Mark Twain: “The American Claimant” (1892)

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

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

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

Mark Twain, another photo

Mark Twain, another photo

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

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

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

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Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889): Technology and Democracy

“The repulsive feature of slavery is the thing, not its name. One needs but to hear an aristocrat speak of the classes that are below him to recognize—and in but indifferently modified measure—the very air and tone of the actual slaveholder; and behind these are the slaveholder’s spirit, the slaveholder’s blunted feeling. They are the result of the same cause, in both cases: the possessor’s old and inbred custom of regarding himself as a superior being.” (385–386)

In this quote, Mark Twain is giving a transhistorical definition of slavery. Fair enough, I suspect. He does the same with technology, which emerges as either a tool of oppression or a means of liberation. Modern or medieval they have those same potentialities.

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To begin, I want to say that Mark Twain gives technology a great deal of autonomy in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. While we know he was caught up in the excitement for technology of his age. This enthusiasm led to his bankruptcy around the time that this novel was published over his investments into the Paige typesetters. I am not sure if we should read A Connecticut Yankee as Twain’s suggestion that context does not matter in the application of technologies, but that certainly seems to be the implication of the novel. The introduction of nineteenth century technologies to the sixth century promotes political and social reforms. While it is a great novel and very entertaining, it is not at all convincing that a sole time traveler could introduce the infrastructure of industrialization to the sixth century. Even in that episode of Star Trek where Data goes back in time (bumping into Mark Twain as a matter of fact) he only builds devices, not an entire infrastructure.

The novel works as a polemic against slavery and arbitrary hierarchy. Where does technology fit into this picture? Most clear is how technology was the key to the rise of “The Boss” in Camelot. A time traveler, he was able to introduce first small technologies in order to become the greatest wizard in England. First secretly and then openly he rolled out a technocratic republic to replace the medieval monarchy of Arthur. This included public schooling, newspapers, industries, and modern weapons. “The Boss” uses technology to battle the evils of chivalry and over turn their dominance over the enslaved peasants. He is at times a “boss” trying to benefit himself and solidify his leadership of Camelot, but he is also a Robespierre always eager for a political revolution and willing to use technological reforms to affect it.

After touring the countryside, “The Boss” and King Arthur are placed into slavery. After their escape, “The Boss” emerges eager to take on the cult of chivalry. He does this in a tournament, where he comes armed with a lasso and a revolver. After killing a dozen or so knights, he proves to all observers the triumph of his technology (really wizardry to the observers), but not yet his values. The revolution “The Boss” is after required violence.

There is a bit of hypocrisy in “The Boss” over democracy. First, he is very much interested in securing his own power. For all his talk of destroying aristocracy, he did not seem to trust peasants with their freedom (they would need to be civilized first). In this he may reflect the values of nineteenth-century Western imperialism. When describing his battle in the tournament he thoughts: “It was born of the fact that all the nation knew that this was not a duel between two mighty magicians; a duel not of muscle or the mind, not of human skill but of super human art and craft, a final struggle for supremacy between the two master enchanters of the age.” (494) In this, he simply shifted the terms of the debate to what was most advantageous to an industrial-era machinist. Not quite a democracy, more of a technocratic meritocracy is in his mind. Like in many meritocracies and technocracies, the terms of merit are defined by those already in power.

If “The Boss” is able to put nineteenth century technologies into medieval England while leapfrogging centuries of economic and political developments, it is not clear that democracy could be placed in Camelot without first some elements of the reforms of “The Boss.” He mentions that democracy is the only way to remove barbarism from the legal and political system. And as far as “The Boss” is concerned, elevating democracy requires brining along all of the nineteenth century along with him. Of course, that is what puts him in a bind at the end of the story when he is holed up with his technology with the corpses of 30,000 knights trapping him in.

