Washington Irving, “Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle Gent.” (1802–1803)

There is nothing that seems more strange and preposterous to me than the manner in which modern marriages are conducted. The parties keep the matter as secret as if there was something disgraceful in the connexion. The lady positively denies that any thing of the king is to happen; will laugh at her intended husband, and even lays bets against eh event, the very day before it is to take place. They sneak into matrimony as quietly as possible, and seem to pride themselves on the cunning and ingenuity they have displayed in their manoeuvers. (7)

To get my feet wet with Washington Irving, I will start small, with the nine satirical letters of “Jonathan Oldstyle,” published in The Morning Chronicle in 1802 and 1803. As I understand it, they were edited by Irving’s brother who must have known that the content was satire, but they were more ambiguously presented to the audience. In this way, the political and social satire of these letters is more advanced than much of the satire we see today, which is satire on its face and presented in clearly satirical venues (Comedy Central, for instance). I think it would be nice if the many daily newspapers printed a bit more subtly exposed satire than much of the drivel on the lifestyle pages.

By this point in this project, I reckon I am incapable of not seeing anarchist tensions in the bulk of American prose. In these letters, it comes across as an a type of vernacular conflict between the old and the new, set primarily in the theatres but also in other arenas of the American commons. Accounts such as these certainly make me pine for the vibrant commons of the past. While I often find “Johnathan Oldstyle” hopelessly old-fashioned (or course that is Irving’s intention), I wonder if I am not part of this generation’s “Oldstyles” At least in Irving’s day they could struggle about the proper way to present oneself when engaged in the public sphere or the content of its discourse. Today we lack much of a public square at all, being reduced to the scraps of Internet memes and the faux public space of contemporary coffee shops. In both the macro and the content, the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle are of the public. Whether we take them seriously or not, we read them awakened to the richness of the vernacular and contested public sphere.

Listen to Oldstyle complain of the popular fashions and to his ears vulgar flirting among the youth.

But now, our youths no longer aim at the character of pretty gentlemen: their greatest ambition is to be called lazy dogs—careless fellows—etc. etc. Dressed up in the mammoth style, our buck saunters into the ball-room in a surtout hat under arm, cane in hand; strolls round with the most vacant air; stops abruptly before such lady as he may choose to honor with his attention; entertains her with the common slang of the day, collected from the conversation of hostlers, footmen, porters, etc. until his string of smart sayings is run out, and then lounges off, to entertain some other fair one with the same unintelligible jargon. (6)

The rich levels of vernacular conversation are striking to me. The origin of vernacular conversation among the “pretty gentlemen” is learned from the underclass and carried into the ballrooms with no small degree of pomp to be spread to the ears of young women. Quite wonderful actually.

Most of the letters deal directly with the theatre, one of the most important public institutions for white men of early America. It is important to note that the content of the performance was deemed relevant to readers and author alike. They were, in other words, part of the public conversation. More memorable, however, is Oldstyle description of the audiences, fully engaged in the public conversation and putting on display their own styles for public consumption. They are as much a part of the show as the people on the stage.

I am attracted not to any particular comment or observation of Oldstyle as much as I am fascinated by the document itself, which imagines (or documents…for us it can only be imagination) a more vibrant, creative, and engaged relationship with the commons.

NOTE: I am considering taking this blog in a new direction. I feel I am close to a general interpretation of American letters from an anarchist perspective. Plus, I am quickly running out of Library of America volumes to analyze. (I live in Taiwan and lack access to the libraries that may solve this problem.) I would like to continue to do what I can with the canon, but also look more broadly at questions of American character in other areas of life, especially history. Maybe take a closer look at American anarchists as well. I also need to finish my various Philip K. Dick projects. We will see what the future will bring.

