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.

leopold

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: “The American Claimant” (1892)

“What a civilization it is, and what prodigious results these are! and brought about almost wholly by common men; not by Oxford-trained aristocrats, but men who state shoulder to shoulder in the humble ranks of life and earn the bread that they eat. Again, I’m glad I came. I have found a country at last where one may start fair, and breast to breast with his fellow man, rise by his own efforts, and be something in the world and be proud of that something; not be something created by an ancestor three hundred years ago.” (525)

As with its predecessor, The Gilded Age, Mark Twain’s The American Claimant explores the division between aristocratic England and democratic America. In one way, its plots works in an opposite direction from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In that novel an American works to overthrow the tyranny of chivalry and aristocracy. In An American Claimant, Colonel Sellers (returned from The Gilded Age with a new name) is hoping to acquire the trappings of English aristocracy, in this case an empty earldom. At the same time, the real heir goes to America as a radical leveler, much preferring the democracy of America. He changes his name and takes on a new identity, made easier with a disastrous fire which destroys the evidence of his real position. He ends up working for Sellers as a painter. The real heir, now with the name Tracy, falls in love with Seller’s daughter, who rejects his advances because she assumes he just wants her father’s newly acquired title.

cover

Given Tracy and his social values, there is a lot of reflection on the difference between aristocracy and democracy and its impact on society. To an obsessive reader of American literature this does not seem fresh on the surface. Of course it is indeed true that America was less bound by the trappings of status. Tracy was enamored at the changes in language. “Everybody calls himself a lady or gentleman, and thinks he is, and don’t care what anybody thinks him, as long as he don’t say it out loud.” (531) The interesting twist is that it is the American who wants to become the aristocrat and the aristocrat who is enamored with American democracy. The darker message here is that American democracy is a bit of a facade and that aristocratic pretentions are perhaps weaker. “There isn’t any power on earth that can prevent England’s thirty millions from electing themselves dukes and duchesses to-morrow and calling themselves so. And within six months all the former dukes and duchesses would have retired from the business.” (533) In effect, it would expose them as “the Duke and the King” from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Mark Twain, another photo

Mark Twain, another photo

This still leave us with the awkward desire of Colonel Sellers to pursue his aristocratic claim. This may simply be evidence of the strange American fascination with the aristocracy. For the first hundred years, Americans had their own aristocracy in the vile and disgusting Southern slaveholders. After that, they turned to foreign royalty to live out their fantasies of privilege. Is it a longing for the past? Is there a democratic aspect to this, where everyone can image that they are part of the aristocracy? (If you do not have a Cherokee princess in your family history, you can find your coat of arms by paying a genealogist enough.) Or maybe it is a final escape from failure. Like “the Duke and the King,” Colonel Sellers is a failure. By clinging to aristocratic pretentions, someone who lost the game (and in democratic capitalism we are allowed only to blame ourselves) can create a false reality. Or maybe it is just silly consumerist vanity? Or, is it that democracy—that brutal equality—just plain boring? Life in a palace is much more interesting than slaving away at a factory job.

Of course, we have Colonel Sellers is still at his old schemes. This is the fun of the novel. The best is the invention that automates swearing at sailors on a ship. Since sailors only listen to vulgar, verbally-violent captains, more timid masters could use this device to ensure their workers are properly yelled at. In a sense, the claim to the earldom is simply another of Sellers’ schemes and therefore a continuation of his failing participation in democratic capitalism.

The American Claimant is probably only read these days by the most devoted Twain followers. I found it hard to get into. Many of his other works deal with these themes equally well. If there is truth to the claim that Twain was losing his wit around this time due to his traumas with the Paige typesetter, this novel could certainly be part of that argument. But I have a question. Sellers’ failed schemes in this novel certainly were shaped by the experiences with the Paige typesetter, but they also extend from a novel written two decades earlier. Twain was both very aware of the hucksterism of the “Gilded Age.” He gave it a name. So why was he so willing to invest most of his money into one machine. Why did he send those checks month after month?

