Zora Neale Hurston: “Tell My Horse” (1938)

Our history has been unfortunate. First we were brought here to Haiti and enslaved. We suffered great cruelties under the French and even when they had been driven out, they left here certain traits of government that have been unfortunate for us. Thus having a nation continually disturbed by revolution and other features not helpful to advancement we have not been able to develop economically and culturally as many of us wished. These things being true, we have not been able to control certain bad elements because of a lack of a sufficient police force. [. . .] It is like your American gangsters. (482–483)


Zora Neale Hurston wrote Tell My Horse in 1938 after she completed field work in Haiti and Jamaica in 1936 and 1937. In some ways the book is a follow up to Mules and Men looking at the survival of African traditions in the New World. She explores voodoo (switching to this spelling, so I will too) in both works. As expected, the tradition is much more fully developed in this book surveying life in the Caribbean. Hurston is also interested in the overall question of black self-rule. While the stories in Mules and Men clearly emerged from a biracial society and reflect the emotional and creative needs of a people oppressed from within, Tell My Horse shows a people capable of self-rule but suffering the exploitation of an entire world system, policed by the United States (Haiti was occupied in much of the 1920s by the United States).

The book is broken up into three parts. The first too provide a general history, examination of social conditions, and political background of Jamaica and Haiti. The theme for both of these is the legacy of slavery and resistance to slavery. In Jamaica it is explored through a surviving maroon community. In Haiti is more overly politicized through the historical memory of Haitian revolution. (And by the way, I have noticed while working on this blog how often Haiti comes up in US writing.) The third part of the book is the longest and constitutes the bulk of the material is an anthropological accounting of voodoo in Haiti. The book ends with some Creole language songs, many of which are discussed in the texts in their full context.

As I hinted above the major tension in the first parts of this book is between self-rule and an empire posed from above. I opened this review with a quote by a Haitian physician, recorded by Hurston. He is basically showing how the burden of empire has caused a social breakdown in Haitian society. The options are authoritarian policing or a total violent breakdown of social order. In fact, these are the same things. Police emerge as a reflection of the annihilation of society. It also seems to speak to the problem of empire. The disorder on the ground in Haiti and other Caribbean nations was the constant justification for US imperialism. Yet, to look on the bright side, the signs of the capacity of self-rule and democratic order from below are there.

Hurston’s visit to the maroon community of Accompong is important in her general interpretation of the Caribbean. It is an example of black self-rule going back to the seventeenth century, an experiment centuries longer lasting than the United States.

Here was the oldest settlement of freedmen in the Western world, no doubt. Men who had thrown off the bands of slavery by their own courage and ingenuity. The courage and daring of the Maroons strike like a purple beam across the history of Jamaica. And yet as I stood there looking into the sea beyond Black river from the mountains of St. Catherine, and looking at the thatched huts close at hand, I could not help remembering that a whole civilization and the mightiest nation on earth had grown up on the mainland since the first runaway slave had taken refuge in these mountains. They were here before the Pilgrims landed on the bleak shores of Massachusetts. Now, Massachusetts had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Accompong had remained itself. (294)


As a self-contained, society with a tradition of self-rule they are a constant reminder of the alternatives that existed to empire and capitalism. In contrast, Haiti is for Hurston an example of the crushing burden of empire on societies.

When Hurston arrived in Haiti for her field work, the memory of the recent US intervention was strong among the people she talked to. What may have been—from the US perspective—a passive phase in foreign policy, was for Haitians a reminder of the betrayal of the revolution. Hurston and her sources are unequivocal in their blame on both external manipulation and the failure of the Haitian elite to do something with their “democracy.” She compares the opportunistic elite in Haiti, prone to ideological and rhetorical flourish, to the black “race leaders” in the United States, who Hurston sees as being displaced by the “doers,” a more silent class but more influential in improving conditions.

Much of this “doing” that Hurston likes so much is reflected in the religious traditions in the Caribbean. It developed very much into a counter-culture, complete with its own social hierarchy and traditions. For every opportunistic political leader, there were dozens of “clans” that run function quite well, empowered by the tradition of voodoo. Hurston points out that structurally, these communities have much in common with the male-dominated African clan. She even entered into a harsh verbal confrontation with a man who debated her about the merits of gender equality. Yet, within voodoo there was a place for women to be active. She talks about a Madame Etienne who had a strong foundation of power and influence in Archahaie.

Zombies come across almost as an extension of the greater political narrative of Haiti as Hurston sees it. By turning free people into thralls, the houngan (those voodoo spiritual leaders) betray the victory of the revolution, turning self-rule into dependency. It is a revival of the master-slave relationship. The fact that such practices are signs of evil and resisted by most (there are elaborate burial rights used to prevent being turned into zombies), is a parallel to the hostility that most Haitians felt toward the opportunities government.

Although it is not a pretty picture at all time at the grassroots of Jamaican and Haitian society, Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse is detailing the unending tension between empire and self-rule. The signs seem to point to the endurance of self-rule, cultivated through counter-cultures, secret societies, deviant religious practices, and various other transgressions. I was reminded often of Bryan Palmer’s book Cultures of Darkness which looks at these secret societies as a necessary component of capitalism.

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson” (Part One)

[Indians] are combated by the habits of their bodies, prejudice of their minds, ignorance, pride, and the influence of interested and crafty individuals among them, who feel themselves something in the present order of things, and fear to become nothing in any other. These persons inculcate a sanctimonious reverence for the customs of their ancestors; that whatever they did must be done through all time; that reason is a false guide, and to advance under its counsel, in their physical, oral, or political condition, is perilous innovate that their main duty is to remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety, and knowledge full of danger. In short, my friends, among them is seen the action and counter-action of good sense and bigotry they too have their anti-philosophers. (Thomas Jefferson, 606)


This—from Jefferson’s second inaugural address—is how a philosopher president justifies conquest.

