James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (1933): Part Two

Very few, even among the most intelligent Negroes, could find a tenable position on which to base a stand for social among the other equalities demanded. When confronted by the question, they were forced by what they felt to be self-respect, to refrain from taking such a stand. As a matter of truth, self-respect demands that no mad admit, even tacitly, that he is unfit to associate with any of his fellow men (and that is aside from whether he wishes to associate with them or not). In the South, policy exacts that any pleas made by a Negro—or by a white man, for that matter—for fair treatment to the race, shall be predicated upon a disavowal of “social equality.” (475)

In the second half of James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography Along This Way, we are first introduced to his work as United States consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. He got these positions through the aid of Booker T. Washington, to whom he reported on the conditions of blacks in Latin America. He is not too happy with this position due to health problems and anxiety about the US involvement in Latin America. Johnson does document the revolution in Nicaragua, which the US government supported. These were actually good times. The port he was stationed at was small and uninteresting, except when the US naval ships arrived in port, which created a “social flurry” for Johnson and his wife. As a diligent consul, he worked hard to defend and expand US commercial interests as well. He had become an agent of empire.

At the end of this section of the autobiography, Johnson tries to come to terms with the US role in Latin America. He argues that empire was about more than simply defending investments, concessions, or securing debt obligations, but is rather part of a larger strategy (going back to the early nineteenth century) to protect and secure order and commerce through Central America and the Caribbean. To me these sounds to be true enough, except that the goal of smooth and peaceful trade through Central America seems to imply the access necessary to collect on those debts and obligations. I will generally agree that the major goal of empire in the modern world is the imposition of order on the fundamental “anarchy” of everyday life. This battle has been waged by governments, missionaries, capital and the other agents of empire. By 1915, he is clearly on the anti-imperialist side of things, arguing that: “For the seizure of an independence nation [Haiti], we offered the stock justifications: protection of American lives and American interests, and the establishment and maintenance of internal order. Had all these reasons been well founded, they would not have constituted justification for the seizure of a sovereign state at peace with us.” (515)

The final part of Along This Way picks up with Johnson’s return to full-time residency in the United States and his growing involvement in the civil rights movement of the day. He joined the National Association for the Advanced of Colored People and began writing editorials for the New York Age. He also took the time to continue his writing as a lyricist and develop his slowly emerging fame as the author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (a novel he wrote while Johnson was a US consul). His politics involved the dilemma addressed in the quote opening this post. How to move toward arguments for social equality, and indeed even defining what that might mean. Much of this work involved breaking away from the “Tuskegee Idea” of Booker T. Washington, which set social equality as an unachievable or nebulous goal. But he did take one important idea from Washington, namely that “hammering away at white America” was not enough. “I felt convinced that it would be necessary to awaken black America, awaken it to a sense of its rights and to a determination to hold fast to such as it possessed and to seek in every orderly way possible to secure all others to which it was entitled. I realized that, regardless of what might be done for black America, the ultimate and vital part of the work would have to be done by black America itself; and that to do that work black America needed an intelligent program.” (479) This seems to be an important principle predicated on direct action.

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1901-1905: Displays of Power

To worship rank and distinction is the dear and valued privilege of all the human race, and it is freely and joyfully exercised in democracies as well as in monarchies–and even, to some extent, among those creatures whom we impertinently called the Lower Animals. For even they have some poor little vanities and foibles, though in this matter they are paupers as compared to us. “Does the Race of Man Love a Lord? (514)

The final decade of Twain’s writing reveals the depth of his cynicism and frustration with humanity. The Chinese writer Lu Xun believed these later writers exposed Twain as a misanthrope. At least is reveals his disgust with the world as it is, in all its pettiness and corruption. Lacking in Twain’s view of the world, at least in these later works, is a belief in the potential for human solidarity. Even with Adam and Eve is was difficult to achieve.  In this post, I will look at Twain’s writings from 1901-1905. His major accomplishments from this period include his greatest anti-imperialist writings and the completion of his series of fictional writings of Adam and Eve.

