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)

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Herman Melville, “The Confidence-Man” (1857)

“If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life. As elsewhere, experience is the only guide here; but as no one man’s experience can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every case to rest upon it. When the duck-billed beaver of Australia was first brought stuffed to England, the naturalists, appealing to their classifications, maintained that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.” (914)

Well, this is the world we live in to some degree, in constant war with our intellect and education. In The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade Herman Melville dreams up an incredible host of characters on a riverboat on their way South. Some of them certainly do not fit our taxonomy of life—such as the white man posing as a black man—, but they are all rendered so as to appear from life. This novel was Melville’s farewell to the world of publishing. Facing failure after failure since he wrote Redburn, he gave up on the public. He made some money from lecturing but eventually took to simply working at the New York customs office until he retired. His only outlet to the public was a few works of poetry. I still do not know for sure if Melville has spoken his peace or if he had more to say but lost faith in his listeners. As a farewell, The Confidence-Man does not disappoint. It is a brilliant tale and is endless quotable. As I am already prone to over quoting, I will try to avoid the temptation to go overboard.

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What makes this novel work is the cast of characters, each of whom has a story, an agenda, or a scheme. In this way, it is a microcosm of mid-nineteenth century democratic America. But in the mixture of people trying to take advantage of each other, sell their scheme or idea, there is a shared solidarity that Melville touched on previously in regards to the ship and its crew, but not seems to come from the shared experiences of all sorts of people. As the narrator points out, the riverboat is a great place to explore the full diversity of humanity because at every stop people get on and others get off. The population is steady but always changing. Perhaps more darkly we could read this as a story of liquidity. As soon as someone bores us we can take comfort in the fact that they will be gone and someone different will be talking to us in a few minutes. Reflecting this impatience, The Confidence-Man never dwells long on one person. Even the styles shift, with short chapters devoted to tangential points of philosophy. The narrator seems to be in the position of someone in a bar, drinking all day, eavesdropping on every conversation. (Maybe the narrator is a bee moving amongst the riverboat.) Whatever the narrator is, it is always able to learn something from the interactions, even to the point of offering commentary.

Melville makes it clear that we are dealing with America in all its diversity and energy. “As pine, beech, birch, ash, hackmatack, hemlock, spruce, bass-wood, maple, interweave their foliage in the natural wood, so these varieties of mortals blended their varieties of visage and garb. A Tartar-like picturesqueness; a sort of pagan abandonment and assurance. Here reigned the dashing and all-fusing spirit of the West, whose type is the Mississippi itself, which, uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pours them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide.” (848) The stories these varied people told revealed many aspects of American life, turning the novel into something closer to an American version of The Canterbury Tales.

The people on the riverboat are more or less equal (in part because there seems to be no end to the masks that people are wearing and no one can know the real status or condition of others). Despite this equality—or maybe because of it—there is a constant give and take as people try to recruit others into their various schemes. One person invented the “Protean easy-chair” during “odd intervals stolen from meals and sleep.” (881) But that is not the limit of his inventiveness. He has also come up with a scheme to reduce poverty in the world by imposing a global progressive income tax that would produce almost one billion dollars a year. (Notice that this plan is not so different from the proposal of Peter Singer to reduce poverty with a 1% voluntary tax on the wealthy people of the world.) It is not a spur of the moment idea, this particular character through long and hard about this scheme. But it exists only in the realm of ideas. He lacks, of course, the power to implement it. The entire thing may be (actually probably is) a scheme. For all the machinations, because no one has power over any of the others, it comes off as a bit of a game. And the concept of “confidence” (required by any schemer) runs through the story as a type of common vocabulary.

Other subplots revealed during this single day on a riverboat reveal a darker side to the American experience. We meet an Indian hater, for instance, who spends considerable time discussing his life-consuming ambition to slaughter Indians in revenge for the murder of his family (a crime for which was already avenged earlier in his life). As is so common in Melville’s work, the dark undercurrent of American democracy and diversity comes in the form of brutal violence and authoritarian sentiments.

“Well, there is sorrow in the world, but goodness too; and goodness is not greenness, either, no more than sorrow is.” (865)