, except the eight-balls. All black boys were dangerous, and they couldn’t be trusted farther than their noses. But the white ones, they looked like men and women, with faces the same as other men and women. He could see that most of them were poor, and many of them, like that fellow in gray dragging his feet, were tired. He wondered how they could be Reds and anarchists, so dangerous and so perverted that they even made little children into atheists. He shook his head in bewilderment, and repeated to himself that these people were happy. (940)

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Old Man Lonigan navigates the protests and starts drinking at a bar, spending the last moments of his son’s life angry and drunk.

 

 

“The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1831)

The Confessions of Nat Turner cannot be easily separated from the legal proceedings that created it. Unlike the other slave narratives in the collection, Nat Turner’s was not produced by choice. Nat Turner’s anti-slavery work was done in action, not in the written word, but the popularity of The Confession may have had as much of an impact as the rebellion he organized and led.

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Nat Turner’s rebellion was one of only a handful of full-blown slave rebellions in 19th century North American history, alongside the 1811 New Orleans uprising and two failed conspiracies (Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey). As any first year student of American history knows, Nat Turner’s revolt is significant because it convinced the South that slavery was an institution that could no longer be debated and in the last thirty-five years of slavery in the United States, the planting class defended its cruel system with all its legal, political, and intellectual power—leading eventually to a growing sectional divide and the Civil War, which led to the greatest American slave revolt with almost 200,000 armed escaped slaves invading and occupying the lands they once worked.

The document itself is simply Nat Turner’s confessions made in jail over the course of a few days of conversation with Thomas Gray. Soon after this talk he was executed. As the trial transcripts put it: “The judgment of the court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the house of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” (264–265) The confession is bracketed by these official documents, Grays comments, and information on the whites killed in the uprising and the fate of the captured blacks. Some of these were free before the rebellion and for all intents and purposes were free for the duration of their insurrection.

The conspiracy

The conspiracy

There is not that much in The Confessions of Nat Turner in way of autobiography, but what he focuses on is significant for what is tells us about the nature of power in antebellum Southern slavery. Nat Turner wanted the world to know how he taught himself to read and how he was given a mission by God. In this way, he established his intellectual and moral independence from his masters. Several years before the rebellion, he escaped and apparently could have stayed away, but he returned after a month in order to fulfill this mission. Thus, he also wanted to make clear to his accusers that he from that moment on a slave by choice.

Suppression

Suppression

Most of the confession is his description of the various murders he and his group were engaged in. The description of the rebels taking axes to the skulls of children are hard to read, but Nat Turner is brutally honest about the necessity for justice and the divine nature of his mission. To blunt, Nat Turner’s actions was no less shocking than what was done to slaves throughout the nation, everyday, for decades. It was less of a tactical mission than a martyrdom. He makes comparisons to Christ. “Was not Christ crucified. And by signs in the heaves that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work—and until the first sign appeared, I should conceal it from the knowledge of men.” (253) Success was not promised him and apparently it was not expected. His mission was to awaken and shock the conscience of the nation. The response by whites suggests he was successful.

We can also read The Confessions of Nat Turner as yet another example of the state suppression of libertarian movements. Examples of this abound, of course, but this one is particularly clear and well-documented, particularly in the courts refusal to consider the context, their rapid application of lethal justice, and the indiscriminate killing of many of the participants in the rebellion.

“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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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

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

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

Jose Marti

Jose Marti

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

Lu Xun

Lu Xun

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

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

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

Mark Twain: “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” Part Two

“Joan crowned the King at Rheims. For reward he allowed her to be hunted to her death without making one effort to save her. During the next twenty-three years he remained indifferent to her memory; indifferent to the fact that her good name was under a damning blot put there by the priests because of the deeds which she had done in saving him and his scepter; indifferent to the fact that France was ashamed, and longed to have the Deliverer’s fair fame restored. Indifferent all the time.” (968)

Continued from the last post, in which I tried to show that we can, along with Mark Twain, be inspired by Joan of Arc as an example of a young person being given massive challenges and creating the new values required for the age. In Twain’s account, Joan of Arc transformed cynicism into optimism, shallow symbolic religion for religious passion, while also destroying the existing political and social status quo. In a sense, Joan of Arc is a larger and historically significant example of Huck Finn, who also successfully faced the most profound challenges of the day. I also argued that perhaps the best thing that elders can do is understand that their values are decrepit (which does not mean they did not have their value at one time) and step aside, in the process liberating the creative power of young people. Most importantly we should stop educating them in our fashion, in our institutions.