 

The essay, “Does the Race of Man Love a Lord?” brings forth one of the most important questions anarchists need to answer: Why is it so common on human history for one man to oppress thousands or even millions. Twain is not always the most promiscuous with answers to the conditions he critiques, but he does venture one here. He suggests we are very easily seduced by the symbols of power and distinction. Hierarchy creates a situation where any one of us can partake in the “little distinctions.” We accept a big lord because it makes us possibly a little lord.

All the human race loves a lord–that is, it loves to look upon or be noticed by the possessor of Power or Conspicuousness; and sometimes animals, born to better things and higher ideals, descend to man’s level in this matter. In the Jardin des Planets I have seen a cat that was so vain of being the personal friend of an elephant that I was ashamed of her. (523)

The same point is more of less made in “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” in which the Czar confesses that the only thing standing between him and destitution and powerlessness is his clothing. The story consists of a divine right ruler asking the same question so many anti-authoritarians have asked throughout the ages:

A horse with the strength of a hundred men will let one man beat him, starve him, drive him; the Russian millions allow a mere handful of soldiers to hold them in slavery — and these very soldiers are their own sons and brothers! (643-644)

Twain presents a quite convincing argument that it is again the accoutrements of power that matter. We have seen this in The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee, and even Joan of Arc, where Joan does little more than convince the French King that he is rightful (basically giving him a new hat).

Display of power

Display of power

In Twain’s later life, the most grotesque abuse of power was the expansion of the European and American empires across the globe. This inspired his two great anti-imperial essays, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” and “King Leopold’s Soliloquy.” Both are satires addressed to the victims and enemies of empire. The later exposes the vapid and brutal reality of Belgian rule in the Congo, and by presented the defense, he exposes the argument’s weakness. In both articles, the argument presented in favor of empire is also a matter of accoutrements, in this case civilization, business, and Christianity. These are all elements of American presumption that Twain has been at war with for much of his career. What the West was exporting to the rest of the world were precisely its most ridiculous, hypocritical, and anti-social characteristics. As Russia was forced to muse: “It is yet another Civilized Power, with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other. Is there no salvation for us but to adopt Civilization and lift ourselves down to its level?” (465) “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” is a more brutal document, inspired by the exploitation of the Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. King Leopold is presented as a self-conscious man, needed to defend his actions from the public, the press, missionaries, and the English critics. Of course Leopold has a point that his critics often had shameful records of their own and shares with Leopold the view that “Civilization” is so valuable that any degree of violence is acceptance in achieving it. In this way, the argument is not that far from the one in “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” but instead of thee display of power being used to gain popular support for hierarchy, they are being used as a more direct justification. Civilization is the ultimate accoutrement of power in the age of imperialism.

This is their style! I furnish “nothing!” I send the gospel to the survivors; these censure-mongers know it, but they would rather have their tongues cut out than mention it. I have several times required my raiders to give the dying an opportunity to kiss the sacred emblem; and if they obeyed me I have without doubt been the humble means of saving many souls.

By closing the article with King Leopold’s confession, “I know the human race,” we get the sense that Twain connected empire with his earlier questioning of why it was possible for the few to rule the many.

leopold

Twain’s answer to this harsh reality of human nature seems to be Adam and Eve, those original rebels who refused to submit to the lawmakers. The most moving aspect of Twain’s series of tales about the life of Adam and Eve is how they started as strangers with great differences and end up with a profound and convincing solidarity. Adam’s gasp at Eve’s grave sums this up”

Whosesoever she was, there was Eden (709)

Eve’s explanation for their bind was based on difference. She loves him not because of his many good qualities and labors, but because he is masculine and “mine.” We also observe that their relationship is based on incredible struggle and personal trauma: the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This had to be recreated in their relationship and I would like to think exists still in those examples of shared solidarity.

