Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays: 1891–1895

“Ah, Lasca, you are a fortunante girl!—this beautiful house, this dainty jewel, that rich treasure, all this elegant snow, and sumptuous icebergs and limitless sterility, and public bears and walruses, and noble freedom and largeness, and everybody’s admiring eyes upon you, and everybody’s homage and respect at your command without the asking; young, rich, beautiful, sought, courted, envied, not a requirement unsatisfied, not a desire ungratified, nothing to wish for that you cannot have—it is immeasurable good fortune! I have seen myriads of girls, but none of whom these extraordinary things could be truthfully said but you alone. And you are worthy—worthy of it all, Lasca—I believe in my heart.” (“The Esquimau Maiden’s Romance, 126)

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The 1890s were traumatic for Mark Twain. His company Webster & Co. went into debt over Paige typesetters. The company was kept afloat with Twain’s investments, but he could not raise capital and the prototypes were unsuccessful as well. In 1894 he assumed the company’s debts and declared bankruptcy. In current dollar amounts, the investments cost him millions. He spent some of the early 1890s in Europe, where he underwent treatments for various physical ailments. In regards to his writing, he produced a dozen or so important sketches (see below), The American Claimant, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Pudd’nhead Wilson, Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. This is his last productive years, despite his financial and physical problems. The last fifteen years of his life, after the 1896 death of his daughter, would be focused on shorter writings and one final travelogue (Around the Equator).

The Paige Typesetter

The Paige Typesetter

The seventeen entries from the Library of America anthology of Mark Twain’s shorter works covering these five years are all interesting and most of them speak to some of the themes of this blog. He returns from time to time to his role as a humorist, but his writing is clearly becoming more serious and pointed in regards to its social critique.

The short writings from 1891 were produced while in Europe. Two deal directly with life in Europe (“Aix-les-Bains” and “Playing Courier”), especially his therapeutic treatments as Swiss spas. “Mental Telegraphy” is a humorous take on the phenomenon of people around the world arriving at a similar idea. This seems to have been happening a lot in the period of technological revolutions. The most well-known of these happened earlier with the Newton-Leibnitz situation. Both invented calculus independently. Twain mentions the more contemporary Darwin-Wallace coincidence. Fascinating for me is what this tells us about the reality of tides of history. There do seem to be moments when people around the world come to a certain realization. I think we are getting there with anti-capitalism (Occupy was one sign of this).

We have only one short writing from 1892, “The Cradle of Liberty.” This is an important work because it (like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) challenges American pretentions about being the home of liberty. He argues that Switzerland has a much deeper and more authentic experience of liberty, worked into its society and politics. “After trying the political atmosphere of the neighboring monarchies, it is healing and refreshment to breathe an air that has known no taint of slavery for 600 years, and to come among a people whose political history is great and fine, superlatively great and fine, and worthy to be taught in all schools and studied by all races and peoples.” (49–50)

Eighteen-ninety-three was more productive in short writings. This anthology collected seven works, including some short stories, from that year. “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note” is an interesting commentary on wealth. The experiment of giving someone such a bill and seeing if that makes her rich is an important thought exercise in a time when people hoard enormous and grotesque amounts of money. Of course, in real life, these figures make no sense. Only in the world of high finance and in theory do currency amounts like £1,000,000 have any real meaning. “About All Kinds of Ships” does a few things. By putting Noah’s Ark into the modern bureaucratic regulatory system, he asks interesting questions about freedom and progress. His larger point is that progress (technological or otherwise) is largely meaningless is it is just abstract improvements or removed from our daily lives. A new steamer (or new green city in China) may be progress but prove to be distractions if not actually improving the lives of most people. “We are victims of one common superstition—the superstition that we realize the changes that are taking place in the world because we read about them and know what they are.” (81) “Extracts from Adam’s Diary” is an important work from this year. It should be read for pure pleasure and joy. I suppose we could weigh it down with theological arguments or questions about Twain’s religious point of view. At its heart, is the story of two strangers, through suffering and exile, coming to know and love each other. Such tales of solidarity and shared sacrifice always seem beautiful to me. The last lines almost bring me to tears. “It is better to love outside the Garden with her than inside it without her. At first I thought she talked too much; but now I should be sorry to have that voice fall silent and pass out of life. Blessed be the chestnut that brought us near together and taught me to know the goodness of her heart and the sweetness of her spirit!” (108) I also enjoyed “The Esquimau Maiden’s Romance,” which I read as another commentary on wealth and social prestige. On one level we see the Esquimau embracing the concept of wealth and hierarchy through the collection of fish hooks. There are the same type of conspicuous consumption that Twain knew of too well in America. However, the value of the fishhooks—the source of wealth—is clearly superfluous to society. Much like the hoarders of wealth in late capitalist societies, their wealth is a fiction (even if their power is not). Thus, much of the story is an attempt to describe wealth in real terms, which inevitably enter into the interpersonal realm. “Travelling with a Reformer” is a humorous attack on the regulations and laws promoted by Progressive-era reformers, in this case a welfare capitalist targeting card playing.

