Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1880–1890: A Political Turn

“There was a time for sneering. In all the ages of the world and in all its lands, the huge inert mass of humbler mankind,—compacted crush of poor dull dumb animals,—equipped from its centre to its circumference with unimaginable might, and never suspecting it, has made bread in bitter toil and sweat, all its days for the feeble few to eat, and has impotently raged and wept by turns over its despised housholds of sore-hearted women and smileless children—and that as a time for sneering. And once in a generation, it all ages and all lands, the little block of inert mass has stirred, and risen with noise, and said it could no longer endure its oppressions, its degradation, its misery.” (“The New Dynasty,” 885)

If we consider Mark Twain’s first published writings in 1852 as the start of his career, the early 1880s marks the half-way point in his career, but only a decade into his national fame that began with the travel narrative Innocents Abroad. By all accounts, the 1880s were a productive year for him. Twain’s income from his books was significant enough to afford him various investments (including in the Paige typesetter beginning in 1889, which would almost bankrupt him). His major works from the 1880s are The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The American Claimant, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. As people who are familiar with Twain’s biography know, this decade also was the last before financial woes and the death of Susy (his favorite daughter) led him to begin to look at the world in new ways. Throughout the 1880s, though he is riding high, and focused on his writing and professional obligations.


Many of Twain’s shorter works from this period are speeches delivered in Hartford or nearby areas. He even joked about how prolific he was as a public speaker and how people like him should stop hogging the stage. Yet his voice was in high demand.

The most striking of these speeches for me was “The New Dynasty,” a speech delivered in March 1886, but not published until the 1950s. I wonder how many Mark Twain fans even know of this importance speech. It was delivered in the context of the Knights of Labor agitating for typesetters. The details are note quite clear from the text; it is more of a broader polemic of power. It is delivered in perfect seriousness. It speaks to American values and history while also making a case for the necessity of revolution against the powerful. It warns of the growing power of the elite and the emerging “dynasty” of a united labor, a group he expresses deep sympathies with. Now, I know of the anti-imperialist Mark Twain, but I was never exposed to this side of him before. I suppose most do not. “The New Dynasty” begins with a general discourse on power. “Power, when lodged in the hands of man, means oppression—insures oppression: it means oppression always.” (883). He moves from the kings of old to the “horse-car company,” engaged in its new industrial forms of oppression. Twain argues that it was in America that this was first and most substantially challenged, not from the works of founders or a simple republican form of government, but from the voices of the underclass. “But when all the children in a little world cry, one is roused out of his indifference by the mere magnitude of the fact­—and he realizes that perhaps something IS the matter; and he opens his ears.” (887) He then moves to the rising power of labor in America. In an almost Marxist analysis he says that they will seize power and use it to oppress the minority. “He will oppress the thousands, they oppressed the millions; but he will imprison nobody, he will massacre, burn, flay, torture, exile nobody, nor work any subject eighteen hours a day, nor stave his family.” (888) And in sharp contrast to much later nineteenth century rhetoric on labor, he calls the organized workers the highest stage of American civilization.

Emblem of the Knights of Labor

Emblem of the Knights of Labor

"Harpers" magazine refusing to take sides

“Harpers” magazine refusing to take sides


How I would have loved to have been there to see this speech delivered. This for me is the highlight of this set of documents, but there are some other nice themes Twain considers.

In “Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims,” a speech delivered before the New England Society of Philadelphia, Twain assaults the cult of the Mayflower and the strange devotion Americans had to these founders. He is in full Promethean mode when he assaults the slavish devotion to odd heroes who (he humorously points out) largest claim to fame was getting off a boat; staying on the boat would have been more remarkable. His bolder interpretation of American history comes later in the speech, when he sets his solidarity with the people oppressed by the New England Puritans: religious dissenters, witches, slaves, Indians. “The first slave brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine—for I am of a mixed breed, an infinitely shaded and exquisite mongrel. I’m not one of your sham meerschaums that you can color in a week. No, my complexion is the patient art of eight generations.” (783–785) I guess he is speaking as America—that mongrel and projectoral nation—in this speech.

Two documents refer to his (I guess in jest) attempt to raise a statue to Adam, in which he tries to move beyond a narrow identity as an American. He does this at a time when the United States was mad with commemorations to heroes from the founding era and the Civil War. By proposing a statue to Adam, Twain was calling for a more inclusive commemorations project, that does not simply speak to the values and history of one nation. He wanted it as an alternative to the Statue of Liberty, for Adam was the true outcast.