In the third volume of his history of the United States from 1800 to 1817, Henry Adams continues to focus his attention on foreign affairs. In my last post, I dwelled on how the Louisiana Purchase (or Jefferson’s first term in general) oversaw the emergence of the United States as a self-denying but no less openly imperial nation. Of course, Jefferson would continue these denials throughout his presidency and the nation would follow his lead. There are still those who deny this brutal truth. Adams himself seems unaware that the events he was recounting were describing the rise of an imperial nation. In Jefferson’s second term he was forced to face this by forces much more honest than he was. The first challenge was Aaron Burr, who should be given credit for calling a spade a spade as he attempted to carve our his own little empire. The second challenge, to dominate Jefferson’s second term was the European empires who knew very well that the United States was in the game and refused to allow the United States to pretend to be a passive bystander. I will deal with the embargo crisis later. For now, I will focus on Adams’ account of Aaron Burr’s conspiracy.

The official reading of the Burr conspiracy is that Aaron Burr was attempting to create an independent nation in the frontier areas, in places controlled by Spain. Immediately this seems to be an interesting historical coincidence since this is almost exactly what the U.S. settlers in Texas did in the 1840s. In a sense, they were much worse than Burr, even brining the United States into a war with Mexico. Evidence that Burr was after a private empire was that he collected military forces for the expedition down the Mississippi and had a massive holding (40,000 acres). Burr’s point of view was that he was renting the land from Spain and just planned to work it. In that case, he would have been a predecessor to the Bonanza farms of the later nineteenth century. Although he claimed he was not treasonous, he never claimed that he was not after a private demesne, just that his would be legally defined by the typical language of capitalist exploitation.


Adams takes on the position of the government that Burr’s plan was a grandiose effort at creating an empire in the west, even going so far as to kidnap people in Washington in order to effect his scheme, if he could not get the required aid from Britain or Spain. Adams gives a detailed history of the conspiracy that is a quite a lively read, covering a handful of chapters. When the conspiracy finally fell apart, as such wild dreams almost must when not backed by the authority of the state, it is reworked too the interests of political power. Adams points out that the trial of Burr became more of a fight between Jefferson and his enemies than a dialog on the costs and consequences of expansion and conquest. In re-reading, I find Aaron Burr’s honesty about the nature of the game fascinating and refreshing.

Adams seems quote sympathetic to the rolling of civilization across the continent. This enthusiasm for empire (never called that) is a bit strange coming from the same man who praised the virtues of the Middle Ages against modern civilization. He was simply not equipped to look at the expansion west of the United States in anything but the language of Manifest Destiny. This is him on the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was apparently great except for its modesty.

Creditable as these expeditions were to American energy and enterprise, they added little to the stock of science or wealth. Many years must elapse before the vast region west of the Mississippi could be brought within the reach of civilization. The crossing of the continent was a great feat, but was nothing more. The French explorers had performed feats almost as remarkable; but, in 1805, the country they explored was still a wilderness. Great gains to civilization could be made only on the Atlantic coast under the protection of civilized life. For many years to come progress must still centre in the old thirteen State of the Union. (751—752)

lewis and clark

What might a more honest republican empire had looked liked? Perhaps not much different. It may have faced the Napoleonic wars with more of a spirit of realpolitik. Perhaps it was this self-denial about empire that allowed Indians to sustain their autonomy as long as they did, but I doubt that. On the contrary, perhaps seeing Indians as colonial subjects, rather than people uncivilized by choice (as Jefferson’s inaugural stated) may have ensured a more honest and less destructive policy toward them. In any case, we still see shadows of Henry Adams when we read history textbooks today.



“The Mark Twain Anthology” Part One

Culture is hardly a new idol but I long to hurl things at it. Culture can scarcely burn anything, but I am impelled to sacrifice to the same. I am coming to suspect that the majority of Culture’s modern disciples are a mere crowd of very slimly educated people, who have no natural taste or impulse; who do not really know the best things in literature; who have a feverish desire to admire the newest thing, to follow the latest artistic fashion; who prate about ‘style’ without he faintest acquaintance with the ancient examples of style, in Greek, French, or English; who talk about the classics and criticize the classical critics and poets, without being able to read a line of them in the original. Nothing of the natural man is left in these people; their intellectual equipment is made up of ignorant vanity, and eager desire of novelty, and a yearning to be in fashion. Andrew Lang (79–80)

The Mark Twain Anthology is a rather odd volume in the Library of America series. It is one of a handful of special publications that is still officially in the series list (along with a similar volume on Lincoln and American Earth). This volume is a collection of short pieces by “great writers” about Mark Twain. It may have been more useful to read in parallel with the others Mark Twain volumes. That said, I find it rather surplus to the project. A much-needed volume on Margaret Fuller would have better served. It is perhaps too much hero worship for my tastes. Yes, the world agrees on Mark Twain’s contributions, but I rather enjoyed discovering those on my own rather than listen to “great  writers” tell me what to think about his works. As a collection of contemporary reviews on commentaries of Twain, it has value and the global scale of the anthology is at the very least interesting. A fair number of left libertarian writers found Mark Twain rich in meaning. He was also popular globally among anti-colonial activists. I will highlight some of these.


Jose Marti—a Cuban nationalist and radical writer—identified Twain’s importance in his sympathy for the people at the bottom and his disgust with hierarchy and privilege.

He has been in the burning workshops where the country was forged: with those who make mistakes, with those who fall in love, with those who rob, with those who live in solitude and people it, and with those who build. He liked to wander and once he had seen man in one place, he took his leave, longing to see him in another. . . . He knows men, and the trouble they take to hide or disguise their defects; and he loves to tell things so that the real man—hypocritical, servile, cowardly, wanton—drops from the last line of this story like a puppet from the hands of the clown who toyed with it. (50)

In this way, Twain was a writer who understood that looking at the world from below meant getting a bit dirty. Working people, the marginalized, the exploited are not saints and their stories are not often pretty. Marti sums up very well the importance of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as a document about class struggle and the odious nature of privilege.

Jose Marti

Jose Marti

One thing that anti-colonial history teaches us is that the essential values of freedom, equality, and the potential for human progress existed across the world. In my view one of the greatest of these voices (and one of the most important to be revived at a time when the Chinese state is expanding its power and state capitalism is tightening its noose around Chinese working people) is Lu Xun. The selection here is just his introduction to a Chinese translation of Eve’s Diary and reveals little of his broader libertarian values, but like Marti, Lu Xun was a nationalist, but a nationalist whose values were focused first on expanding human freedom. The state-makers of modern China co-opted Lu Xun for their purposes, the fate of many nationalist writers.