 

Mark Twain: “Following the Equator” Chapters 1–40: The Pacific

“In Captain Cook’s time (1778), the native population of the islands was estimated at 400,000; in 1836 at something short of 200,000, in 1866 at 50,000; it is to-day, per census, 25,000. All intelligent people praise Kamehameha I and Liholiho for conferring upon their people the great boon of civilization. I would do it myself, but my intelligence is out of repair, now, from over-work.” (443)

The last of Mark Twain’s great travel narratives, Following the Equator, was published in 1897. It is also his last major book published during his lifetime. It shows the same growing pessimism about civilization that we see in much of Twain’s later writing. It is certainly the most critical of the travel narratives. While the previous narratives tended to make fun of the tourist or “the tramp abroad,” Following the Equator is an important attack on a world system driven by greed and exploitation. It is also one of the most important anti-imperialist documents of the turn of the twentieth century. The book documents Twain’s 1895–1896 lecture tour across the Pacific, Australia, India, and Africa. It is a lecture tour through the zones of nineteenth century empire building. The result is a work that hits most of the major points of contemporary scholarship on empire.

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It is not a bleak, ponderous text. It maintains much of the lively musings that made Twain’s earlier travelogues so enjoyable, but these are less frequent and are marginal to his larger goal: the exposure of the exploitation of people at the heart of empire. Like the declining population of Hawai’i shows, the rise of Europe accompanied a massive death toll. Intra-European wars of the twentieth century may have maximized the technological capacity to kill, but in many ways the cost in lives of the nineteenth century was just as great. (See Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts to see how empire devastated traditional famine relief structures leading to tens of millions of deaths.)

Twain is aware of the role unfree labor migration played in empire, both the expulsion of excess populations of criminals and the economically excessive to the colonies and the migrations of semi-forced labor to work the plantations and the ships. Twain includes hard numbers on the wages, the costs of contract labor, and the profits of sugar plantations to quantify the extent of exploitation.  It is summed up: “It is easy to understand why the Queensland sugar planter should want the Kanaka recruit: he is cheap.” (463) The labor migrations caused by the growth of plantation in the Pacific had a deep history in the transportation of working class convicts.

plantation

Another observation Twain made that was new at the time but would not surprise any historian today is the important role of the missionary in empire building in the Pacific. He exposes the missionaries as an adjunct of the capitalist exploitation of the Pacific, benefiting—like capitalists—from the openness forced on the Pacific by capitalists. They worked to enforce class discipline, bringing just enough education to prepare worker for the needs of the capitalist class, and, most dangerously, advertised the idea the European civilization has something to offer outside of terror and exploitation.

And money.

And money.

Finally, for Twain, the global system created by empire is profoundly unstable. A rather funny anecdote suggests this disorder. It is about a child who was born just as the ship was crossing the International Date Line. This child will grow up never knowing its birthday (there was debate whether it was on a Sunday or a Tuesday). This is a problem that is only possible in a world force together through incredible powers. There are many other examples of this type of disorder—cultural and economic—in this book. “The child will never know its own birthday. It will always be choosing first one and then the other, and will never be able to make up its mind permanently. This will breed vacillation and uncertainty in its opinions about religion, and politics, and business, and sweet-hearts, and everything, and will undermine its principles, and rot them away, and make the poor thing characterless, and its success in life impossible.” (457)

Through his tour of the Pacific, Twain was able to reflect on the history of global capitalism in the Pacific, intertwining as it did with empire, and revealed its most vicious consequences. By just travelling through the empires and honestly describing social realities, Twain produced one of the most important political critiques of his era.

 

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1896–1900

Mark Twain spent the last half decade of the nineteenth century abroad, most of the time, first on a tour of the world (which would become the foundation of the only book he wrote during this period, Following the Equator) and then settling in Vienna. During his tour he lectured, but he seemed to have been more silent while in Vienna, writing little. When he did speak it to protest American foreign policy. After the publication of Following the Equator he became more and more involved in anti-Imperialist politics. This was also a period intense tragedy for Twain, who endured the death of his daughter in 1896. Of the sixteen pieces collected in the Library of America volume for these years, the three most sizable were not published during his lifetime and exist in fragmentary form (“My Platonic Sweetheart,” “Which Was the Dream?” and “The Great Dark”). Some smaller works were also delayed until after Twain’s death: “Man’s Place in the Animal Kingdom” and “A Word of Encouragement for Our Blushing Exiles.” Thus, we have only eleven short pieces, one of which is a poem dedicated to the memory of his daughter Susy and another a short speech introducing Winston Churchill.