If anyone is interested in Twain’s experiences in the Civil War, “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed” is useful. It goes beyond autobiography and becomes an anti-war polemic. His experiences in the Civil War took place over a couple of weeks and mostly involved camping out with friends, practicing shooting, and running away from rumors of Federal Army advances into their area. There was a tragedy however. He describes his involvement in the killing of a stranger who approached his camp. “And it seemed the epitome of war; that all war must be that—the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it. My campaign was spoiled. It seemed to me that I was not rightly equipped for this awful business.” (880)

If young Samuel Clemens was a deserter because he refused to take the lives of another human being, than he is a great hero. We need more such heroes, and maybe a few more monuments to deserters instead of soldiers.  



William Tecumseh Sherman: “Memoirs” (Conclusion)

I have spent the last few days reading through Sherman’s Memoirs (here, here, and here).  My major observation was that Sherman was both an innovator of modern warfare (bureaucratic, total, and ruthless) and an interpreter of state power.  One element that makes him so modern is his belief that military power is the core of a state’s ability to express its will.  He gives lip service to democratic values, but sees them as irrelevant in the application of power, especially military power.  I want to conclude with a few additional issues to round out this discussion of Sherman’s writings.


Bureaucratization of War
Before the war, Sherman ran a commissary and later a military academy in New Orleans.  It is thus not suprising that a major focus of his thought was on the logistics of war.  In many ways, he saw war as a numbers game.  On the campaign to seize Atlanta, Sherman wrote: “Giving two thousand as a fair proportion of prisoners captured by us for the month of June (twelve thousand nine hundred and eighty-three in all the campaign), makes an aggregate loss in the rebel army of fifty-nine hundred and forty-eight, to ours of seventy-five hundred and thirty — a less proportion than in the relative strength of our two armies, viz., as six to ten, thus maintaining our relative superiority, which the desperate game of war justified.” (534)  In fact, almost every chapter ended with tables of losses, killed, wounded, missing.  I am certain some of this was due to the institutional demands and the regular reporting.  Losses had to be reported up the chain of command.  But Sherman went farther than simple reporting and saw the war as essentially the maximization of power, supplies, weapons, etc.

Use of Black Soldiers
Chapter 22 of Sherman’s Memoirs considers the campaign in the Carolinas.   It is also the first time that Sherman (in his writings) considers the question of race or gave any thought to the future of black Americans after the war.  Due to the passage of the 13th Amendment and the wide use of black troops in the Union Army, Sherman was under pressure to incorporate black troops into his armies systematically leveling much of the South.  Halleck gave directions to Sherman on December 30, 1864, more or less ordering him to make use of black workers.  Halleck was incredibly concerned about the politics of this, given the changing winds in Washington on the status and role of former slaves.  Sherman, according to some influential people, “manifested an almost criminal dislike to the negro” leading to his violation of “wishes of the Government.”  (728)  Of course, Sherman responded that the military necessity trumps the concerns of civil government.  Sherman explains his skepticism (unwilling to accept any racial bigotry he may have embraced) as largely a numbers game again.  Recruiters will recruit someone and may use force or underhanded means to recruit blacks instead of whites.  This will not increase the size of the army. (729–730)  I am not sure if this is true or false.  All the textbooks I read seem to agree that black soldiers did complement the army significantly at a time when it was in need of manpower.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Sherman’s theories of maximizing state and military power reached a limit when it came to the recruitment of blacks.
It is in this period the Sherman issued his famous “Special Field Order, No. 15,” which is reprinted in his memoirs.  Sherman uses it as his answer to critics.  It was dealing with the problem of thousands of blacks fleeing to Sherman’s army during and after the “March to the Sea.”  In this sense, it might have been an attempt to bury a problem.  The provision it offered to former slaves (forty acres of land, seized from the planter class) was radical and was at the heart of the most revolutionary ideas of Reconstruction – that the end of slavery required an economic revolution in the planter South.  Whatever inspired his choice, the words he used remain a significant memorial to the racial vision of Reconstruction.  “By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the nergro is free, and must be dealt with as such.  He cannot be subjected to conscription, or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of my department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe.  Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and otehr mechanics , will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States.” (731)  In any case, it is clear that Sherman thought that this order closed the question on his views on race.  He did not address it in a focused way again.

