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This final novel of Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, was left unpublished when he died and existed in a handful of radically different manuscript forms.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

Mark Twain: “Life on the Mississippi” (1883): Capitalism and Craft

Ah, yet another autobiographical travelogue by Mark Twain. Over the past few weeks, I have read around 1,400 pages of his writing in this genre without losing interest. Life on the Mississippi is half coming of age story and half travel narrative. The first part concerns his youth working as a steamboat pilot and documents how he got into this profession and craft. The second half is about his later travel on the Mississippi in a steamboat during the professions decline due to the rise of railroads. As a history of the transportation revolution in the United States, Life on the Mississippi remains compelling, especially since it examines how the changing nature of transportation shaped one profession. This is something that still shapes our experience of global capitalism. The decline of longshoremen in the age of containerization is simply one example of this phenomenon in our time.

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In the first half of the book, we are mostly interested in how becoming a steamboat pilot shaped Samuel Clemens’ experience and knowledge of the Mississippi River. As the book begins, the river is presented in mythical terms with a deep history and an organic life of its own. As a boy, young Clemens fantasized about the river and a future career on it. He idealized the heroes of the steamboat business “Boy after boy managed to get on the river. The minister’s son became an engineer. The doctor’s and the post-master’s sons became ‘mud clerks;’ the wholesale liquor dealer’s son became a bar-keeper on a boat. . . Pilot was the grandest position of all.” (256) This position had glory, but all boys dreams of careers on the river.

steamboat

Becoming a pilot led to a change in how Clemens saw the river. It went from being mythical and beautiful and endless to something more mundane. Pilots had to know the river at the local, minute level. No longer able to look at it as a whole with beauty, Clemens began to see the river as a workplace. “No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that rippled above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or does n’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And does n’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most of lost most by learning his trade?” (285) I think the same could be said of academia, which many of us got into under a delusion acquired from our deluded perception of the classroom from the student’s perspective. Once through it, it looks more and more disgusting.

Plate from the illustrated edition

Plate from the illustrated edition

That loss aside, is there not something more we can learn from the steamboat pilot. Most of the first half contains the details of the craft of being a pilot. I suppose every major economic or technological change allows the introduction of a new craft for some skilled workers. Many of them are likely as rich and interesting as piloting if looked at closely. There is something attractive in the idea of a craft to me, as an alternative to work. There is status and hierarchy in the profession, but it is at least earned (which is more than we can say for most hierarchies). Unlike the merchant ship, or the whaling ships of Melville, there is an absence of the brutal and arbitrary authority common in hierarchies. Twain writes of the steamboat crew as an egalitarian space.  “In truth, every man and woman and child has a master, and worried and frets in servitude; but in the day I wrote of, the Mississippi pilot had none. The captain could stand upon the hurricane deck, in the pomp of a very brief authority, and give him five or six orders while the vessel backed into the steam, and then that skipper’s reign was over.” (313) Of course, this is because the pilot was a necessity due to his knowledge. The captains were dependent on the skills of the workers. Knowledge of a craft is empowering. He even included two chapters on this specific point (“Rank and Dignity of Piloting” and “The Pilot’s Monopoly”). That said, the path of history has been to eliminate each craft in turn, deskilling jobs. We do not have enough for a strict comparison with railroad work, but my guess it that it provided fewer opportunities for true autonomy at work than steamboat piloting. While providing autonomy and power, owning a craft also made Clemens’ job less like work. It as more of an intellectual activity, and if not quite play it was certainly not the brutal drudgery of most work in capitalist economies. He compares the knowledge of the local environment required of pilots with the knowledge of the Bible required by preachers. The profession also provided lots of time for converse, drink, smoke, flirting and watching the diverse crews. One large part of their play consisted of observing the time it took ships to reach New Orleans, developing this into competitions.

steamboat

My preference is still to use technology to abolish as much work as possible, but reading Life on the Mississippi has reminded me that pleasure can be found through employment, even if framed through capitalist economies. That does seem to require a certain degree of autonomy and worker self-management. I think this book has a place in discussions about how we move to worker self-management and convince of a future without debilitating and odious work.

The second half of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi is about his return to the Mississippi River for a trip to New Orleans and back north, sometime after the Civil War (I cannot locate the exact date of this trip). In the first part of the narrative, I was attracted to Mark Twain’s description of the craft of becoming a steamboat pilot and resurrection the idea that craft-based occupations may be part of the escape from the drudgery of work. The second part takes a different tone and approach, consisting mostly of assorted stories and observations of the areas. It goes from strictly autobiographical to the character of his other travel narratives, combining made up anecdotes, tales, serious observations, and philosophical musings. We are put in a world undergoing dramatic change with the defeat of the Cotton South and slavery in the Civil War and pulling of the West into the global capitalist economy of the Gilded Age. The future of the steamboat would be tourism. The railroads would take over the heavy lifting of integrating the region into the world. He describes growing cities, modern stock markets, electrified streets, and new colleges, newspapers and institutions.

Despite undergoing dramatic transformations, the signs of the heavy historical burden of slavery and cotton farming existed. At one point, Twain calls these the tell-tale signs of the “absolute South . . . no modifications, no compromises, no half-way measures.” (468) The countryside, to Twain’s eyes did not change much from the time of his youth on the Mississippi. Change and continuity is the major theme of the book in a way, reflecting the natural history of the Mississippi, which also was known to change its course, despite seeming an enduring central artery of the continent.

“How solemn and beautiful is the thought, that the earliest pioneer of civilization, the van-leader of civilization, is never the steamboat, never the railroad, never the newspaper, never the Sabbath-school, never the missionary–but always whiskey! Such is the case. Look history over; you will see. The missionary comes after the whiskey has arrived; next comes the poor immigrant, with axe and hoe and rifle; next, the trader; next, the miscellaneous rush; next, the gambler, the desperado, the highwayman, and all their kindred in sin of both sexes; and next, the smart chap who has bought up an old grant that covers all the land; this brings the lawyer tribe; the vigilance committee brings the undertaker. All of these interests bring the newspaper; the newspaper starts up politics and a railroad; all hands turn to and build a church and a jail,–and behold, civilization is established forever in the land. But whiskey, you see, was the vanleader in this beneficent work. It always is. It was like a foreigner–and excusable in a foreigner–to be ignorant of this great truth, and wander off into astronomy to borrow a symbol. But if he has been conversant with the facts, he would have said, — Westward the Jug of Empire takes its way.” (581)