Lu Xun

Lu Xun

Many writers were drawn to Mark Twain because of his informal and free style of writing. This is particularly true of William Dean Howells: Twain’s good friend. “He would take whatever offered itself to his hand out of that mystical chaos.” (88) This is rare and potentially powerful in the hands of a person with a great ability to observe and understand the world. If, as Italian writer Livia Bruni said: “[Mark Twain] remained an enthusiast for liberty, truth, and justice, a staunch enemy of every kind of oppression,” this is because he was recording the world as it was, without overly intellectualizing or organizing the facts.

Many foreign writers seemed to look at Mark Twain as the quintessential American writer. George Ade pointed out that his long period abroad made him well known, but never risked his status as an American writer (unlike, one suspects Henry James). Ade, an American, called him “the best of our emissaries.” (126) And foreigner writers seemed to always talk about Twain not just as an American writer, but as a student of American democracy, finding his backwoods upbringing and unpretentious lifestyle crucial elements in his work. For class-conscious and aristocratic Europe, this was striking. Jorge Luis Borges wrote that “Mark Twain is only imaginable in America.” (177) Yet, the comparison with Voltarie and Cervantes is made by a handful of writers. It is likely significant that the world was coming to know America through Mark Twain at a time when America’s rise was clear to observers. No longer a distant and insignificant republic, the US was becoming an empire. For all of his anti-imperialism, perhaps Twain serviced this empire in a strange way, for he was often describing an America long dead in the age of industrialism and capital.

H. L. Mencken contrasts Twain with Hawthorne, Poe, Whitman, and Emerson. Of these writers, only Twain was American in an unalienated sense. The others were great amid “a very backward state of culture.” (145) For Whitman, democracy was “simply a figment of his imagination.” (145) Twain was of America and his greatness emerged from America of reality, not of ideals. Mencken may be suggesting that this makes Twain the first post-revolutionary American writer (although he does not say that). In a revolutionary era, culture had to be self-conscious, idealistic, and work in the world of abstractions. The very non-ideological nature of Twain’s writings, which made him so difficult to label or interpret, is at the heart of his libertarian Americanism.

Mark Twain: “Following the Equator” Chapters 41–end: India and Africa

That was England, the English power, the English civilization, the modern civilization—with the quiet elegancies and quiet colors and quiet tastes and quiet dignity that are the outcome of the modern civilization. And following it came a picture of the ancient civilization of India—an hour in the mansion of a native prince: Kumar Schri Samatsinhji Bahadur of the Palitana State. (655)

Twain at the time of the publication of "Following the Equator"

Twain at the time of the publication of “Following the Equator”

There is a passage in Jurgen Osterhammel and Niels P. Peterson book Globalization: A Short History that helps put the realities of a world coming together into its proper perspective. World history tends to look at flows and by doing so cover-up questions of class and inequality and power. One of the powerful contributions of imperial history is that it reminds us that globalizations of the past were disruptive and often brutal. “It [network concept] tends to trivialize societal dimension, to flatten hierarchies and power differences, and to overlook the varying depth and intensity of relationships. The fact that networks cross or eliminate existing boundaries does not prevent them from creating new ones.” This is known (mostly) to students of empire, but often forgotten by students of globalization, especially its most eager supports in the historical profession, world historians.


Mark Twain’s Following the Equator is a powerful look this reformation of class boundaries in the global system created by mature European imperialism. Twain’s 1895–1896 tour of the world was really a tour of the Anglo-American empire. He first visited Hawai’i, then Australia and the South Pacific, then India, and finally Southern Africa. He was seeing worlds that were already heavily incorporated into the world system created by Europeans. In my first post on Following the Equator I focused on labor migration and the violence of empire. The situation changes a bit in the second half of the story, shifting to India and Africa, places where Europeans had to content with an existing culture that had deep roots and could not be easily supplanted, as in Australia. Twain devotes much of the second half of the book to understanding the culture and society of South Asia, but as the book makes clear, although the Hindu society was not at risk at being destroyed, it was under great stress and violent transformations as a result of British rule.  Chapter 41 is a good summarization of this, as he shows the local Hindu princes under increasing strain of the British modernization project. A century earlier they would have thanked the British for not overtaxing or for not “bringing famine upon them.” But, by the end of the nineteenth century the local princes’ powers were evaporated by “factories, schools, hospitals, reforms” and other institutions of colonial modernity. It was these institutions that did the job of reforming the class lines in colonial India and Africa.

In the process of these institutional changes, colonial India was becoming a progressively more violent and divided place. Twain digs up court trials, stories of American-style hucksterism, and—most significantly—a history of the rise of the Thug cult as evidence of how British rule destabilized Indian society. And while he points out that the inherent diversity of cultures in South Asia played a role in the rise of the Thuggee, he relishes in pointing out that the Thuggee were a mirror of European imperial barbarism. “We white people are merely modified Thugs; Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization; Thugs who long ago enjoyed the slaughter of the Roman arena, and later the burning of doubtful Christians by authentic Christians in the public squares, and who now, with the Thugs in Spain and Nimes, flock to enjoy the blood and misery of the bull-ring.” (703) The best example of British imperialism disrupting Indian society is the Sepoy Mutiny of the middle eighteenth century, the scars of which still existed for Twain to notice and reflect on over a century later.


Another civilizing project of the British that piqued Twain’s interest was the eradication of wild animals. “For many years the British Indian Government has been trying to destroy the murderous wild creates, and has spent a great deal of money in the effort. The annual official returns show that the undertaking is a difficult one.” (776) The reader gets the feeling that the strategy employed by the British to regulate wild animals was not much different from the approach to the Thuggee or the Sepoys a century earlier. Twain confesses that animals do seem to kill many people in India. He cites that snakes kill 103,000 in six years, to which the British kill over 1,000,000 snakes in retaliation. I am not sure if the environmental history of empire has been fully written, but we can see the consequences of the logic of the extermination of nature all around us.

Twain’s stay in Africa is considerably less lengthy and covers only the last few chapters of the book. As with India we see the institutions of law, violence, institutions of power, and economic incorporation into a global capitalist economy devastating the lives of native people. If Twain is to be believed it was as brutal in South Africa as in Australia. “The great bulk of the savages must go. The white man wants their lands, and all must go excepting such percentage of them as he will need to do his work for him upon terms to be determined by himself. . . . The reduction of the population by Rhodesian methods to the desired limit is a return to the old-time slow-misery and lingering-death system of a discredited time and a crude ‘civilization.’” (868–869) This brief section on Africa ends with a look at the diamond minds and the semi-forced labor that worked the mines. As across the British Empire, intense labor regimens, depopulation, violence, and global capitalism worked hand in hand.