Theory of War
Sherman includes in the end of his memoirs a summation of his thoughts about war (Chapter 25).  It is worthy of a brief summary and serves to wrap up this series on Sherman.  His opening point is that the Civil War was about the future direction of the nation and at the heart of the war were “moneyed interests.”  For this reason, the war would need to be long and bloody.  Thus, the initial calls for 75,000 “ninety-day” men” was reckless and likely based on politicians raising hopes among the people of a short war.  The U.S. regular army was simply too small to maintain peace.  He follows with a call for a reorganization of the army, and the creation of a larger permanent military force.  The army, reconstituted, must be an autocracy.  “In the United States the people are the ‘sovereign,’ all power originally proceeds from them, and therefore the election of officers by the men is the common rule.  This is wrong, because any army is not a popular organization, but an animated machine, an instrument in the hands of the Executive for enforcing the law, and maintaining the honor and dignity of the nation.” (877)  He openly scorns any suggestion that power can from “from below” in a military.  Sherman’s next discussion is on the mode of recruitment.  Sherman believed in the need for a well-paid, professional, volunteer army.  Much of the rest of the his essay considers questions of logistics.  He predicts the growing importance of earthwork fortifications and the decline of classical sieges.  At the heart of all of his concerns is that even as the army was demobilized that militarization remains a part of the national culture.  “For the very reason that our army is comparatively so very small, I hold that is should be the best possible, organized and governed on true military principles, and that in time of peace we should preserve the ‘habits and usages of war,’ so that , when war does come, we may not again be compelled to suffer the disgrace, confusion, and disorder of 1861.” (896)

I enjoyed reading Sherman for his ruthless honesty about the militarization of the state in modern times.  It we extend his ideas to their logical conclusion it is hard to see how individualism and grassroots democracy can be sustained as long as a state holds possession of all military power.

William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs”, The Atlanta Campaign “War is Cruelty”

Continuing with my reading of William T. Sherman’s Memoirs, today I will focus on Sherman’s application of total war.  I have come to realize that we can understand the U.S. government’s mad pursuit of terrorism with relentless drone strikes or the aggressive effort to bring Edward Snowden to hell for exposing the crimes of the Obama administration by revisiting William T. Sherman.  In many ways, the Atlanta campaign, the forced removal of the citizens of Atlanta after its fall, and his subsequent “march to the sea” defines Sherman’s career.  He is both respected and hated for these acts.  Unfortunately, much of the hatred for Sherman seems to come from Southern apologists.  I want to suggest that we can look at Sherman not so much as a tyrant or lunatic but instead as someone who fully accepted the logic of the state and violence.  He epitomized Weber’s suggestion that the state is simply that which monopolizes violence and power.  Unable to accept alternatives to itself, it had to come down brutally on competitors.

shermanThe key dialog in this section of Sherman’s Memoirs are between Sherman, the Confederate General J. B. Hood commanding the remaining Confederate armies in the Atlanta area, and mayor of Atlanta James M. Calhoun.  As in other sections of his book, Sherman simply recreated the original documents, with very little commentary.  Sherman was unwilling to celebrate for too long his victory at Atlanta.  He immediately set his sights on how to exploit the victory to destroy the South’s ability to resist.  In a letter to Grant, he wrote “We ought to ask our country for the largest possible armies that can be raised, as so important a thing as the self-existence of a great nation should not be left to the fickle chances of war.” (587)  Later in the same paragraph when he insists that the ruthless plundering of the countryside of Georgia will ensure that his “army will not starve” he suggests the next step in the war should be the “utter destruction of Wilmington.” (588)  I am not sure the classic reading that Sherman was plunged into a sort of heart of darkness through his experiences in the war.  He was not saying much that was not the logical extension of ideas he already expressed in the early years of the war.

He first informed his superiors of his plans to vacate Atlanta and destroy much of its infrastructure (particularly government buildings) on September 20, 1864 when he reported on talks he had with General Hood.  He reports that “it is sufficient for my Government to know that the removal of the inhabitants has been made with liberality and fairness.”  But he also states the “real reasons” for the exodus.  These are (1) use of houses for military storage, (2) limit the need for a garrison, (3) “we have a right to it,” (4) to avoid feeding the poor, (5) pro-Confederate residents will cause trouble.  His target was clearly the white population.  (In a letter to Hood, he stated that slaves could stay or go their own way.)

The correspondence between the Confederate leaders and Sherman on this issue are wonderful for its brutal honesty.  The brutality of the removal, he reminded Hood, is nothing more than the necessary consequence of the war, which was pushed on the U.S. by the rebels.  For every wrong committed by Sherman, he could point out many other examples committed by both sides.  Indeed, he believed there was nothing unique about his policy toward the citizens of Atlanta.  Hood remains horrified, in part because he seems to truly see Sherman as an agent of a conquering government.  “You came into our country with your army, avowedly for the purpose of subjugating free white men, women, and children, and not only intend to rule over them, but to make negroes your allies, and desire to place over us an inferior race.” (598)  In contrast to these vile words, Sherman was cold and logically (and seemingly largely indifferent to the role of race and slavery as a cause of the war).