The second half of Mark Twain’s The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, covers her military campaign after the victory at Orleans and her martyrdom at the hands of the conservatives in her own ranks and the English. Mark Twain argues that her victories emerged from her vernacular knowledge, her peasant background. The nobility could not save France because they simply did not understand France. “How did she know it? It is simple: she was a peasant. That tells the whole story. She was of the people and knew the people; those others moved into a loftier sphere and knew nothing much about them. We make little account of that vague formless, inert mass, that mighty underlying force which we call ‘the people’—an epithet which carried contempt with it. It is a strange attitude; for at bottom we know that the throne which the people support, stands, and that when that support is removed, nothing in this world can save it.” (790) This is perhaps not a justification for monarchy in the end, but to the degree that one of Joan’s successes was the coronation of the King and the solidification of the political force that would win the war against the English, she at least moved that monarchy into a democratic direction. Unfortunately there are too few rectifications of the people with the rulers (revolutions, they are typically called).

Whatever brief united Joan created between the state and the people fell away immediately. Joan—and in Twain’s mind the people of France—wanted to march on Paris and finish the campaign with another great victory. The King ended Joan’s plans. A truce was arrived at that did not result in the total victory Joan promise and predicted. “Joan had Paris and France in her grip, and the Hundred Years’ War under her heel, and the King made her open her fist and take away her foot.” (834) This betrayal was followed by her capture by the English, which led not to the expected ransom demands, but rather her trial as a heretic. What shocks the narrator is that the King takes no effort to mobilize the people for the rescue of Joan. With her youthful, revolutionary power gone the army fell back into the hands of the decadent, defeatist leaders who had brought France to ruin. The entire spirit of Joan’s moment passes with her imprisonment. “We could not realize the change which had come upon the country. We seemed able to choose our own route and go wherever we pleased, unchallenged and unmolested. When Joan of Arc was in the field, there was a sort of panic of fear everywhere, but now that she was out of the way, fear had vanished. Nobody was troubled abut you or afraid of you . . . everybody was indifferent.” (847–848)

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Mark Twain presents the trial of Joan of Arc as yet another of her triumphs due to her ability to out-maneuver her accusers. The claims of heretical transgression centered on a handful of issues: her apparent direct contact with God (he took messages from “The Voice”) and her cross-dressing and her preference of wearing men’s clothing and armor. Under the surface are claims that she was misusing the French people for her own aims, lying to them to achieve victory or using some form of witchcraft to achieve unnatural victories. According to the narrator, the real reason for the trial was purely political and strategic. The English simply wanted to remove an obstacle to their war effort. By the narrator’s account the trials ended with Jean victorious, especially when she demanded a trial under the direct supervision of the Pope, rejecting the arbitrary local law for a more universal concept of justice. There is much in this trial that reminds us of Anne Hutchinson’s trial in this regard.

It is likely for this reason that Joan of Arc’s religious delusions do not seem to bother the normally skeptical Twain. Twain himself was a heterodox who preferred to go directly to the source and took liberties of interpretation when it moved him, not binding himself to any institutional religious claim. In the claim that damned her as a heretic Joan said: “I believe [the Church] cannot err; but for those deeds and words of mine which were done and uttered by command of God, I will answer to him alone.” (921)

After Joan of Arc is executed, she becomes a commodity to be used by others for political advantage. Until France was finally liberated from the English, the King ignored her. With victory he worked to “rehabilitate” her image so as not to be accused of earning his crown through the efforts of a women in league with the devil.

So, the second part of this tale is not without its victories for Jean, but these victories are in the broader context of betrayal. Perhaps this was inevitable. For all of Jean’s amazing achievements, she chose to work within and respect the political and religious systems of her time. Her revolution was a half-measure. She temporarily reconnected the French people with the crown. She oversaw the rise of a more vernacular and popular peasant Christianity. But since she never challenged those institutions, she was left vulnerable to betrayal. Institutions privilege self-preservation over justice, honor, and progress.