Other Travels

This particular volume ends with thirteen short selections under the title “Other Travels.” Some of these were published earlier by the Library of America in the collected short works of Twain. Others expand on themes explored in some of his other travel narratives. For that reason, I will not put up what may be a redundant post about more of Twains travels. I have covered all of his travel narratives earlier in this blog.

These assorted travel narratives stretch from 1873 until 1897 and are by and large about Europe. The first and one of the last of these narratives speak to the question of empire. In “The Shah of Persia,” Twain discusses the arrival in London of the Shah of Iran. We see that the British tried to apply pressure on the Shah to change policies (through an expat Parsee population), even as the Shah was arriving as a theoretical equal. In “Queen Victoria’s Jubilee” we see a celebration of the successes of the reign of Queen Victoria. Part of the celebration was putting the empire on display. “Then there was an exhaustive exhibition of the hundred separate brown races of India, the most beautiful and most satisfying of the complexions that have been vouchsafed to man, and the one which best sets off colored clothes and best harmonizes with all tints. . . . The procession was the human race on exhibition—a spectacle curious and interesting and worth traveling to see” (1050) In both of these cases, we see the empire from the perspective of London. Like the Shah twenty years earlier, the true horrific reality of Britain’s empire building is not on display, only its grandeur.


Twain used travel narratives to hack ideas of American exceptionalism. As I looked at in an earlier post, “The Cradle of Liberty,” Twain believed that Switzerland was a better example of a libertarian tradition than the United States. In a similar vein, “The Chicago of Europe,” uses Berlin as an example of rational urban development. “Some National Stupidities” does this in a more humorous way by contrasting some do the absurdities of daily life in Europe and the United States. “America could adopt this [German] stove, but does America do it? No, she sticks placidly to her own fearful and wonderful inventions in the stove line. She has fifty kinds, and not a rational one in the lot.” (1035) As Twain started to learn in the context of the American conquest of the Pacific the separation between the Old World and the New World may not have been as great as many American writers believed.

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner: “The Gilded Age” (1873): Assorted Thoughts

The major action in the second part of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age is about the failure of the Hawkins family attempt to sell their 75,000 acres of land in Tennessee to the U.S. government. Their scheme was to promote the establishment of a college of science and technology, which would have led to the purchase of the land for millions. Without getting into the details of this scheme, despite massive efforts of lobbying and bribing politicians, it fails catastrophically when taken to the floor of Congress for a vote. A second plot is about Laura Hawkins’ arrest for the murder of Colonel Selby, her lover who was pursuing a bigamist relationship with Laura. They actually married in the first half of the novel, but Selby quickly abandoned her before the marriage was reported.


The impact of this relationship on Laura is quite significant. The authors connection it to the malevolent shift in her character. “Laura was ill for a long time, be she recovered she had that resolution in her that could conquer death almost. And with her health can back her beauty, and an added fascination, a something that might be mistaken for sadness. Is there a beauty in the knowledge of evil, a beauty that shines out in the face of a person whose inward life is transformed by some terrible experience? Is the pathos in the eyes of the Beatrice Cenci from her guilt or her innocence? Laura was not much changed. The lovely woman had a devil in her heart. That was all.” (140 – 141) There is an important message about the dysfunction of marriage that reminds me a bit of some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s depictions of marriage. If we look at Laura and Selby there is a basic conflict in their relationship as each is attempting to possess the other on their own terms. Too often we look at our relationships in this way, and this works into our culture. Women want men to themselves. Men will seek out to possess as many women as casually as possible. When Laura finds Selby in Washington with his “real” wife, she seeks to own him and when that fails she kills him. This murder and the trial that follows leads to much of the tension of the second half of the novel. If possession is at the heart of our relationships, then violence seems to be the inevitable result. On this, Twain and Warner and correct. Listen to Laura’s outrage (perhaps acceptable) but it is filled with the assumption of ownership, not unlike Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni. “And you dare come here with her, here, and tell me of it, here and mock me with it! And you think I will have it, George? You think I will let you live with that woman? You think I am as powerless as that day I fell dead at your feet?” (281) Later the narrator asks: “Had she not a right to him?” In response to this dilemma, both turn toward plotting. It is all very unfortunate and ugly. It makes the nonmonogamists seem much more mature (of course because they are).

Twain and Warner spend lots of time cultivating the aura of Washington in the post-Civil War era, discussing the class divisions between the different political families, their social life, the networks that fueled corruption, and even how the environment tended to corrupt those who were not of Washington (Such as Washington Hawkins). “Renowned generals and admirals who had seemed but colossal myths when he was in the far west, went in and out before him or sat at the Senator’s table, solidified into palpable flesh and blood; famous statesmen crossed his path daily; that once rare and awe-inspiriting being, a Congressman, was become a common spectacle.” (181) Of course, after the Civil War, there were plenty of these awe-inspiring heroes. The authors seem to mourn how easily these people fell into the corruption of politics after the war ended.

We see several hints throughout The Gilded Age of the growing American empire. Many of the Western land schemes discussed in the book presuppose an imperial agenda, both in how the land was original secured and in the plans for development. At one point Colonel Sellers suggests overseas expansion in the context of the plan to annex Santo Domingo (a real but often forgotten effort at Reconstruction-era empire building). Sellers sold the plan as a way to gain Southern support for some of his other policies. Even the plan to build an industrial college on the Hawkins land is suggested as a part of the modernization of the South, bringing into the nation after the Civil War, establishing the South as a fundamental part of the U.S. empire. The former slaves are presented as semi-colonial subjects to be brought up under the tutelage of Washington. “We understand that a philanthropic plan is on foot in relation to the colored race that will, if successful, revolutionize the whole character of southern industry.” (287)

The novel ends with an acquitted Laura taking stock of her live and attempting to turn away from the evil woman that being jilted and working in Washington made her into. If there is a lesson here it is that the nation also could turn from that path (but perhaps only after coming to terms with itself through the equivalent of a trial). Her question for wealth from nothing, paralleled the quest of many others, but was shown to be vapid. “Her life has been a failure. That was plain, she said. No more of that. She would now look to the future in the face; she would mark her course upon the chart of life, and follow it; follow it without swerving, through rocks and shoals, through storm and calm, to a haven of rest and peace—or, shipwreck.” (432) It would have been a banal ending for Laura without the final ambiguity. Without the possibility of shipwreck, I do not think Laura would be completely happy. Do any of us really want a “haven of rest and peace.”