The logic of war (brutality) and the logic of the state were connected in Sherman’s mind.  In response to the arguments about the legitimacy of successive, Sherman posited that the state is eternal and had an inescapable need to assert itself.  “You cannot qualify terms in harsher terms than I will.  War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. . . The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling. . . . Once admit the Union, once more acknowledge the authority of the national Government, and, instead of devoting your houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war.” (601)

The March to the Sea is simply an extension of Sherman’s logic.  In his orders to his troops, he stated that the purpose was “to strike a blow at our enemy that will have a material effect in producing what we all so much desire, his complete overthrow.” (651)  During the execution of the March to the Sea, Sherman was proud of how disciplined (how state-like, if you will) the destruction was.  The pillaging, foraging, burning, and destruction was all completed with the maintenance of military order.  From time to time, soldiers had to be innovative in their approaches and while “irregular” they were never performed without discipline.  This is one of the frightful elements of total war.

marchSherman is completely correct, in the same way that Mao was, that political power is an extension of the ability to maximize military power and supplant all other competing centers of power.  Sherman does not waste time justifying his actions with a “cause.”  The war he helped win did lead to a second American Revolution, the rewriting of the Constitution, and the end of the most vile institution in American history.  Sherman speaks little on this, outside of generally calling the United States a “great” country.  Patriotism and a national story is for the people on the bottom.  For those who wield power, the weapon is its own justification.  Had Sherman learned this while a farmer or worker, he may have become an anarchist.  But he was a soldier.


William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs” (1820-1861)

As with my reading of the letters and writings of George Washington, I am not expecting to find in William Tecumseh Sherman a libertarian writer or even many libertarian themes.  Like Washington, he was a soldier and ran an authoritarian institution.  But also like Washington he was a key player in a revolution that certainly did expand human liberty.  Unlike Washington, Sherman was from humble origins and rose up through the ranks through his ability.  Like many other mid-nineteenth century Americans, Sherman was restless, anxious, and always eager to experiments and take risks.  Of course when we talk about the antebellum period, we also need to place an asterisk next to the term ‘democracy.’  There is something in the period when we look at people like Sherman or John Brown, who seemed to be comfortable in a certain liquidity even if they were not always successful in their attempts.  To the degree capitalism can be democratic, it must be fully participatory for all people.  I am not sure that is possible but maybe the U.S. got closest before the Civil War in certain frontier areas. 


The Memoirs of General William T. Sherman was published in 1875, two years after he began writing them.  They were reworked ten years later into the form that we have today.  According to the introduction, his motivation was largely for historical preservation.  At the time of his writing he had doubts about when the official records from the Civil War would be released.  He also seems eager to get his side of the story down.  I suppose he was already a controversial figure a decade after the war.  “In this free country every man is at perfect liberty to publish his own thoughts and impressions, and any witnesses who may differ from me should publish his own version of facts in the truthful narration of which he is interested.  I am publishing my own memoirs, not theirs, and we all know that no three honest witnesses of a simple brawl can agree on the details.” (5)  I rather like this attitude.  It is one often ignored by freshmen history students who gobble up whatever document they read or whatever article they find online.

Sherman’s father was a lawyer, who became a state Supreme Court judge for Ohio, after his family moved there (Sherman was born in Ohio).  But since his father died when Sherman was nine years old, leaving his mother destitute with too many children, the Sherman’s were more or less placed under the protection of a family friend, Thomas Ewing.  The Ewing’s are the ones who move Sherman into a military career.  He entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1836, at 16 years old.  He did well at West Point, graduating in 1840.  He then served in Florida, where he participated in a small way with the removal of the Seminoles. He married Ellen Ewing, Thomas Ewing’s daughter.  At the time of the Mexican War, Sherman was engaged in recruitment efforts.  He spent most of the Mexican War in California where he performed his military duties but also engaged in various business enterprises, many connected to the gold rush.  Considered leaving the army to engage in various business deals but decided to stay in, taking up a commissary post in New Orleans.  (This may be where he learned some of his logistical skills that served him so greatly during the war.)  In 1853 he left the army to become a banker in San Francisco.  While there he remained in the California militia as an officer and had various adventures in that post.  In 1858, his bank failed and he returned to Louisiana  and took a teaching job.  When Louisiana seceded, he moved to St. Louis and later returned to the army at the rank of Colonel.  Although Sherman remained aloof from politics during the politically vibrant 1850s, he was from time to time prophetic, seeing slavery as the major division in the nation, predicting the rise of the free labor economy, and viewing Lincoln’s hopes of a short war as naive.  All of these events are described in the first eight chapters of the first volume of the memoirs.  Like Grant’s Memoirs, Sherman’s are by and large Civil War memoirs, as you might expect.