A. J. Liebling, “Uncollected War Journalism” (1939-1963): Infrapolitics and Resistance

Haven’t they any cooperatives? It is to the interest of the dairies to be clean. Then they would get a premium for the milk. It is just like the ships. If you have a good ship, with the proper number of watertight compartments and all new safety things, then you pay such a low insurance rate, you know. And if you treat the crew right, it is a good crew, and then you don’t have to pay so many men. In Denmark it has all worked out beautifully. In a cooperative one bad one hurts all the others. (596)

Is it not amazing that we find in a small report by an overweight American journalist about the fate of the Danish navy during World War II, such a concise argument for anarchist principles of organization? I argued in my last posts on A. J. Liebling’s World War II writings that we see in the fighting of the war plenty of unrealized potentialities. Here, perhaps, is another one. In any case, readers of the New Yorker cannot say they were not by none other than a Danish sailor.

Liebling’s reports from the Second World War are insightful on many levels. They speak of the experience of common soldiers, the character of commanders, and the perceptions of war from the home front. Of most long-term significant is what his stories reveal about the winning of the war and the power of vernacular forms of protest. As important as the military was to the victory, the painting Liebling presents of occupied Europe is one a Gulliver being tied down by thousands of little strings. Liebling had a fascination and love for France, which comes through in his writings. He even wrote an entire book on the French resistance, The Republic of Silence (of which two selections are included in this collection). Their contribution was not simply armed resistance, but a great diversity of infrapolitics (a term coined by James Scott for unseen and underground political action).


One of the most memorable in this collection of war reports to the New Yorkers (pp. 573–815 in World War II Writings) is about the “V” campaign. The campaign used radio to encouraged people in occupied territories to write the letter “V” on public buildings with chalk. The letter was given different meaning depending on the local language. When transformed into morse code, it became the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In effect, this turned a piece of German music into an international symbol of resistance (to the great annoyance of the Germans). Liebling estimates that this cheaply run campaign kept two German divisions from the front in attempt to suppress graffiti, but the use of a musical phrase for resistance was impossible to repress.

The radio broadcasts encouraged other forms of day to day resistance to the occupation, which may have had a cumulative effect that shaped the war’s outome. The colonel in charge of the program said in one broadcast:

This week I’m asking you to buy anything and everything and leave nothing for the Germans. Buy before your money becomes worthless. . . . Farmers, soon you’ll be getting your harvests in. The Germans want to get their hands on your crops, but there are ways to hide them. You will neede to keep your families from starving during the winter, and if you can save a little more than you need for yourself, it will be worth its weight in gold. . . . A lot of you city people have insurance policies. Nearly all the insurance companies have been bought up by the Germans, so every time you burn a hole in your carpet or break some china, don’t forget to claim; bury the Germans in paperwork. And if you can’t do any of these things, mark up the V where they’ll see it. Beat out the V rhythm. (608–609)

Of course, the effectiveness of this sort of thing could not be determined by the bureaucratic institutions that ran the war, but they likely helped cultivate an anti-fascist ethos in these countries and may have helped prevent its reemergence.

“The Lancaster Way” shows how small industries in small towns in England became critical production centers in for the war effort, while also sustaining a strong working class culture and spirit of autonomy. The vernacular ingenuity of these smaller urban spaces was, according to Liebling, nothing short of stunning.

Another set of articles I would like to highlight are those dealing with the French press under Nazi occupation. Liebling was interested in how the press in a city could keep its independence while also suffering from increasing corporate centralization. His 1964 book The Press is about the threat to democracy by centralized media ownership. While we might think that the press was completely restricted under the Nazis, we find the opposite was the case. “The only great nation with a completely free press today is France. All valid French newspapers are illegal.” (653) The press, in open rebellion of this censorship flourished. I suppose by the same logic, the most repressed spouse is the most likely to seek out affairs. Liebling describes the various major underground newspapers, their varied perspectives, and how they got into print. Repression created a solidarity of varied perspectives, which ultimately proved a boon to the left. “The Gestapo called them all Communists. This is an example of Nazi and collaborationist propaganda that had boomeranged. . . . the words ‘Communist’ and ‘patriot’ in the French popular mind. . . became synonyms, which gives an increased impetus to the Leftward tendency caused by the treason committed by the great industrialists.” (655) Had the Germans allowed some press freedom, what may have emerged was a waffling “neutral” newspaper that was politically anodyne and a complicit supporter of the occupation. Through censorship, the Germans created a radical French media culture. Later, Liebling suggest this contributed to the post-war alliance between the French working class and the intellectuals.