Mark Twain, “Roughing It” (1872): Part Two

“His flesh was stripped from the bones and burned (except nine pounds of it which were sent on board the ships). The heart was hung up in a native hut, where it was found and eaten by three children, who mistook it for the heart of a dog. One of these children grew to be a very old man, and died in Honolulu a few years ago. Some of Cook’s bones were recovered and consigned to the deep by the officers of the ship.” (919)

What does the killing of Captain Cook in Hawaii have to do with territorial Nevada, despite both appearing in Mark Twain’s Roughing It? Both are part of the scope of American imperialism in the second half of the nineteenth century and both constituted domains of the emerging American empire, eventually to reach beyond the continent into the Pacific. The scale of the second half of  Roughing It is much larger than the first half. In the first half, we follow Twain as he travels by Overland Stage Coach to Nevada, via Mormon Utah. We learn about the Pony Express and the mythology of frontier desperadoes. When Twain arrived in Nevada he quickly got caught up in the silver mining bubble economy and makes an attempt at prospecting. This effort is a failure (although he was a theoretical millionaire for a few days). This put Twain into a hopeless quandary. He had gotten used to the idea of not working and now he was in need of a job. Twain documents his work history, which is quite impressive. I particularly liked his stint at a bookstore. “I had been a bookseller’s clerk for awhile, but the customers bothered me so much I could not read with any comfort, and so the proprietor gave ma  furlough and forgot to put a limit on it.” (744) Ah, that is how I felt as a copy-editor, although my furlough was self-imposed. I am in common cause with Mark Twain. Work (if we absolutely must) should be our own benefit, not for the employers.

Etching from "Roughing It"

Etching from “Roughing It”

Contained within Roughing It is an explanation of how Twain entered into work as a journalist in Nevada. It was not hard for him. Some of his writings had appeared in print before and he was given a staff job as a junior city editor with a salary of $25 a month (later raised). And then he walked a beat around Virginia City. We learn how he managed slow news days, how he got the scoop on the school budget form a competing newspaper. Most interesting is the all too familiar journalistic fascination with conflict, scandal, and violence. Murders, apparently made Twain the happiest man in the territory for it promised something to writer about.

With his job as a journalist secured, Twain eventually become a Western writer of some renown, but he does not focus too much on his career, using the space in Roughing It to discuss the social and economic conditions of the territory. The chapters on the silver boom are a useful study of an economy based on speculation. It was much like a game Old Maid where the deck had 50 Old Maid cards. Most people’s claims were worthless or near enough. So the game became convincing others of the inherent wealth of this claim or that claim. In some cases, this meant even “salting” mines with silver in order to create the impression of future wealth, but only long enough to sell the shares in the mine to some sucker. However, since everyone was in on the game, it does not seem that “exploitation” is the right word to use. Twain says less about the working class in the territory. We know that there were people who worked for wages. This did not mean they forsook the brinkmanship of prospecting.

Much of his concern is with with violence and the legal order. It is not quite right to say that the violence was a product of a lack of state presence. There were courts, juries, police, and executions. None of this really prevented the violence that was integral to the social network. If we take him seriously people’s reputations were tied up into their histories of violence. “If an unknown individual arrived, they did not inquire if he was capable, honest, industrious, but — had he killed his man?” (781) Juries existed but seemed to not convict many people (“only two persons have suffered the death penalty.”) Twain associates this violence and vice with the prosperity of the region. “A crowded police court docket is the surest of all signs that trade is brisk and money plenty.” (798) But crime was not the only sign of vibrancy. Twain puts the emergence of a literary journal at the same level.


Twain next takes us on his adventures in California and Hawaii before closing the narrative. Roughing It is as much a story of Twain’s quest for fulfillment and satisfaction with life as it is a document on the Nevada frontier. I find some commonality with Herman Melville’s early work, where characters existed in a constant state of discontent. As he described the thoughts that led him on his first trip to Hawaii, he confessed this nature. “I was out of debt, but my interest in my work was gone; for my correspondence being a daily one, without rest of respite, I got unspeakably tired of it. I wanted another change. The vagabond institute was strong upon me. Fortune favored and I got a new berth and  delightful one.” (862) His “moral” at the end of the book addresses how creativity emerges from this spirit. “If you are of any acocunt, stay at home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are ‘no account,’ go away from home, and then you will have to work.” (960)

The final section of the book explores his half year in Hawaii as a journalist and lecturer. Here we are given a darker side of the U.S. Empire as it was completing its conquest of the islands. Of course, the Empire was alive and well in Nevada as well, but since we only see the frontier there from the perspective of white men. He has a few asides about Chinese, but he simply repeats the stereotype of the model minority: well-behaved and hard working. In Hawaii, we see the full extent of American commercial power over other people through his tour of the islands and his visits to the plantations. This is carefully set aside a retelling of the story of the killing of Cook, one of Hawaii’s first blows against Western imperialism in the Pacific. However, Twain is not really interested in a story of economic exploitation in the empire (this would come later in his work). He is acutely aware at this point of the culture wars, between the missionaries and Hawaiian society. We meet, for instance, Christian converts but no plantation workers.