Sherman lived a quite liquid life in his first forty years.  At the age of 38, Sherman liquidated all of his debts, leaving himself with only $1,000.  Sherman does not really comment on the ethos that led him to this restlessness, but he does point out the type of energy that drove the gold rush because it complicated his life in the military there.  Many soldiers deserted because there was more money to be made in the gold rush economy (often paying wages 2 or 3 times what the military received).  Sherman describes some of his efforts to stop this type of desertion but he is not very judging, seeming to understand their motivations.  I was reminded of Melville’s Omoo (see here and here) when reading the first part of Sherman’s Memoirs because they exemplified the restless spirit that drove the protagonist of that novel to never be satisfied with the job he held.


With the outbreak of the war, we start to get some of Sherman’s ideas about violence.  One thing he stresses from the beginning is the brutal equality of war.  (This is in Bierce’s work as well.)  He tells one woman that “young men of the best families  did not like to be killed better than ordinary people.”  Allow me to quote at length one of his first experiences of violence during the war.  “One of the regular sergeant file-closers ordered him back, but he attempted to pass through the ranks, when the sergeant barred his progress with his musket “a-port.” The drunken man seized his musket, when the sergeant threw him off with violence, and he rolled over and over down the bank. By the time this man had picked himself up and got his hat, which had fallen off, and had again mounted the embankment, the regulars had passed, and the head of Osterhaus’ regiment of Home Guards had come up. The man had in his hand a small pistol, which he fired off, and I heard that the ball had struck the leg of one of Osterhaus’s staff; the regiment stopped; there was a moment of confusion, when the soldiers of that regiment began to fire over our heads in the grove. I heard the balls cutting the leaves above our heads, and saw several men and women running in all directions, some of whom were wounded. Of course there was a general stampede.  Charles Ewing threw Willie on the ground and covered him with his body.  Hunter ran behind the hill, and I also threw myself on the ground. The fire ran back from the head of the regiment toward its rear, and as I saw the men reloading their pieces, I jerked Willie up, ran back with him into a gulley which covered us, lay there until I saw that the fire had ceased, and that the column was again moving on, when I took up Willie and started back for home round by way of Market Street. A woman and child were killed outright; two or three men were also killed, and several others were wounded. The great mass of the people on that occasion were simply curious spectators, though men were sprinkled through the crowd calling out, “Hurrah for Jeff Davis” and others were particularly abusive of the “damned Dutch.” (191–192)  It was events like this that may have convinced Sherman, very early on, that the war would be long, bitter, and indiscriminate in its violence and that the proper response to such insanity is acceptance.

Ambrose Bierce, “Bits of Autobiography” and “Selected Stories”: Tocqueville in the Year 4930

Rounding out the Library of America volume collecting the majors works of Ambrose Bierce is his Bits of Autobiography and eight additional stories not published in Can Such Things Be? or In the Midst of LifeBits of Autobiography was not a focused effort by Bierce to tell his life story.  Instead, it is a collection of fragments written between 1881 and 1906.  The eight additional stories were published over the same period of time.  The most significant of these short stories is Ashes of the Beacon,” which is essnetially a political tract summarizing Bierce’s position on democracy, revolution, anarchism, and class conflict, although it is framed in the structure of a historical monograph from the distant future.  (In this way, it is not unlike Jack London’s The Iron Hell, published at a simliar time, emerging from a simliar context, although with a very differnet interpretation.)


When I was reading Bits of Autobiography last night, I was thinking of my younthful fascination with military history.  I had a small library, now mostly all liquidated, on the American Civil War and the Second World War.  Thinking back, I was reading some quite scholarly works at the time, but the vast majority of what I read came from my local cow country library and local bookstores, neither of which maintained a large selection of academic history.  What I was interested in were the battles and the generals and the brilliant tactics and massive blunders.  In short, I was training to become an armchair general.  This interest quickly died out when I attended local cow country community college.  I suppose I simply found more things of interest in my classes.  Maybe this is something many young males go through.  Bits of Autobiography like In the Midst of Life proves how utterly vapid this type of historical writing is.  What Bierce teaches us is that the violence on the battlefield is not controlled by a god on the battlefield.  Generals did not command troops movements like on a board game.  Perhaps it is the tendency to assume hierarchical structures that give the privledged perspective to the generals in so much popular military history.

This is how I must have really thought battles were fought.  The arrows are so precise and clean.

This is how I must have really thought battles were fought. The arrows are so precise and clean.