Liebling’s Second World War writings teaches us that the people can trap the state in its own rhetoric, immobilize it through non-participation, and silence it. The tools and strategies used by the European resistance are still available to us even if they will look different in application. The power of infrapolitics has never really declined.

A. J. Liebling: “The Road Back to Paris,” (1944): Part One, Ideologies and People at War

The circumstances of a man’s capture are more significant than this tone of voice in replying to the interrogating officers. It is to a prisoner’s interest to be cocky, after capture, for he is under the surveillance of his fellows and the governance of superiors whose Naziness is likely to be in proportion to their rank. The Geneva Convention was never drawn up to cover an ideological war; there is no inducement for the German prisoner who is democratic or just anti-war to let anyone know what is on his mind. Vanity also counts in the prisoner’s attitude. He likes to think of himself as a Teutonic heor even when he knows he has quit cold. (71)


A historical analysis of the failures of political anarchism in the twentieth century needs to come to terms with the central events of that century: the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and the Second World War. The horrors of ideologies at war, backed by triumphant and largely unquestioned state power is troubling to ponder. One thing that is clear from my reading of A. J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris, a collection of Liebling’s war correspondence published while the war was incomplete, if not undecided, is that the ideological nature of the war was comparatively weak among the largely working class soldiers. As the prisoner of war camps in France show, it is actually quite difficult to get people to kill and die for the state. Even prisoners required constant surveillance by superiors in order to enforce their commitment to the Nazi cause.


The Road Back to Paris is divided into three parts (“The World Knocked Down,” “The World on One Knee,” and “The World Gets Up”). From these titles, the general narrative of the world parallels a general interpretation of the war as a catastrophe followed by a difficult and hard-won victory. What Liebling does not give us is a general military history of the conflict. His columns followed his life as a war correspondent, first in France and then after the fall of Paris in Britain and North Africa. He did cover D-Day and returned to Paris, but is documented in another collection of his war writings. As we recall from his other journalism, Liebling was very interested in how things worked at the vernacular level. His examinations of aspects of New York City are really at the gutter level and his findings about how cities actually work are striking. It is the same with his reading of the war, which he often covered from brothels, cafes, and prisoner of war camps.


In the first part of the book, Liebling encounters numerous people who were not very interested in fighting. German leadership aside, it did not seem that there was anyone who was particularly interested in another war. Liebling reported that the English seemed to have found a “new form of patriotism” based on the principle of fighting a war without war. Of course, that was from the rather subdued period between the conquest of Poland and the conquest of France. Now I do not find his to be a compelling case for pacifism, nor am I very interested in debating the moral necessity (or not) of the Allied war effort, merely to point out that it took a violent autocracy to convince its people to fight and even then it was not an easy sale as the prisoner of war camps suggested.

We can also see from Liebling’s account that if the Second World War was a war of ideologies, no one seemed very sure of the ideology on their side.

Remoteness from the war affected everybody, but there were at least two groups in our country that tried consciously to minimize our danger. They were precisely these that had worked to the same end in France—a strong faction of men of wealth and the Community party. The money people wanted to prove fascism more efficient than democracy, the Communists that democracy offered no protection against fascism. A military victory for the democracies would shatter the pretensions of both. (120)

True enough, but in Liebling’s mind, democracy was a hard sale during those dark years of 1940 and 1941. Something Liebling did not take up (at least as far as I have read) is how much the values of democracy and equality would be both pushed to the limit and betrayed over the course of the war. As far as he got in this direction was his desire for an early start to American involvement because of the needs of governmental “war powers.”