The climax to the story comes with the Church’s interdict over “The Boss” and his endeavors. This act is inspired as much by his political reforms, as his technological introductions. He promised to transform Camelot into a republic by replacing the king, when he dies, with an elected leader. The interdict leads to his fall, another suggestion that no matter how easily the technology is able to be placed in a new environment, the political and social transformation “The Boss” sought was an impossibility. For Mark Twain, social changes comes much more slowly and much more violently than technological revolutions. The challenge is not to transcend time, but to ensure that our moral and social values are reflected in the technologies we use.

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner: “The Gilded Age” (1873): Part One

“Our quotations are set in a vast number of tongues; this is done for the reason that very few foreign nations among whom the book will circulate can read in any language but their own; whereas we do not write for a particular class or sect of nation, but to take in the whole world.” (3)

This is in the preface to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-day. While the audience may be global, the story he is telling (and many all of the stories Twain told) is distinctively American. The novel is concerned with an issue Twain took up often in Roughing It, but never with this degree of criticism: land speculation. This is the gilded nature of wealth that Twain and Warner hoped to revealed. The family at the center of the story, the Hawkins family, owns 75,000 acres in Tennessee and is convinced of its immense wealth. Despite dire poverty, they hold onto the land waiting for the proper price. After the first hundred pages, this struggle is taken to Washington, where they attempt to get the government to buy the land. Of course there is no real wealth on the land, certainly none produced by wealth. It is a fantasy.

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There is something that bothered me in Roughing It and now I have come at it more clearly. Twain (and we should add for this book Warner) seem to think the major problem of the post-Civil War era was speculation and the facade of prosperity caused by the speculation economy. And while it certainly makes these works important for our day (the housing bubble is not so different from the silver mine prospecting game), I cannot help but feel that Twain is missing an important part of the mid-nineteenth century economy: exploitation. Yes, there were games, corruption, speculation, and delusion schemes that would have made Colonel Sellers (more on him below) proud, but there was also real wealth being created in factories as a result of the rise of a violent and exploitive industrial capitalism. If “the gilded age” really means that behind the surface there is worthless metal, it is misnamed. Someone built the cities, picked the cotton, rebuilt the South, produced the steel, and laid the railroad tracks. Yes, there were games on Wall Street and tricks in Washington. Maybe in the silver mines you did have a situation where everyone was relatively equal and could play games taking advantage of each other without real exploitation, but in the economy at large expropriation was real.

Real wealth producers in an age of speculation

Real wealth producers in an age of speculation

As a document of the games and tricks side of the economy, The Gilded Age is a useful text and does interrogate a long-standing American tradition: the belief that money can come from nothing, given the right scheme. In addition to the Hawkins family scheme, there is a secondary plot involving a man named Philip Sterling and one of his coconspirators, who are attempting to get involved in speculating land in Tennessee, not that far from where the Hawkins claim sits. Another figure, Colonel Sellers crosses through both plots and is always engaged in dreaming up or trying out schemes to make money. One of these involves trying to produce a beverage for marketing in Asia, alluding to the strong believe at that time that the China and Asia market was endless.

Around 100 pages in, the major character of the novel turns to Laura Hawkins, who arrived in Washington to take leadership of the family efforts to sell the Tennessee land, turning to the buyer of last resort, the government. She gradually turns more and more odious (at least through this first half of the story). Her brother, Washington Hawkins, is a more passive figure and often pitiable. What these two children had in common was a belief that they were wealth despite their physical conditions. “With the other Hawkins children Laura had been brought up in the belief that they had inherited a fortune in the Tennessee Lands. She did not by any means share all the delusion of her family, but her brain was not seldom busy with schemes about it. Washington seemed to her only to ream of it and to be willing to wait for its riches to fall upon him in a golden shower; but she was impatient, and wished she were a man to take hold of the business.” (145—146) These represent two paths for the children of the rich (that they are not rich in fact is beside the point as they both sincerely believe that they are rich). Laura takes on the most sociopathic qualities of her class, embraces amoral willingness to bride or harm whoever it took to achieve her aims. Washington’s training for a life of sloth began so early he never learned how to create wealth.