On one event in the savage mess that was the battle of Chikamauga: “A good deal of nonsense used to be talked about hte herorism of General Garfield, who, caught in the rout of hte right, nevertheless went back and joined the undefeated left under General Thomas.  There was no great heroism in it; that is what every man should have done, including the commander of the army.  We could hear Thomas’ guns going–those of us who had ears for them–and all that was needful was to make a sufficiently wide detour and then move toward the sound.”  (681)

Maybe the alternative is to horrible to face.  Armies are institutions, contructed by men of course, designed to take away ones autonomy.  Much of Bits of Autobiogaphy considers the dreadful marching, the long miserable days at camp, and the blistered feet.  But as well as people are trained for war, the line between bravery and cowardice is a thin one.  On the defeated men after the first day of the battle of Shiloh: “These men were defeated, beaten, cowed.  They were deaf to duty and dead to shame.  A more demented crew never drifted to th rear of broken battalions.  They would have stood in their tracks and been shot down to a man by the proveost-marshall’s guard, but they could not have been urged up that bank.  An army’s bravest men are its cowards.  The death which they would not meet at hte hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.” (665)

So we replace this reality with valor, great heroes, and a belief that brilliance, effort, courage, the right cause, or “strategy” will win the battle for us.  Unfortunantly, when you combine the complexity of human psychology and the known and unknown unknowns battle, like life, is just a game of chance.  Better to believe in the brilliant god on the battlefield than to believe in fate.

There are a few chapters on Bierce’s post-war occupations and his enterance into the field of journalism as well.

Of the final eight stories, I will only introduce one “Ashes of the Beacon.”  This is actually worth reading as a political essay as it makes a rather good case for the ultimate failure of republicanism.  Two thousand years after the fall of the “Conneted States of America” a historian from a time when government is much more honest about its role (“To us of to-day it is clear that the word “self-government” involves a contradiction, for government means control by something other than the thing to be controlled.”) documents the causes of the decline of that republican civilization, much like how contemporary historinas might look back to the fall of the Roman Republic.  Mostly, however, I was reminded of Tocqueville’s warning that democracy will tend to lead to the promotion of self-interest.  This next bit is from Bierce, not Tocqueville: “When men or nations devote all the powers of their minds and bodies to the heaping up of wealth, wealth is heaped up.  But what avails it? . . . The result might easily have been forrseen and doubtless was predicted by patriots whose admonitations have not come down to us.  Denied protection of the law, neither property nor life was safe.  Greed filled his coffers from teh meafer hoarsds of Thift, private vengeance took the place of legal redress, mad multitudes rioted and slew ith virtual immunity form punishment or blame, and the land was red with crime.” (811, 814)

Bierce wrote this account during one of several visible peaks in the perpetual conflict between American labor and capital.  In the early 20th century, massive strikes challenged the power of capital and new labor organiations such as the Industrial Workers of the World.  As I have been arguing in this blog, there is a basic anarchism in the American political and literarcy traditions and it is not the difficult to see. That said, Bierce is correct that much of the most visible anarchist agitation of the turn of the last century was centered in immigrant communities and rooted in traditions of European anarchism, even as the U.S. was forming its own indigenous overtly anarchist tradition with the writings of Volatirine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman.  Bierce looked at events like the assassination of President McKinley as evidence that anarchism was the direct result of the self-interest and disrespect for heritage that is characteristic of democracies.  “The field of the anrchist’s greatest activity was always a republic, not only to emphasize his impartial hatred of al government, but beacuse of the inherent feebleness of that form of government, its inability to protect itself against any kind of aggression by any considerable number of its people having a common malevolent purpose.  In a republic the crust that confined hte fires of violence and desition was thinnest.” (808)

I am not going to blame Bierce for failing to see anarchism as a solution to the problems of a democratic republic, because he poses the question in the correct terms.  Self-government does seem to be a contradiction in a republic (actually in all state structures).


Philip K. Dick, “Time Out of Joint” (1959)

Time Out of Joint, published in 1959, extends many of the themes Philip K. Dick explored in Cosmic PuppetsThe settings are comparable.  In both, we find ourselves in a small town of the 1950s.  In both novels, the world that the characters see for themselves is an artificial facade, covering up the reality.  Time Out of Joint is certainty more mature. Here, the powers that a constructing the reality are human.  In a sense, it evolves out of Cold War anxieties of secrete government agencies, the continual threat of devastating war, and the uncertain loyalties of even close friends and neighbors.  In The Comic Puppets, there were supernatural forces that constructed the false reality as part of a cosmic battle.  This makes TOOJ a more politically relevant work and more of a window into the world that we live in.