After the fall of France, Liebling returned to the United States for a while where he signed up for the draft (he was still in his thirties although over weight). After this he returned to war correspondence for the New Yorker by sailing to England on a rather perilous trek amid German submarine warfare. In London, Liebling reported on how the impact of the war on people’s lives. One striking passage is about a young woman who had to get herself drunk everytime German bombers hit the city, leading to a perpetual cycle of hangover and drunken binges.

While Liebling did not have many encounters with soldiers, he did start the book with some anecdotes about American soldiers in North Africa. These soldiers were incredibly creative. One invented a new way of making coffee he was sure could have made him rich. They created their own cultural life and did what they could to make their relatively small world (for wars are fought by people largely ignorant of the battlefield) livable. The common soldier is not so unlike any of us, being pulled by forces rather outside of our control (capital, urban planning, institutional imperatives). What is not on their mind was the slugfest of ideologies that supposedly drove the war.

If these ideologies are often missing from the perspectives and experiences of the soldiers and citizens fighting the war, they still had an impact, as a conversation with a  Polish member of the government in exile who saw anything less than the dismemberment and total destruction of Germany as treason. Liebling’s friend responded to this understandable—if destructive and irrational—hatred with: “It was so disgusting, so human, so deplorable.” (155)

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.


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.


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)

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1852–1865)

So it begins. According to a roughly sketched out plan, I will be spending the next seven weeks providing some modest commentary on the works of Mark Twain. The Library of America collects Twains major (and some minor) writings in seven volumes. There is also a small volume of writings about Mark Twain, which I will look at with the conclusion of this series. Basically everything important in in those seven volumes, except the autobiography. (I do not know if that is slated for publication by the Library of America or not.) I will examine these works as chronologically as possible.


Mark Twain is one of our guides to industrializing America and the profound social changes that came along with the Civil War, Reconstruction, Westward expansion, the hegemony of capitalism, and the rise of the American Empire across the continent and the Pacific.

Reading the timeline of Mark Twain’s life, I was struck by how central death was to his the first years of his life. First, as a boy he faced his own death as he was often sickly. He first witnessed death in 1844 (he was nine years old) when he found a dead man in his father’s office stabbed to death. The next year, he witnessed a shooting on the streets of Hannibal, Missouri, where he grew up. His father died in 1847 and young Samuel Clemens observed the autopsy. Later that year he witnessed one drowning and found the body of another drown slave. In 1850, he saw a woman shoot the leader of a gang trying to break into her home. A cholera epidemic in Hannibal killed 24 people in 1851. In 1852, he gave matches to a town drunk who later burned down the jail with matches, dying in the process. In 1858 he was overwhelmed by grief when an accident on a steamboat he was working on exploded, killing a friend of his, right after he quit. And even when not personally witnessing death, he saw the ramifications of the Mexican War as a child and later served as an irregular for the Confederacy during the Civil War (only for a short time before moving to Nevada). Although that Confederate service seemed to consist mostly of him and some other young men from Hannibal camping out and gallivanting around. Over the course of these weeks, I hope to understand what, if any, impact these events had on his writing.

As a teenager he got his start in the newspaper business, working for and writing for various newspaper in Missouri. Nevada proved to be a breakout year for Clemens. He wrote on local politics and published heavily in the Territorial Enterprise. In 1864 and 1865 he started writing for California newspapers as well, eventually publishing his famous “jumping frog” story, after moving to San Francisco. This will lead to another turning point in Mark Twain’s life, as he moves back East and publishes his first collection of stories (1867).