Colonel Sellers runs through the novel and every time he emerges he seems to have a new scheme. He reminds me of some of the characters in Twain’s short fiction. I have no doubt that he must have run into a fair number of this sort of person. I suppose it is an inevitable outcropping of a democratic capitalism that leaves more people behind that it lifts up. If we are all equal, we have only ourselves to blame for our failure. If we have just the right plan, the right idea, or the well-executed business plan we can be successful. Sellers is of the type that despite previous failures will never admit that he is defeated. Some of these schemes were inspired by the growing revolution in technology. However false or delusion, there is something projectural about his schemes. “I should go on myself, but I am engaged in the invention of a process for lighting such a city as St. Louis by means of water; just attach my machine to the water-pipes, and the decomposition of the fluid begins, and you will have floods of light for the mere cost of the machine. I’ve nearly got the lightening part, but I want to attach to it a heating, cooking, washing and ironing apparatus.” (173)

There is a wonderful moment in chapter 18 where the authors consider the broader social situation and conclude on the importance of the individual and solidarity over the institutions of civilization. “As we are accustomed to interpret the economy of providence, the life of the individual is as nothing to that of the nation or the race; but who can say, in the broader view and the more intelligent weight of values, that the life of one man is not more than that of a nationality, and that there is not a tribunal where the tragedy of one human soul shall not seem more significant than the overturning of any human institution whatever?” (134) What never ceases to amaze me is how often this sentiment is repeated in American literature. For whatever truth there is to the selfish, capitalist, isolated American, there is also this solidarity, if we are to trust American writers.

These are just some assorted thoughts on what is an assorted and patched together novel. Perhaps I will have more to say next time about the den of corruption known as Washington, D.C.

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays: 1871–1879

The 1870s were productive years for Mark Twain, but not too active in the short fiction he started his career with. Having settled in Hartford Connecticut, he spend the decade working on some of his most well-known works: Roughing It, The Gilded Age, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Tramp Abroad. While several of these were not published until the 1880s, he was working hard on them. At the same time he remained engaged in politics, extensive travel, and lecturing. Reading the chronology of his life, we learn that Twain was very engaged in the publishing of his books, often changing publishers or contracts to improve income, and public life, often taking in visitors. His output is impressive. The collected short writings for the decade, much of it speeches, fits into 200 pages.

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Mark Twain was a brilliant hacker. There is a piece that suggests his method. In 1875 he had “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” translated into French and then back into English. The results are humorous enough. It seems that he is doing the same thing, translating his wit through the period’s various assumptions and values such as scientism, pretentious public speaking, and journalism. I want to focus today on his fascinating with science. It was not really there in his writings from the 1860s but it comes up again and again in the 1870s. Twain was fascinated by technology and science. He wasted millions (in present dollars) on investments. And while not blindly optimistic (more on this when we look at A Conn. Yankee), he was interested in the way scientists presented their ideas and the assumptions they made about their audience and reality. It is hard not to read his hacks of scientism without feeling skepticism about the claims of scientists. I think we need a voice like Twain’s to mediate in the climate change debates.