Like most of Dick’s early novels, TOOJ has a rather straight-forward plot.  Early in the novel we are introduced to Ragle Gumm, an unemployed man who makes his money as champion of a newspaper contest, “Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?”  The contest involves simply choosing from a matrix of squares.  There are clues provided, but these seem to have little impact on the answer.  Nevertheless, Gumm is able to guess correctly continually by observing patterns and maintaining careful records.  As the novel unfolds, Gumm notices strange changes to his world.  He misremember things, such as if the bathroom had a cord-activated light or the newer light swtich.  He also sees small pieces of papers with the name of the thing that should be there.  Eventually, be becomes convinced that the world around him is a sham and that he is the target of a deception.  This turns out to be true.  It is not 1959, it is 1998 and humans are involved in a Civil War between the Earthlings who have restricted expansion abroad and the “lunatics” (denizens of the Moon) committed to interstellar expansion.  Gumm sided with the people of the Moon, but can predict where they will attack next.  Before his defection he worked for the Earthlings making these predictions.  To sustain this role he was placed into this artificial world of his youth.  The newspaper contest is the means by which he will continue to predict where the nuclear attacks will strike.  He, like many of us today, is the unwilling supporter of institutions outside of our control.

The Suburbs and Reality
Dick often places the false, bizarre, liquid, and artificial in the suburbs, the world he knew most well in over-developed suburban California.  The novel begins with an interesting conversation, suggesting that even political loyalties are merely functional in the suburbs.  “Anyhow I don’t think there’s going to be any depression; that’s just Democratic talk.  I’m so tired of those old Democrats trying to make out like the economy’ going to burst down of something.”  When someone mentions that the woman making this claim was a Democrat she replied, “Not any more.  Not since I moved up here. This is a Republican state, so I’m a Republican.” Urban areas are no less man-made than suburbs, but there seems to be a more organic feel to the development of cities.  Suburbs are planned, zoned, and manicured in bizarre formations.  The grass is imported from Germany.  Even the animals becomes domesticated and adapt to the constructed human world.  It is an ideal place for paranoia to set in.  Gumm is the subject of a mass conspiracy, but most of the novel explores his growing sense of displacement.  The realization of the truth is simply an appendix to the story.  This is perhaps what makes The Matrix rather lazy; it jumps immediately to the “really real.”

Dick introduces the idea that the celebrities and heroes of our world are constructed.  I suspect this was a more profound realization in 1959 than it is now, but it is worth pointing out.  “In Consumer’s Digest they’re always telling you to watch out for frauds and misleading advertising; you know, short weight and that sort of thing. Maybe this magazine, this publicity about this Marilyn Monroe, is all just a big bunch of hot air.  They’re trying to build up some trivial starlet, pretend everybody has heard of her, so when people hear about her for the first time they’ll say.  Oh yes, that famous actress.  Personally I don’t think she’s much more than a glandular case.”

Philip K. Dick, looking all Suburban

Philip K. Dick, looking all Suburban

This is not the first Dick novel to explore the conflict between the human spirit’s desire for exploration and new frontiers and the desire of the state to restrict expansion.  In The World Jones Made, the effort to restrain expansion to other systems is a major theme.  In The Crack in Space, the solution to the Malthusian crisis was human expansion but it was never seen as politically non-controversial.  In many of his works, the human settlement on other planets are tools of institutional oppression (Clans of the Alphane Moon) or consciously made crappy (Martian Time Slip).  A lot of energy was put into making expansion undesirable.

At this point, it is good to recall Frederick Jackson Turner.  As a Westerner for most of his life, Dick lived the end of the frontier.  I have no doubt that the transformation of the American frontier into suburban desolation influenced his view of extraterrestrial settlement.  I have a feeling that he is a follower of Turner in at least one area.  He seems to think human freedom requires the physical relocation outside of our comfort zone.  In the historian Turner’s view, the frontier was the crucible of American democracy.  For Dick, the decadence of Earth will lead to authoritarianism unless we can freely settle into new areas.  This tension plays its self out in many of his works but is rarely spoken of.  I will point it out in future posts.

“You’re a goon, Mister Loon,
One World you’ll never sunder.
A buffoon, Mister Loon,
Oh what a dreadful blunder.
The sky you find to cosy;
The future tinted rosy;
But Uncle’s gonna spank you-you wait!
So hands ina sky, hands ina sky,
Before it is too late.”


Henry Adams, “The Education of Henry Adams”

The Education of Henry Adams contains two parts.  The first covers the first thirty-three years of Adams’ life and explores the continual failures of Adams’ attempts to find an “education,” the emergence of “chaos” reflected in the Civil War and the emergence of industrial capitalism in post-war America, and the end of his education after securing a teaching position in history at Harvard College.  The second part begins twenty years later and explores mostly his reflections on the changing nature of America and the conflict between his pre-industrial heritage, mind, and education with the industrial world.  This transition promised a new period of education in Adams’ life.