One theme that seems to run through these early sketches and tales is people putting on false airs, not being who they are. Or even if they are serious, they fail to be up to the task at hand. Like the jumping frog of Calaveras County, many of Twain’s characters seem to have a belly full of quail shot. In the very first story collected here “The Dandy Frightening the Squatter,” the “dandy” approaches the squatter with bravado. And: “The squatter calmly surveyed him a moment, and then, drawing back a step, he planted his huge fist directly between the eyes of his astonished antagonist, who, in a moment, was floundering in the turbid waters of the Mississippi.” (1) Sometimes this is reaches metanarrative levels, as in the story “A Touching Story of George Washington’s Boyhood.” The narrator had forgotten the story he intended to tell and wrote instead on amateur musicians and their impact on neighbors.

Perhaps this comes from his journalistic roots, but Twain’s early writings also seem to express the absolute absurdity of mid-nineteenth century American democracy. Observing much on the subject from the Nevada during the writing of its state constitution, while also seeing a mad rush of people to make money from the mines of the territory certainly made him skeptical of the American tendency to try to get something from nothing. This came together when the constitution failed due to a tax on mines, which would only really affect the large miners, but everyone with a claim, dreaming to get rich, opposed the tax. Twain seemed to have gotten great pleasure over the strangely hobbled together state seal. “It had snow-capped mountains in it; and tunnels, and shafts, and pickaxes, and quartz-mills, and pack-trains, and mule-teams. These things were good; what they were of them. And it had railroads in it, and telegraphs, and stars, and suspension-bridges, and other romantic fictions foreign to sand and sage-brush.” (67) Where things actually matter, politics was more like the jumping frog competition or endlessly playing an accordion within earshot of neighbors. Someone will end up the victim.


Much of this early writing blurs the line between fiction and news. There is one story (“Petrified Man”) which I really cannot determine if it is satirical or not. We know that “A Bloody Massacre Near Carson” was so convincing that other newspaper ran it as a true story about a man’s murder of his family. In fact, it seems to have been Twain’s attempt to construct a polemic against the power out of state banks had over local investors in the Nevada mining bubble and the tendency of the media to promote these strategies. “The newspapers of San Francisco permitted this water company to go on borrowing money and cooking dividends, under cover of which cunning financiers crept out of the tottering concern, leaving the crash to come upon poor and unsuspecting stockholders, without offering to expose the villainy at work. We hope the fearful massacre detailed above may prove the sadder result of their silence.” (58)

This is not to say that Twain was polemicizing everything or that under every piece of satire from his pen was an edgy message. The reason most of these stories exist is for our pleasure. And while in that case, I can do nothing but urge you to read them yourself. (The unfolding of “Whereas” had me laughing out loud again and again.) Yet, it is hard to read these sketches without realizing that Twain was seeing himself in a world getting progressively more silly, brutal, and indifferent.


A. J. Liebling, The Sweet Science (1956). Part One: A Democracy in the Ring

A. J. Liebling was one of the most significant American journalists from the middle of the twentieth century. He was born and raised in New York City in an Jewish-Austrian immigrant family.  From the time of his youth, he traveled heavily visiting Europe twice before he was ten. He started writing journalism for his school newspaper in his teenage years as he followed World War I. His early adulthood showed many signs of a strong contrarian and democratic spirit that would inform much of his journalism. Most notably he was kicked out of Dartmouth College for not attending required church services and fired from The New York Times for faking names in stories.  He would eventually settler at The New Yorker, but only after his vibrant 20s, where he moved around between New York and France, taking and quitting jobs, and writing freelance. At The New Yorker, he would produce his most significant war writings as a foreign correspondent, following the Allied War effort.  The works collected in the Library of American volumes on Liebling are in two groups. The first (which I will examine later) are his World War II works.  The volume open in front of me, looked at his varied works written in the last twenty years of his life, covering topics as diverse as boxing, Southern politics, and journalism (amazingly he predicted the one-newspaper down and the current decline in the role of newspapers due to centralized media ownership).