A collection of Twain's sketches, released in 1875

A collection of Twain’s sketches, released in 1875

One of his more playful teases of scientism comes in “The Danger of Lying in Bed” warning that beds are much more dangerous than trains because so many thousands more die on their bed. More rich are “A Brace of Brief Lectures on Science” which juxtaposed the confidence of paleontologists about he lives of “Primeval Man” with the apparent ignorance of Twain’s contemporaries in solving a simple case of murder. I do think he is genuinely fascinated with the scientific process, how knowledge is expanded and gained, but is aware that it is a dynamic and changing processes, where knowledge is not static. “Science is as sorry as you are that this year’s science is no more like last year’s science than last year’s was like the science of twenty years gone by. But science cannot help it. Science is full of change. Science is progressive and eternal.” (538) All humor and doubt aside, this is a beautiful observation. And I do not mean this in the way of climate change denialists, but in the sense of someone who is eager to learn of new discoveries. (Some of which may change the rigid definitions of what it even means to be human, and therefore knock off one more set of chains.) Along the same theme is “Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls in Three Parts,” which is about sentient animals digging up and learning about long dead human societies. About mid-way through this set of fables the arrogance of scientism is laid bare. “Surrounding these fossils were objects that would mean nothing to the ignorant, but to the eye of science they were a revelation. They laid bare the secrets of dead ages. . . . We believe that man had a written language. We know that he indeed existed at one time, and is not a myth; also, that he was the companion of the cave bear, the mastodon, and other extinct species; that he cooked and ate them and likewise the young of his own kind, also, that he bore rude weapons, and knew something of art; that he imagined he had a soul.” (625–627)

Twain had a similar approach to the general economism and money-grubbing of what he would coin “the gilded age.” In “The Facts in the Case of George Fisher, Deceased” he documents how a single family milked the government of thousands, generation after generation, for the possible 1813 burning of the family farm during Indian wars. Summed up in “The Revised Catechism” this ethic that reduced everything to a dollar amount and created an economy of robbing the guy next to you is: “Money is God. Gold and greenbacks and stock—father, son, and the ghost of the same—three persons in one: these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme; and William Tweed is his prophet.” (539)

My favorite short piece in this set was “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” about a man who is able to exile his conscience. By doing so, the narrator is able to become a superman of the age. “Out of this with your paupers, your charities, your reforms, your pestilent morals! You behold before you a man whose life-conflict is done, whose soul is at peace; a man whose heart is dead to sorrow, dead to suffering, dead to remorse, a man WITHOUT A CONSCIENCE! In my joy I spare you, though I could throttle you and never feel a pang!.” (660) He uses his powers to enter into a murder spree, but is ready to profit by it by selling bodies to medical colleges. Such was the brutality of the conscience-less gilded age.

I think people should also take a look at “The Great Revolution in Pitcairn,” which uses the Bounty mutineers as a metaphor for social development and revolutionary turmoil. It concludes that no amount of reform can redeem tyranny. The call of the tyrant at the end of the story is that of all states in the face of the angered masses. “I freed you from a grinding tyranny; I lifted you up out of your degradation, and made you a nation among nations; I gave you a strong, compact, centralized government; and, more than all, I have you the blessing of blessings,­—unification. I have done all this, and my reward is hatred, insult, and these bonds.” (720)

Nice Librivox recording of “The Great Revolution in Pitcairn.”

I will return to Mark Twain’s short writings after a while, but for now I have to tackle some of his longer works. In order, they will be: Roughing It, The Gilded Age, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Life on the Mississippi.

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1866-1870)

“It is hard to tell which is the most startling, the idea of that highest achievement of human genius and intelligence, the telegraph, prating away about the practical concerns of the world’s daily life in the heart and home of ancient indolence, ignorance, and savagery, or the idea of that happiest expression of the brag, vanity, and mock-heroics of our ancestors, the ‘tournament,’ coming out of its grave to flaunt its tinsel trumpery and perform its ‘chivalrous’ absurdities in the high noon of the nineteenth century, and under the patronage of a great, broad-awake city and an advanced civilization.” (418)

The five years after the American Civil War were quite productive for Twain and played a key role in setting up his later fame. He continued in journalism moving from the West coast to New York. In 1867, Twain went on a tour of Europe and the Holy Land on the ship Quaker Village, the record of which became the bestselling The Innocent’s Abroad. In 1870, while based in Buffalo, he got married and began work on his next book, Roughing It.