As for the works published during his lifetime we find a handful of crucial themes. One of these is Twain’s anti-imperialism. This is the theme of “A Word of Encouragement for Our Blushing Exiles,” which urges the United States not to get involved in the games of national pride and supremacy that motivates European empire-building at the end of the century. There is no reason, Twain points out, to play the game of empire, since the United States has nothing to prove to Europeans, with their ignoble history. “Is it France’s respect that we are going to lose? Is our unchivalric conduct troubling a nation which exists to-day because a brave young girl saved it when its poltroons had lost it—a nation which deserted her as one man when her day of peril came? Is our treacherous assault upon a weak people distressing a nation which contributed to Bartholomew’s Day to human history?” (260–261) In a slightly different way, Twain makes the same point in “Diplomatic Pay and Clothes,” which mocks the expenses of American diplomats and their efforts to impress Europeans with excessive lifestyles. His farewell to the nineteenth century is also a poke at empire. “I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chow, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pockets full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking glass.” (456) “Man’s Place in the Animal Kingdom” works for us as a summary of Twain’s attitude toward humanity. It is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a highlight. “Man is the only animal that robs his helpless fellow of his country—takes possession of it and drives him out of it or destroys him.”

Another theme is the corruption caused by money. This is not a new theme, of course. It runs through his entire critique of the Gilded Age and American capitalism, infused with the corruptive power of money and influence. The most relevant story regarding this is “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg,” which is about a man slighted by a town that prides itself on its purity (even taking the slogan “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.” Corrupting and embarrassing the town is a trifle; the man needs only use a fake bag of gold and a contest. For Twain, the exposure of the corruption is a moment for celebration, because it means that for the first time the town could be honest, evening changing its slogan to the more honest “Lead Us Into Temptation.”

hadleyburg

A third theme is general hucksterism. This is also not a new observation of Twain’s (see the Duke and the King from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), but it has new targets. I suppose the two at issue in these works are anti-Semitism and Christian Science. His essay on anti-Semitism is quite serious. He attempts, and fails, to understand the reasons for European anti-Semitism. (He also is amazed at the longevity of the Jews as a distinct people.) The closest he gets to an answer is that persecution of Jews is another form of hucksterism by non-Jews attempting to explain away their success, while also attempting to grab their piece of their success. “It [the Golden Rule] is strictly religious furniture, like an acolyte, or a contribution-plate, or any of those things. It has never been intruded into business; and Jewish persecution is not a religious passion, it is a business passion.” (369) More humorous to readers is Twain’s takedown on Christian Science (something developed into a later book, for some reason not collected by the Library of America). Their main position was that human existence is ethereal and that illness was strictly an idealistic ailment. Actually, quite an easy idea for someone of Twain’s satiric power to humiliate. Although I fear technocracy for good reason, my anarchism is a product of a scientific view of the world, from the Enlightenment if you will. Today, as in Twain’s day, there are many stupid ideas out there. Some wrong ideas can be liberating, but they would still be wrong. And those wrong ideas could be easily replaced by positions that are both more liberating and more correct. Anarchism does not mean the “liberal” acceptance of every stupid delusion religion.

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There are two short stories, published after Twain died: “Which Was the Dream” and “The Great Dark.” Both are very modernist and very personal. “Which Was the Dream” spends much of the time reflecting on a young woman seems to be a reflection of Twain’s recently deceased daughter. I was most touched by its comments on the raising of children and the horrible consequences of introducing military style discipline and education to the home. These lines should be the starting point of any educational program. “The child soon learned that her mother was not a tyrant, but her thoughtful and considerate friend. . . . It is a shameful thing to insult a little child. It has its feelings, it has its small dignity; and since it cannot defend them, it is surely an ignoble act to injure them.” (230) “The Great Dark” is about a man, who imagines himself shrunk down with a whaling crew in order to explore a drop of water. Although a rather dreary tale of the endless, unsatisfying darkness of exploring the unknown, there is a Promethean spark that encourages us to embrace those dangers as we search for something fresh in life. “An ocean in a drop of water—and unknown, uncharted, unexplored by man! BY man, who gives all his time to the Africas and the poles, with this unsearched marvelous world right at his elbow!” (299)