A. J. Liebling Sitting at Desk

The Sweet Science is about boxing and collects many interesting pieces about the rise and fall of different champions such as Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis. More than sports journalism, however, The Sweet Science tells us one story about American society, culture, values, and character in the middle of the last century.  When Liebling started watching following boxing, the United States was entering a period where we can really start to talk about a national culture, thanks to national sports leagues, the movie industry, radio, and the “Americanization” of immigrant communities. Many of these trends are evident in Liebling’s own life.  He not only participated in the creation of mass culture, but he also became a firm supported of the United States during the first and second world wars. Boxing was part of this mass culture that brought in people from different classes, ethnic backgrounds, and races into one building to observe and in many ways participate in the fights. Liebling also lived through what Michael Denning called the “proletarianization” of American culture during the Great Depression.  It was during this epoch that working-class values infected American culture at many levels.


Liebling takes considerable time thinking about his predecessor, the compiler of Boxiana, Pierce Egan, who documented the boxing world of the early nineteenth century.  Through this, Liebling is able to show an interconnected world that existed at the margins of legitimate culture but provided a historical continuity to the very beginnings of the republic. It is boxing, not baseball, that is the American pastimes.

One striking aspect of Liebling’s account of boxing is his description of its participatory elements. In fact, his book begins with an analysis of why it is better to see a fight in person.  His main reason is that you can participate through shouted advice.  Its democratic character  is suggested in the following quote. “Addressing yourself to the fighter when you want somebody else to hear you is a parliamentary device, like ‘Mr. Chairman . . . ‘ Before television, a prize-fight was to a New Yorker the nearest equivalent to the New England town meeting. It taught a man how to think on his seat.” (16)  Not only was it participatory, but it was diverse as well.  Liebling’s ability to converse about boxing with a driver is suggestive of its important place in the development of a mass participatory culture. The requirement that mass culture be participatory is something that Liebling takes for granted.  He correctly predicts that television would sap this potential. Now, people see fights–if at all–at home, losing that democratic forum. “Television, if unchecked, may carry us back to a pre-tribal state of social development, when the family was the largest conversational unit.” (17)  He later compares television fights to the Irish potato: cheap and quickly adopted at the expense of a more nourishing diet.


Boxing is also a working-class sport in every way.  Its heroes were commonly from the streets, its greatest fans were from the same streets. The shouting from the audience revealed that the crowd saw themselves as coming from the same world as the fighters. Early in the account he describes the origins of several champions, all of whom invariable come from working class towns. The second World War undermined the craft by sending those working class boys to war rather than the unemployment lines and then the gyms.

There is also a brutal equality to the ring, that seems to reflect the cutthroat nature of American capitalism. “The division of boxers into weight classes is based on the premise that if two men are equally talented practitioners of the Sweet Science, then the heavier man has a decided advantage. This is true, of course, only if both men are trained down hard, since a pound of beer is of no use in a boxing match. If the difference amounts to no more than a couple of pounds, it can be offset by a number of other factors, including luck.” (51) This actually reads to me like a fairly realistic depiction of democratic capitalism. In both capitalism and boxing there is a gap between the ideal and the reality, but at least in boxing the working class kid could, through training and motivation, having a good chance of being “trained down hard.” Capitalism is so thoroughly unfair that no amount of training (college, perhaps) can give us a fighting chance.  Perhaps this is part of the attraction of boxing.

Listen with me, as Liebling describes the nature of the boxing crowd. “It was a might crowd–paid admissions 47,585, and, counting deadheads like me, a total attendance of more than fifty thousand.  There were fifteen hundred occupants of working-press seats alone, including a major general in uniform and Joe Louis. As is usual at big outdoor fights nowadays, platoons of young hooligans from the bleachers stormed down on the field in successive waves, to take over better seats than they had paid for. Legitimate ticket-holders who arrived late managed as best they could. In some cases, with the aid of ushers and special cops, they expropriated the squatters.” (93)  Ah, a class war for seats.  How wonderful.