I found the first part of this autobiography rich in commentary on education.  One cannot help but notice the privileged that Adams’ enjoyed.  He was born into an illustrious political family.  He had access to his family’s connections.  Adams attended Harvard College with other privileged youth.  His early careers was secured, first as assistant to his father when he served in Congress in 1860 and 1861 and then as an assistant to his father during the all-important diplomatic mission to Great Britain during the Civil War.  His constant complaint about his inability to find an education, despite these privileges cannot help but turn off someone of working-class roots like myself.  I certainly did not get to enjoy the library of a former president in my youth or bounce around Europe as a dilettante seeking an “education.”  Nevertheless, my goal in this blog is to give each writer a fair reading and find what, if anything, an anarchist can learn from the American tradition.  Well, in this sense, once we look past Adams’ privileged we find a rich and convincing discussion of the meaning, purpose, and means of education.   One cannot read this work and not come away questioning the utility of formal, bureaucratized education.  True education, Adams’ insists, comes from engagement in the world.  It is a product of life and action, not the receipt of information from the system.  We realize that yes, we did not get to go to Harvard because of our family connections but we also did not miss out on much.  Besides, he never forgets his privileged, unlike so many of the elite who never really reflect on how easy things have been for them.  “Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he.” (724)

In his “Preface” he claims that he wrote The Education to provide a guide for young people, complaining that despite Emile or Benjamin Franklin no guides existed.  Certainly none that spoke to the needs of the 20th century (or even the 19th).  This was Adams’ dilemma throughout his life.  His formal education prepared him for the 18th century, yet he lived in a world of industrial chaos – the world of the dynamo.  He does take from those writers a belief in autodidacticism.  The joke of Harvard learning and his insistence that education is an individual quest attest to this.  “If the students got little from his mates, he got little more from his masters.  The four years passed at College, were for his purposes, wasted.  Harvard College was a good school but at bottom what the boy disliked most was any school at all.  He did not want to be one in a hundred, — one per cent. of an education.  He regarded himself as the only person for whom his education had value, and he wanted the whole of it.  He got barely half of an average.  Long afterwards, when the devious path of life led him back to teach in his turn what no student naturally cared or needed to know, he diverted some dreary hours of Faculty-meetings by looking up his record in the class-lists, and found himself graded precisely in the middle.” (774)  He then adds that the one skill he needed for the modern world (mathematics) was not taught to him properly.  Not only did Harvard College fail to complete his education, he noticed that it did not even begin an education.

We notice with Adams that education needs to be dynamic and therefore must be deinstitutionalized.  The Civil War left “a million young men planted in thevmud of a lawless world, to begin a new life without education at all.” (820)  Every generation teaches their young for the world they grew up in, but change can be so dramatic and complete that all of those lessons are useless.  I reckon that our current educational crises is based on the perpetuation of an out-dated model.  Here is a useful clip from an education “reformer.”  Even advocates of formal education (in some form) realize what we have is useless.

Adams does receive a diplomatic education by working alongside his father, making connections, and learning lessons of “political morality.”  But strangely this education disqualified him for a life as a diplomat.  “For the law, diplomacy had unfitted him; for diplomacy he already knew too much.” (913)  Adams was after an education and nothing diplomatic after 1865 could be as interesting or educational as the politics of the war.  This drove him to the press.

Adams also discusses his relationship with Darwinism. It seems he took it up as a fad, but Darwinism is central to his argument about education.  Chaos, Adams insists, “breeds life” and order tradition and passivity.  This is essentially a vulgar Darwinian argument.  Darwin describes adaptation in response to a shifting world.  Adams describes formal educations obsolescent in transforming conditions.

Let me end this post by pointing out that he labels the chapter describing what for most intellectuals would have been the pinnacle of their dreams, a faculty position at Harvard, as “Failure.”  Why?  Well, he realized that he was part of an educational institution that was doomed to failure.  He could reach only a fraction of students but still fail to give that minority anything of value.  Adams was a relic.  Worse still, teaching ended his education.  “No more education was possible for either man.  Such as they were, they had got to stand the chances of the world they lived in; and when Adams started back to Cambridge, to take up again the humble tasks of schoolmaster and editor he was harnessed to his cart.  Education, systematic or accidental, had done its worst.  Henceforth he went on, submissive.” (1006)

It seems to me the lesson we should take from Adams’ failure is that we should not measure our success, our knowledge, and education by the standards of a by-gone age.  The world that created the institutions of public education and higher education and dinosaurs.  And every year since Adams wrote these words, these institutions have aged more and developed only in uselessness and decadence.  Millions of students attend glorified prisons (for both the body and the mind) to acquire a piece of paper, which will in turn allow them entrance into another prison.  Families and communities will pass on the ignorance of a generation.  Schools pass on the ignorance of an entire society.  I do not believe individuals can do worse then this.  We should have faith in each child’s capacity to teach themselves through experiences.