Early American Honolulu

Early American Honolulu

Mark Twain: “The Innocents Abroad” (1869): Part Two

“Gray lizards, those heirs of ruin, of sepulchers and desolation, glided in and out among the rocks of lay still and sunned themselves. Where prosperity has reigned, and fallen; where glory has flamed, and gone out; where beauty has dwelt, and passed away; where gladness was, and sorrow is; where the pomp of life has been, and silence and death brood in its high places, there this reptile makes his home, and mocks at human vanity. His coat is the color of ashes; and ashes are the symbol of hopes that have perished, of aspirations that came to nought, of loves that are buried. If he could speak, he would say, Built temples: I will lord it in their ruins; build palaces: I will inhabit them; erect empires: I will inherit them; bury your beautiful: I will watch the worms at their work; and you, who state here and moralize over me: I will crawl over your corpse at the last.” (387)


Mark Twain was inspired to write these words by visiting the “Holy Land.” He saw both the decline of the Ottoman empire and the relics of ancient empires that existed in the Levant. In the same section, Mark Twain suggest that the tourists, himself and his companions on the voyage, were not much better than grave robbers or perhaps necrophiliacs in their fetish of these fallen worlds. He uses the term “tomb-desecraters” for his companions, adding that “whithersoever they go they destroy and spare not.” (390)

The second half of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad continues the adventures of the band of mostly Christian tourists on board the Quaker City as they explore all the required sites of the Mediterranean. After braving their way through France and Italy (including a risky venture to the known dangerous Mt. Vesuvius). They prepared to head to Russia and the Ottoman Empire, two empires frequently at war. Thankfully they survive all of this and return home safely have their experiences documented by the then obscure Western writer Twain. They will live on in history as some of the great explorers of the nineteenth century.

The dark cloud over The Innocents Abroad is the end of wild spaces. Even the apparently underpopulated regions of the Ottoman Empire that they visited were prepared for the tourists, with all the necessary wares, transportation modes, and proper sites. I suppose it is much worse today, as Holy Land tourism is booming. Twain acknowledges the tedium of tourism when the Quaker City reached a Russian city (Odessa I think), where there was nothing important to see according to the guide books. Of course, this created an interesting moment in which they group could enjoy a slightly more authentic day, without having everything planned, arranged, and commercialized. In contrast is the visit to the pyramids where they were surrounded by people eager to take them to the summit. “Of course we were besieged by a rabble of muscular Egyptians and Arabs who wanted the contract of dragging us to the top—all tourists are.” (496)

I rather enjoyed the moments documented by Twain when the ship’s crew got a good laugh at the tourists’ pretentions and self-confidence. These sailors were more likely than the middle and upper class tourists to be real adventurers. After bumping into the Russia royalty while in Southern Russia during their Black Sea component of their tour, the Americans fell into awe of the spectacle of the empire. I never quite understood what Americans (or British for that matter) saw interesting in the British royal family. I suspect that the answer to why—despite an anti-monarchical revolution—Americans still like to gawk at nobility can be found somewhere in this book. Anyway, on the return to the ship, the sailors had some good fun recreating the silly tourists and the feeble attempts impress the Russian nobility. One suspects the sailors had no such desire to lick the boots of those authority figures. They particularly enjoyed mocking the silly address that the tourists wrote. The sailors have a point, as Twain realizes. It did open with the silly: “We are a handful of private citizens of America, travelling simply for recreation,—and unostentatiously, as becomes our unofficial state—and therefore, we have no excuse to tender for presenting ourselves before your Majesty.” (321)

I think there is something quite fascinating about the Ottoman Empire’s relative success at diversity. This was not uncommon in early modern Asian empires (the Manchu Qing and the Mughals had similar ethnic openness), but did run against the trend of nineteenth century European empires based as they were on scientific racism and nationalism. I am less pro-imperial than I am anti-nationalist, and I find the apparent ease at which the Ottomans lived with diversity fascinating and something we can learn from. Twain certainly noticed that during his visit to Constantinople and other locations in the Empire. At the same time, Twain was impressed with how modern Constantinople seemed to him. He felt the railroad to the city looked out of place.

Twain saves his most depressed commentary on empire for the journey through the Holy Land, which he constantly sees as a tomb, depopulated and abandoned. (Now I know that some ink has been spilled over these descriptions in respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The suggestion has been made, I forgot by whom, that Palestinians are an invented people. That Twain saw so few of them in the 1867 suggests that they were not true occupiers of the region. According to my reading, the region was sparsely populated by a diverse group of people,—“particularly uncomely Jews, Arabs, and negroes”— but I will let the experts go at it). The vision of an impoverished and devastated “Holy Land” is clearest in his descriptions of Magdala, full of “vermin-tortured vagabonds,” beggars, and the crippled. It seems Jesus checked out before he completed his task. These places where which were more “wild” in the sense of being untamed by profit motif are easily seen by tourists as backward and dangerous.


I found the most powerful moments in this book to be Twain’s often sad commentary on the fate of empires and the relationship of a forward thinking people without history to the past. I am reminded suddenly of the Chinese tourist who defaced an Egyptian artifact. Such a crime is only possible from someone who has lost all connection to their own past and is thus unable to respect the past of the others. But how is it better to fetishize the past? In any case, the defacement of the Egyptian tombs started when they were opened up to tourists, not when the Chinese youth took out his carving knife.

The engraving by a Chinese student

The engraving by a Chinese student

Egypt, Open for business

Egypt, Open for business


Herman Melville, “The Piazza Tales” (1856): “I would prefer not to”

Herman Melville’s The Piazza Tales, collecting five short stories and an introductory tale, include two stunning stories of resistance and their limits: “Bartleby, The Scrinvner” and “Benito Cereno.” The are often put in the same category as Melville’s greatest prose works, so it is notable that they both have at the core an act of seemingly successful rebellion. The Piazza Tales came out in 1856, collecting five of the pieces he wrote in the previous two years for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. 


“Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” is endlessly fascinating and can be re-read for new meaning almost every time. The narrator is an employer at a law office, who hires a small group of copyists (scriveners), whose job it is to copy and double-check the accuracy of various of the copies. We have a mini-example of the Pequod here, with a diverse (but much smaller group) of workers, that accomplish their task with little oversight. The profession has rules that its members know. The boss, lacking any bold scheme like an Ahad, is simply content to manage the smooth-working office. Bartleby enters as the workload of the office increases. He is a diligent worker, who comes in every day and does his job, apparently without major defect. He does not seem to eat much except nuts and eventually takes to sleeping in the office. However, he also develops a strange habit of refusing requests from his employer. To all requests he responds: “I would prefer not to,” or some variation of. It is not that he does not do his work. His refusal is only when asked by the boss. This torments the narrator who has authority but is not used to using it. He seems to prefer an office well running without the need to apply authority.


