Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1896–1900

Mark Twain spent the last half decade of the nineteenth century abroad, most of the time, first on a tour of the world (which would become the foundation of the only book he wrote during this period, Following the Equator) and then settling in Vienna. During his tour he lectured, but he seemed to have been more silent while in Vienna, writing little. When he did speak it to protest American foreign policy. After the publication of Following the Equator he became more and more involved in anti-Imperialist politics. This was also a period intense tragedy for Twain, who endured the death of his daughter in 1896. Of the sixteen pieces collected in the Library of America volume for these years, the three most sizable were not published during his lifetime and exist in fragmentary form (“My Platonic Sweetheart,” “Which Was the Dream?” and “The Great Dark”). Some smaller works were also delayed until after Twain’s death: “Man’s Place in the Animal Kingdom” and “A Word of Encouragement for Our Blushing Exiles.” Thus, we have only eleven short pieces, one of which is a poem dedicated to the memory of his daughter Susy and another a short speech introducing Winston Churchill.

As for the works published during his lifetime we find a handful of crucial themes. One of these is Twain’s anti-imperialism. This is the theme of “A Word of Encouragement for Our Blushing Exiles,” which urges the United States not to get involved in the games of national pride and supremacy that motivates European empire-building at the end of the century. There is no reason, Twain points out, to play the game of empire, since the United States has nothing to prove to Europeans, with their ignoble history. “Is it France’s respect that we are going to lose? Is our unchivalric conduct troubling a nation which exists to-day because a brave young girl saved it when its poltroons had lost it—a nation which deserted her as one man when her day of peril came? Is our treacherous assault upon a weak people distressing a nation which contributed to Bartholomew’s Day to human history?” (260–261) In a slightly different way, Twain makes the same point in “Diplomatic Pay and Clothes,” which mocks the expenses of American diplomats and their efforts to impress Europeans with excessive lifestyles. His farewell to the nineteenth century is also a poke at empire. “I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chow, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pockets full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking glass.” (456) “Man’s Place in the Animal Kingdom” works for us as a summary of Twain’s attitude toward humanity. It is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a highlight. “Man is the only animal that robs his helpless fellow of his country—takes possession of it and drives him out of it or destroys him.”

Another theme is the corruption caused by money. This is not a new theme, of course. It runs through his entire critique of the Gilded Age and American capitalism, infused with the corruptive power of money and influence. The most relevant story regarding this is “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg,” which is about a man slighted by a town that prides itself on its purity (even taking the slogan “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.” Corrupting and embarrassing the town is a trifle; the man needs only use a fake bag of gold and a contest. For Twain, the exposure of the corruption is a moment for celebration, because it means that for the first time the town could be honest, evening changing its slogan to the more honest “Lead Us Into Temptation.”

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A third theme is general hucksterism. This is also not a new observation of Twain’s (see the Duke and the King from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), but it has new targets. I suppose the two at issue in these works are anti-Semitism and Christian Science. His essay on anti-Semitism is quite serious. He attempts, and fails, to understand the reasons for European anti-Semitism. (He also is amazed at the longevity of the Jews as a distinct people.) The closest he gets to an answer is that persecution of Jews is another form of hucksterism by non-Jews attempting to explain away their success, while also attempting to grab their piece of their success. “It [the Golden Rule] is strictly religious furniture, like an acolyte, or a contribution-plate, or any of those things. It has never been intruded into business; and Jewish persecution is not a religious passion, it is a business passion.” (369) More humorous to readers is Twain’s takedown on Christian Science (something developed into a later book, for some reason not collected by the Library of America). Their main position was that human existence is ethereal and that illness was strictly an idealistic ailment. Actually, quite an easy idea for someone of Twain’s satiric power to humiliate. Although I fear technocracy for good reason, my anarchism is a product of a scientific view of the world, from the Enlightenment if you will. Today, as in Twain’s day, there are many stupid ideas out there. Some wrong ideas can be liberating, but they would still be wrong. And those wrong ideas could be easily replaced by positions that are both more liberating and more correct. Anarchism does not mean the “liberal” acceptance of every stupid delusion religion.