George Washington, The Colonial Period (1747-1775)

Most of the Library of America volume committed to George Washington’s writings are his letters, with some speeches and official documents thrown in.  I am not quite sure how to go at Washington this week, but I know I do not want to get into the tedious founder bashing.  Nevertheless, it is worth reminding ourselves that he was the richest U.S. President, with a net worth in current dollars of $525 million.  Most of this wealth was inherited or stolen from the labor of slaves (of which his plantation has over 300 at the time of his death).  He was doubtless a revolutionary.  And while compared to someone like Toussaint L’ouverture or a Robespierre, he strikes us as decidedly pompish and boring.  My impression of him when I studied him in college was that he was at best a dumb jock, with good connections and great interpersonal skills, allowing him to move up.  While none of us can doubt the contribution of Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, or even Franklin to the development of the character of the nation, what was Washington’s intellectual contribution?  Maybe I can learn something new reading this volume.

title

We start with this odious document “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”  We can see immediately that Washington was firmly rooted in the aristocratic tradition of Europe.  Whatever frontier spirit drove the settlement of the United States and its development in the colonial period, by the time we get to 15-year-old Washington (1747), it seems a distant at least as far as these rich planters were concerned.  I suppose I could take a look at these writings as benevolently as possible and guess that Washington needed to continually remind himself of these important rules of conduct or we would expose his true character as a vulgar ruffian.  In any case, it is a very class-conscious document, with many rules on how to treat the people above your rank and below your rank.  A few have some universal merit such as “When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it” or “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.” (6,10)  He takes on a profession at this time as a surveyor, essentially going into the big business of land speculation.  (Still a great way for rich people to get richer.)  Soon after this, he begins his military career just in time for the Seven Years’ War to break out, drawing the colonies into a global imperial conflict.

Washington seems to have been deeply interested in the alliances of the frontier Indians, negotiating with the Iroquois and suggesting to his superiors that they recruit the Cherokees and other Southern tribes into the war effort.  In one letter to Robert Dinwiddie, Washington discussed his salary, insisting that his place in the military was that of a volunteer and that he was “indefferent” to pay.  This again reflects his aristocratic leanings, seeing military service as more of a matter of honor and service than a career.  Despite this, he comes and goes in the military during the war.  Several of his war letters center on the problem of recruitment.  “The spirit of Desertion was so remarkable in the Militia that it has a suprizing effect upon the Regiment, and encouraged many of the Soldiers to desert.” In the same letter, Washington recommends the execution of some deserters.  It is worth examining at length just to get another window into this founder.  “He deserted, and carried several men with him: and, upon the most solemn promises of good Behavior, was pardoned — But for this only reason–we had no power to hold General Courts martial and now he was instrumental in carrying off seven others; two only of whom were taken.  For these reasons I hope your Honour will think him as worthy an Example against Desertion, as Lewis against Cowardice: whose execution I have delayed until the arrival of the Draughts.  These Examples, and proper encouragement for good Behavior, will I hope, bring the Soldiers under proper Discipline.” (78)  A later document suggests the pardon of James Thomas who along with Henry Campbell was charged with Desertion and sentenced to death.  Campbell still seems to have been executed.   Washington’s military letters continually complained about the lack of recruitment, low morale, and their inability to maintain troop strength.  Since he has some similar troubles during the Revolution, I can only wonder if the problem was the imposition of an aristocratic military on a more democratic society.  One final thing that comes through his letters from the Seven Year’s War is that Washington was very concerned with how his superiors saw him and his performance.  He tried to explain his failures, stressed his honor and his commitment to service, and his willingness to learn from his errors.  He sometimes sounded to me to be like an employee who has been written up by his boss a few too many times.

Other documents from the colonial period include advertisements from some of his slaves that ran away, letters regarding his marriage to Martha, and his business concerns in the early 1760s.  We can guess that some of his opposition to the British that emerged in the 1760s was due to what he saw as unfairly costly imported goods and low prices for tobacco exports.  As early as 1765 he was stating arguments in his letters suggesting that America would be better off manufacturing its own goods and trading them internally.  “I am apt to think no Law or usage can compel us to barter our money or Staple Commodities for their Manufactories, if we can be supplied within ourselves upon the better Terms.” (177)  Throughout the late colonial period, these documents suggest that Washington was not fully unaware of the issues at the heart of the colonial crisis but he remains mostly concerned with his private affairs and local development efforts (like the improvement of the Potomac navigation).  The result of some of these efforts were tending toward independence, seeing the way to escape British debts as greater economic independence at home.

Let me end with his response to the outbreak of fighting in 1775.   “Unhappy it is though to reflect, that a Brother’s Sword has been sheathed in a Brother’s breast, and that, the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or Inhabited by Slaves.  Sad alternative!” (164)  Unfortunately, due to planters like Washington, an incomplete revolution, and a Constitution defending slavery, this prediction would come true in a different context.