Around the time this book was published, Samuel Clemens’ daughter Susy died. I cannot help but wonder if he saw some of Joan of Arc in his daughter.

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Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889): Technology and Democracy

“The repulsive feature of slavery is the thing, not its name. One needs but to hear an aristocrat speak of the classes that are below him to recognize—and in but indifferently modified measure—the very air and tone of the actual slaveholder; and behind these are the slaveholder’s spirit, the slaveholder’s blunted feeling. They are the result of the same cause, in both cases: the possessor’s old and inbred custom of regarding himself as a superior being.” (385–386)

In this quote, Mark Twain is giving a transhistorical definition of slavery. Fair enough, I suspect. He does the same with technology, which emerges as either a tool of oppression or a means of liberation. Modern or medieval they have those same potentialities.

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To begin, I want to say that Mark Twain gives technology a great deal of autonomy in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. While we know he was caught up in the excitement for technology of his age. This enthusiasm led to his bankruptcy around the time that this novel was published over his investments into the Paige typesetters. I am not sure if we should read A Connecticut Yankee as Twain’s suggestion that context does not matter in the application of technologies, but that certainly seems to be the implication of the novel. The introduction of nineteenth century technologies to the sixth century promotes political and social reforms. While it is a great novel and very entertaining, it is not at all convincing that a sole time traveler could introduce the infrastructure of industrialization to the sixth century. Even in that episode of Star Trek where Data goes back in time (bumping into Mark Twain as a matter of fact) he only builds devices, not an entire infrastructure.

The novel works as a polemic against slavery and arbitrary hierarchy. Where does technology fit into this picture? Most clear is how technology was the key to the rise of “The Boss” in Camelot. A time traveler, he was able to introduce first small technologies in order to become the greatest wizard in England. First secretly and then openly he rolled out a technocratic republic to replace the medieval monarchy of Arthur. This included public schooling, newspapers, industries, and modern weapons. “The Boss” uses technology to battle the evils of chivalry and over turn their dominance over the enslaved peasants. He is at times a “boss” trying to benefit himself and solidify his leadership of Camelot, but he is also a Robespierre always eager for a political revolution and willing to use technological reforms to affect it.

After touring the countryside, “The Boss” and King Arthur are placed into slavery. After their escape, “The Boss” emerges eager to take on the cult of chivalry. He does this in a tournament, where he comes armed with a lasso and a revolver. After killing a dozen or so knights, he proves to all observers the triumph of his technology (really wizardry to the observers), but not yet his values. The revolution “The Boss” is after required violence.

There is a bit of hypocrisy in “The Boss” over democracy. First, he is very much interested in securing his own power. For all his talk of destroying aristocracy, he did not seem to trust peasants with their freedom (they would need to be civilized first). In this he may reflect the values of nineteenth-century Western imperialism. When describing his battle in the tournament he thoughts: “It was born of the fact that all the nation knew that this was not a duel between two mighty magicians; a duel not of muscle or the mind, not of human skill but of super human art and craft, a final struggle for supremacy between the two master enchanters of the age.” (494) In this, he simply shifted the terms of the debate to what was most advantageous to an industrial-era machinist. Not quite a democracy, more of a technocratic meritocracy is in his mind. Like in many meritocracies and technocracies, the terms of merit are defined by those already in power.

If “The Boss” is able to put nineteenth century technologies into medieval England while leapfrogging centuries of economic and political developments, it is not clear that democracy could be placed in Camelot without first some elements of the reforms of “The Boss.” He mentions that democracy is the only way to remove barbarism from the legal and political system. And as far as “The Boss” is concerned, elevating democracy requires brining along all of the nineteenth century along with him. Of course, that is what puts him in a bind at the end of the story when he is holed up with his technology with the corpses of 30,000 knights trapping him in.

The climax to the story comes with the Church’s interdict over “The Boss” and his endeavors. This act is inspired as much by his political reforms, as his technological introductions. He promised to transform Camelot into a republic by replacing the king, when he dies, with an elected leader. The interdict leads to his fall, another suggestion that no matter how easily the technology is able to be placed in a new environment, the political and social transformation “The Boss” sought was an impossibility. For Mark Twain, social changes comes much more slowly and much more violently than technological revolutions. The challenge is not to transcend time, but to ensure that our moral and social values are reflected in the technologies we use.