This probably describes most middle managers in office settings, always careful to assert their authority, but afraid to undermine the harmony of the office with a too authoritarian intervention. Having recently worked in an office, I can attest that most of the time discipline was enforced morally. “Don’t you want to help your co-workers?” “Do work that you can be proud of.” Explicit threats of being fired were not there. In this context, Bartleby’s resistance to the authority — and the banality — of office life is quite effective. Bartleby is brilliantly calling the employers’ bluff but forcing him to use more explicit uses of power.  In response to a refusal to cooperative, the narrator responds: “I am seriously displeased. I am pained, Bartleby I had thought better of you.” (660) That power beings as moral pleading, expressions of concern, threats of firing, and eventually the introduction of state authorities. Only the state is able to finally remove him from the office (an act the narrator cannot bear to witness although he precipitated it). Eventually Bartleby dies of starvation, literally bored to death from his job. His strategy may be the ultimate form of resistance and the exact way to challenge the power of the petty tyrants in offices around the world. Instead of refusing to work, one works but refuses to listen to the silly preachings and time-wasting dictates of those with a slightest bit of authority.

“Benito Cereno” is about a ship master who comes across another ship that had just experienced a mutiny by slaves. The transatlantic slave trade had already ended, banned by Congress in 1808, but the threat of slave revolt was still very alive in the minds of many Americans, Nat Turner’s revolt taking place in 1830. The story (really a short novel) is told through two sides. First from the perspective of a fictionalized Amasa Delano and then through an official report. The mutiny actually took place prior to Delano’s arrival, but the enslaved men and women kept the captain, Benito Cereno, alive in order to sail back to Africa. Delano is actually walking into a “world turned upside down” but does not know it. Cereno is commanded by the leader of the mutiny, a former slave called Bado. The reality of the situation is revealed at the end the mutiny is suppressed and Bado executed. This leads to the death of Cereno who is grief stricken by Bado’s death, turning on its head the cliché of the loyal slave.

In some ways, this suggests the fragility of power on the ship, in which captains really do keep their authority with the consent of the crew and the (at times) backing of external state powers. More broadly, the story speaks to the reality of empire in the 19th century. They were apparently ruled by whites, but really functioned through the labor and efforts of the enslaved.

“The Encantadas” reminded me of Mardi in how they toured a series of mystical islands. Lacking a narrative, the story is really more of a tourist guide to these various locations, some with hierarchical states, some left to nature, and yet others as libertarian realms for runaway sailors and slaves. While life if brutal there: full of institutions of power such as jails and gravestones testifying to unspoken horrors. In this sense it parallels the reality of the Atlantic world. Sketch seven of the story even has an example of a war between a colonial state (which proclaimed itself a republic) and a population of creole rebels. “Nay, it was no democracy at all, but a permanent Riotocracy, which gloried in having no law but lawlessness.” (791) As other sketches show, slavery is worked into the dynamics of life on the Encantadas.

However, like the Atlantic world system itself–and the emerging global capitalism that Melville knew about first hand–there are built in wild spaces where freedom can be secured and tyranny contested.  The section on runaways shows this. But by and large we see, in the Encantadas, the brutal extremes that authority will go to assert itself. “Nor have there been wanting instances where in inhumanity of some captains has led them to wreak a secure revenge upon seamen who have given their caprice or pride some singular offense. Thrust ashore upon the scorching marl, such mariners are abandoned to perish outright, unless by solitary labors they succeed in discovering some precious dribblets of moisture oozing from a rock or stagnant in a mountain pool.” (816) It seems to me that “The Encantadas” should be read as a likely description of a world of unrestrained capitalism.

The reality of the Enchantadas

The reality of the Enchantadas

slavery2floggingThis is the world that capitalism created. Melville was genius at describing it in almost all of his works. Much of his significance for us is in how he exposed the violence of empire and commerce. With this in mind, I think we should learn from Bartleby and “prefer not to” cooperate a bit more often.


Francis Parkman, “The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” (1849), Part Two

“The human race in this part of the world is separated into three divisions, arranged in the order of their merits: white men, Indians, and Mexicans; to the latter of whom the honorable title of ‘whites’ is by no means conceded.” (274–275)

I do not want to give the wrong idea. Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail is not a Social Darwinian text, creating an odious racial taxonomy of the “American” West. However, statements like this were hard to look away from as I was reading the second half of the book. Parkman was by no means an egalitarian. In his massive history France and England in North America, he explained the failure of the French empire in religious terms (blaming their Catholicism) and often exposed other prejudices. Late in life, he wrote a polemic against women’s suffrage. In fact, he was quite active in the anti-suffrage movement. Pretty much all of his historical works whitewash black Americans and slavery. We do see here, his intense interest in American Indian life, which runs through his historical scholarship. His first major work was a history of the Pontiac revolt. I do not want to say that this translated into respect or a belief in equality. He never backtracked from racial superiority in the writing of The Oregon Trail, but he does hover around an attitude of respect, even when making clear to his readers that the Indians of the plains are not the threat that they some believe them to be.

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman

Parkman’s real purpose of his Western travels, recorded in The Oregon Trail, was to experience the life of the Sioux (Ogillallah) first hand. He does this for a month or so before returning home. Readers hoping for a start to finish narrative of the Oregon trail itself will be disappointed, and despite the title of the original version (The California and Oregon Trail), he has nothing to say about the West coast destinations of the migrants.

His major conclusion about Indians, derived from his travels, was that they were fundamentally capricious and rather silly in their beliefs. “A grand scene of gambling was going forward with all the appropriate formalities. They players were staking on the chance issue of the game their ornaments, their horses, and as the excitement rose, their garments, and even their weapons; for desperate gambling is not confined to the halls of Paris. The men of the plains and the forests no less resort to it as a violent but grateful relief to the tedious monotony of their lives, which alternative between fierce excitement and listless inaction.” (208) He thinks this capriciousness leads to inaction and ineffectiveness in war and in interactions with whites. In his view, it was also evidence of a type of passivity, a disturbing acceptance of fate. He describes a fairly impressive war-party and goes through great pains describing how brave the warriors were, how they could suffer torture and death. But, “when suffering from a protracted disorder, an Indian will often abandon himself to his supposed destiny, pine away and die, the victim of his own imagination.” (214) To make the point clear, the chapter ends with a comment on the pathetic dismantling of the war-party after all the “fasting, dreaming, and calling upon the Great Spirit.” (214) Examples of this run throughout his reportage. He is amazed a battle where no one was hurt yet many bullets and arrows were expended. He reports on what he sees as irrational sloth, contributing to the debased and desolate environment.

