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This final novel of Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, was left unpublished when he died and existed in a handful of radically different manuscript forms.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.

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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.

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

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

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

A collection of Twain's sketches, released in 1875

A collection of Twain’s sketches, released in 1875

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

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

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

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

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

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