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There are two short stories, published after Twain died: “Which Was the Dream” and “The Great Dark.” Both are very modernist and very personal. “Which Was the Dream” spends much of the time reflecting on a young woman seems to be a reflection of Twain’s recently deceased daughter. I was most touched by its comments on the raising of children and the horrible consequences of introducing military style discipline and education to the home. These lines should be the starting point of any educational program. “The child soon learned that her mother was not a tyrant, but her thoughtful and considerate friend. . . . It is a shameful thing to insult a little child. It has its feelings, it has its small dignity; and since it cannot defend them, it is surely an ignoble act to injure them.” (230) “The Great Dark” is about a man, who imagines himself shrunk down with a whaling crew in order to explore a drop of water. Although a rather dreary tale of the endless, unsatisfying darkness of exploring the unknown, there is a Promethean spark that encourages us to embrace those dangers as we search for something fresh in life. “An ocean in a drop of water—and unknown, uncharted, unexplored by man! BY man, who gives all his time to the Africas and the poles, with this unsearched marvelous world right at his elbow!” (299)

James Baldwin, Conclusions (Assorted Essays)

Now it is time to close the book on my companion of the past two weeks, James Baldwin.  It was one of the more exhilarating experiences I had since starting this blog because he is so profoundly interested in informal power, the way power functions on the psychological level, building up walls from our childhood.  I suppose we would now call this bio-power, but we do not need any philosophical concepts to understand that oppression needs to work on the mental level first.  Without a lifetime of institutional, interpersonal, and systemic lessons and disciplining it is unlikely that Jim Crow could have survived as long as it did.  Baldwin documents the dismantling of this mental regimen of power.  Another theme in his work is what Dubois called “double consciousness” or “the veil.”  This refers to the fact that the United States really looked different depending on your position across the color line.  As Dubois points out and Baldwin makes clear, black people had the burden (and unique ability I suppose) to look at the United States from the perspective of their own live and experiences as well as clearly understand white America because it was white people who created the superstructure of the color line.  White people, privileged to only look at the world through the superstructure they created, are not quite so omniscient.  (While I am certain this is generally true, I am not sure it is universal.  I do think empathy is possible, but that may be an ahistorical observation.)

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Looking over some of his collected essays included in this volume (there are around 40), arranged chronologically, we can summarize Baldwin’s career into three phases.  The first period (1950 until 1961) began with the publication of book reviews and includes his extended period living abroad in France.  He is observing the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement but seemed very interested in pursuing a literary life.  He published novels that were not novels about race and his essays (which were about race) were attempts to understand the color line.

The second period, from 1961 until the early 1970s, are his revolutionary writings.  It is during this time he completes Another Country, The FirNext Time, and No Name in the StreetHis essays from this period are mostly interested in the political issues.  His “A Talk to Teachers” is about the ramifications of the revolution for the education of black children.  During this period he talked to political figures, engaged in debates, met with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and wrote some of his most provocative essays.  “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” is a good example of this, engaging in a class analysis of black anti-Semitism.

The selections form Baldwin’s final period are slim, amounting to no more than 70 pages.  This period is that of revolutionary Thermidor.  After the political agitation ended and after the cities stopped burning, Baldwin and other writers turned in part to cultural politics.  We have his review of Roots, a defense of “black English” as a language, and at least one essay on sexuality (“Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood”).  What comes out strongly in these essays is that although there were many successes to the revolution, much remanded unchanged.  “The Price of the Ticket” is the most somber essay making this point and perhaps a good ending.

When people question my anarchist leanings, the Civil Rights movement often comes up in conversation because one of the historical lessons of Civil Rights is that it took a powerful state to impose itself on the criminal behavior of Southern communities.  In this logic, it is at the community level that we are most at risk of losing our freedoms.  Only a powerful state can enforce our rights.  It is not a bad historical argument, but it does require a whole lot of bracketing of the of the long list of freedoms the state seizes from us anyway, and their defense of capital.  Baldwin suggests that atonement cannot be possible be the crimes of racism were perpetuated by a multitude, but it is a multitude that serves the interests of power not one running against it.  “A mob is not autonomous: it executes the real will of the people who rule the State.  The slaughter in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, was not, merely, the action of a mob.  That blood is on the hands of the state of Alabama: which sent those mobs into the streets to execute the will of the State.  And, though I know that it has now become inconvenient and impolite to speak of the American Jew in the same breath with which one speaks of the American black, I yet contend that the mobs in the streets of Hitler’s Germany were in those streets not only by the will of the German State, but by the will of the western world, including the architects of human freedom, the British, and the presumed guardian of Christian and human morality, the Pope.” (840)

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