When Parkman returns to his guides, and Fort Laramie, he returns to reporting on the more international population of migrants following the Santa Fe Trail. There are hints in the final hundred pages of The Oregon Trail of dark foreshadowing about just how horrible the consequences of this migrant would be for the environment and people of the West. They met one armed migrant who claimed that he had a mission during his travels of killing an Indian. Encounters like this convince us immediately that despite the often festive nature of both the migrants and the Indians along the trail, as well as the elaborate rules of the game described in the last post, there was always a brutal reality of violence and power below the surface. For what were these migrants, ultimately, if not the extension of white American power over the continent?

The hints of environmental devastation are just as strong. People slaughtering snakes and keeping trophies. The constant sounds of axes levelling forests. The slaughter of the buffalo. Bears being frightened and chased off by armed gangs of migrants. Parkman admits some of this impact openly. “We soon came in sight of [Bent’s Fort], for it is visible from a considerable distance, standing with its high clay walls in the midst of the scorching plains. It seemed as if a swarm of locusts had invaded the country. The grass for miles was cropped close by the hoses of General Kearney’s soldierly.” (276) As is well known, the buffalo hunts took on a festive atmosphere and were engaged in for sport, more than need. One of his companions challenged: “Do you see them buffalo? Now I bet any man I’ll go and kill one with my yager.” (325) Parkman contributed to the prejudice of the expanding white America over the nature of the West. Several times he refers to the animals of the region (buffalo and sheep are two examples I recall) as being stupid and strangely clannish and arbitrary. This is not so different from how he interpreted the Indians he encountered.



Not insignificantly, the final chapter of The Oregon Trail is called “The Settlement,” which describes both the return to St. Louis after Parkman’s frontier adventures but also the future of the West he toured, although he was not fully aware of it yet. “Little more than a hundred miles now separated us from the frontier settlements. The whole intervening country was a succession of verdant prairies, rising in broad swells and relived by trees clustering like an oasis around some spring, or following the course of a stream along some fertile hollow. These are the prairies of the poet and the novelist. We had left danger behind us. Nothing was to be feared from the Indians of this region, the Sacs and Foxes, the Kanzas, and the Osages.” (337) The reason for this comparative peace was that this land and these people were already consumed by the United States’ empire.

St. Louis at the time of Parkman's travels

St. Louis at the time of Parkman’s travels

Richard Henry Dana, “Journal of a Voyage, 1859-1860”

Richard Henry Dana’s journal of his 1859—1860 voyage around the world was not published until 1968, at a time when interest in the American empire was at a height due to the growing military escalation in Vietnam and the strengthening movement against the war—and by extension the U.S. Empire. Although I doubt it played much of a role in that discussion, I think it is worthy to point out because Dana’s journal suggests an emerging American empire, but it was not published until that empire reached its mid-twentieth-century crisis.

Most striking in the narrative are the many detailed descriptions of port cities and port life the American Pacific that he helped build during his youth (documented in Two Years Before the Mast). He visited California, Hawaii, Canton, Shanghai, and ports in Japan. Most of the journal examines these places. It is important to point out that Dana did not have a plan to publish this journal and it lacks much analysis of what he was observing. Yet we can makes some important observations about empire in the Pacific through this document.

Canton during Dana's visit

Canton during Dana’s visit

First, it is clear that all the locations that Dana visited were heavily integrated politically and economically for the purpose of commercial capitalism. Dana’s description Hawaii suggests the union of the political elite with foreign commercial interests and institutional systems of control. The king is admired by the foreign merchant community. Honolulu has a “Seamen’s House”, schools, churches, other institutions of ideological control. Canton was busy with commercial activity (“What a hive of industry is a Chinese town! . . . “Coolie, is the name given to the mere manual laborers in the open air,—the porters, errand runners, hod carrrier.”) It seems that from Dana’s perspective everything was moving smoothly and he was consistently impressed with the commercial vibrancy of these port cities in the Pacific.

Shanghai during Dana's visit

Shanghai during Dana’s visit

Another view of Shanghai

Another view of Shanghai

Second, we find that Dana—as a beneficiary of U.S. empire—has significant mobility and faced few restrictions to his mobility. We are reminded of Zygmunt Bauman’s argument in Globalization: The Human Consequences that global capitalism turned everyone into movers but those movers were of two types: vagabonds and tourists. Tourists had money, a “good” passport, and the direct backing of an imperial power. Vagabonds consisted of dock workers, sailors, economic refugees, political exiles and others who move because they must. The Pacific ports that Dana visited had both, even though he was clearly a tourist.

Third, (and this is connected to the first point) the port cities were becoming more Western looking due to the presence of institutions of empire. Dana felt most comfortable describing and engaging with these. Perhaps this is a good way to identify imperialism. If you go to a distant land and feel immediately at home, you might be from an imperial nation.

Although Dana spent most of his time navigating among the networks of elite and imperial power in the Pacific (he could hardly do otherwise as the empire was becoming hegemonic by the 1850s), he was a fair-minded observer who spent much of his time detailing the presence of working class people, their labors, and their stunning diversity. Every port had a diverse and international working class that again reminds us of his time on the Pilgrim. Empire may have made things smooth for the imperialists, but it brought in plenty of others for the labor of empire. Sailors, coolies, dock workers, and laborers of all types from China, India, and the West populated the ports. At one point Dana even visited the prostitutes of Canton on the “famous Flower Boats.” He smoked opium, observed some of the entertainment and lasted after only 15 minutes. It is to his credit that Dana seemed eager to understand these port cities from both sides of the class divide, even if he could never really escape his colonial privilege.
This is a good document to keep handy for those who want to study the role of class and power in the emergence of the Western empires in the Pacific. Perhaps a bit more research should be done on the relationship between these mid-century tours and the working class experience of empire. Throughout his career, Richard Henry Dana sustained sympathies and curiosity about working class cultures and work place experiences. To his credit, thirty years as a lawyer did not destroy such attitudes entirely.

A Japanese delegation in Hawaii. Was Hawaii always a meeting ground for the Japanese and U.S. empires?

A Japanese delegation in Hawaii. Was Hawaii always a meeting ground for the Japanese and U.S. empires?