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In my last post, I questioned if “The Petrified Man” was a real report or not. I could not tell at the time. According to a followup by Twain in 1870, it was indeed a satire. “As a satire on the petrification mania, or anything else, my Petrified Man was a disheartening failure; for everybody received him in innocent good faith, and I was stunned to see the creature I had begotten to pull down the wonder-business with and bring derision upon it, calmly exalted to the grand chief place in the list of the genuine marvels our Nevada had produced.” (391) While I am reading this, there is a media spectacle in Taiwan about a baby killed by a family member who put salt in the baby formula. It has become a massive media event. While the tragedy is no doubt real, I wonder if it was not real if someone would need to create it. For the people who consume news as entertainment, how important is it if the news is real of not? It certainly would not provide less pleasure by being fake. In the 1870 piece, Twain seemed actually baffled that anyone would have taken his satire as truth, but perhaps he had too much faith in the desire or readers to consume spectacle. Of course, it is better if “the Truth” is reported, but since it rarely is anyway, perhaps falsehoods can do as good of a job. I think there would be some value added to a return to the more playful frontier journalism that Twain explored in his early writings. We already have the phenomenon where many young people get their news from confessed satire (“The Daily Show”).

It is hard to identify a singular theme in Twain’s writings from these five years, but one thing I noticed is that he is analyzing the expanding power of the state over individuals. There was some of this his early Western writings, but the state was less pronounced. If anything, we saw the absurdity of attempts to create strong state structures. In contrast, you had more of a rough-and-wild feel, as with the jumping frog story. With the move East, Twain spends more time engaged with the actual institutions of power. In a brilliant short dialogue, Twain has a “slum child” talking to a “moral mentor.” While the mentor attempts to convince the child that God is the center of all creation, the child sees the origins of all things in the “Chief Police,” suggesting that he was the most important figure in his life as a marginalized urban-dweller. After learning that God created the grass the child attempts to explain what he did with it. “Puts it in the Hall park and puts up a sign, ‘Keep off’n the grass–dogs ain’t allowed.” (255) Many works from this period explore the failings of the justice system, which he suggests is simply part of the spectacle of public life in a democracy. His hostility toward the institutions of industrializing America is reflected in “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy” about a boy who stoned a Chinese. He defends the boy while pointing out a deep contradiction in America, between the institutional systems of control and the extralegal racist society. “And for this he was arrested and put in the city jail. Everything conspired to teach him that it was a high and holy thing to stone a Chinaman, and yet he no sooner attempts to do his duty than he is punished for it.” (381) I am likely going too far beyond Twain’s intention to say this, but this could also apply to the odd logic that regulated the lives of the urban poor with prisons, asylums, and police while also proclaiming the need for an entrepreneurial spirit for all citizens. The poor were fettered, punished for being poor, and then told they were unsuccessful because of sloth. But this was the ideology of the Gilded Age, and our own.

Regulating the urban poor, Sing Sing

Regulating the urban poor, Sing Sing

For more on his attitude toward anti-Chinese sentiment you can look at his “Goldsmith’s Friend Abroad Again,” which also takes on the issue of the institutional oppression of the working poor in America.

Twain is observing what seems to him to be a world becoming progressively worse and more irrational. This comes out in “The New Crime,” in which he posits that murders no longer take place because insanity is becoming the root cause of criminal activity. “Formerly, if you killed a man, i twas possible that you were insane–but now if you kill a man, it is evidence that you are a lunatic.” (353) In the same way, kleptomania replaces theft. (We could add for our time that “sex addition” replaces good old-fashioned adultery.) While the piece is a satire calling for the criminalization of insanity, his serious undercurrent is that society itself seems to be losing its moral bearing and the legal structures of the age were incompetent to properly define the problem.  He repeats this analysis in “Our Previous Lunatic.”  In another piece he points out that “Let [the American Board of Foreign Missions[ forward no more missionaries to distant lands for the present. God knows they are needed here at home.” (432)