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There is not much to say about 1894, which consisted of a musing on the “Jumping Frog” story and a personal reminiscence of a Scotchman named Macfarlane, with frontier-style brutishness but also a strong moral logic that Twain thought was lacking in his day. “He said that man’s heart was the only bad heart in the animal kingdom; that man was the only animal capable of feeling malice, envy, vindictiveness, vengefulness, hatred, selfishness, the only animal that loved drunkenness, almost the only animal that could endure personal uncleanliness and a filthy habitation, the sole animal in whom was fully developed the base instinct called patriotism, the sole animal that robs, persecutes, oppresses, and kills members of his own immediate tribe, the sole animal that steals and enslaves the members of any tribe.” (163)

As for 1895, we have Twains’ dual polemics against James Feminore Cooper’s writing. Of course, Cooper’s “literary crimes” are real, but part of me wonders if Twain is not in part hacking the culture of efficiency that shaped industrializing America. Twain seems to be making a case that Cooper should have written according to scientific precision. I am supportive of wasteful writing, of course, hence this blog’s existence.

Coming up: Twain’s later novels.

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H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Stories (1919-1928): Reaction and Knowledge

Frederic Jameson, in his book Archeologies of the Future makes the point that the fantasy genre tended to be conservative in its themes and sentiment, while science fiction almost had to be utopian because instead of reconstructing the past into new forms (like fantasy does) science fiction requires a recreation of our potentials. (I am simplifying his point of course.)  For instance, Tolkien conjured an idealized mythical past, while Martin is doing the same to the high Middle Ages.  To make a more specific point, hippies reading The Lord of the Rings perhaps failed to notice that the entire story involved the restoration of autocracy (“the return of the King”).  As Thomas Paine would remind us, the restoration of a monarchy by a good king is one thing, but as his children would likely be losers and genetic degenerates.  One could go beyond that and see the restoration of normalcy after the destruction of “the One Ring”  as an ending of a Promethean spirit, suggested in Sauron’s effort to use craft to overcome the limitations of nature.

Others have suggested that horror fiction may have all sorts of hidden class assumptions as well. Zombies are mindless consumers, or exploited workers and in these stories the heroes are inevitably Herculean figures attempting to tame a world gone mad.  See The Many-Headed Hydra for more on the class dimension of the Hercules myth. Vampires are the glorified elite, beautified and perpetual (much like how capitalists would like to see themselves).  This brings us to H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most important figures in modern American fantasy and horror writing.  It is rather banal to point out that Lovecraft was a conservative in every sense of the word. He idealized Europe, hated the cities, had strong racist tendencies, and feared threats to the social order.  I want to use these posts on Lovecraft (I plan on four or five) to investigate and understand the nature of his conservatism and see if there is any hope to applying Lovecraft’s writings in the age of Occupy.

The Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s writings came out in 2005. Since then the LOA has aggressively (and admirably) been expanding the canon to include science-fiction, supernatural fiction, and crime novels.  This particular collection brings together 28 stories from throughout his career, but the highlights are the longer works (really novellas) such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Everything essential is here and the works range throughout his different periods and fully describe his multiverse.

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The period between Lovecraft’s birth in 1890 and the publication of “The Call of Cthulhu” may be seen as his formative years, before he put together the universe he is most well-known for.  Lovecraft started writing as soon as he could pickup a pen, writing his own versions of Homer at the age of 8. His father died of syphilis and Lovecraft became a bookish, introverted, and unstable child. He has a nervous breakdown at ten. Recovering from that he began a life-long interest in amateur astronomy and started some journals. In his teenage years, he started writing fiction, while continuing work on amateur astronomy. His social networks seems to be largely epistolary at that time.  He started publishing aggressively in pulp journals when he turned 30, around the time his mother died.  All of this time, Lovecraft lived in New England, but he did travel to New York. It was only after his 1924 marriage to Sonia Greene that Lovecraft moved to New York, which, if we are to believe his writings, he hated and feared.

This documentary gives a good background to Lovecraft.

I do not want to focus on his racism or equivocate on his statements. The documentary features some voices equivocating on his racism in rather silly ways.  There were plenty of non-racist voices and plenty of history that makes Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia clearly odious and vile. Lovecraft’s racism comes out of his strange conservatism and rejection of the very concept of human progress.  In almost all of these earlier stories, the central argument of Lovecraft’s writing is the danger of knowledge, and by extension science and progress. This makes him at the least anti-Promethean and very likely anti-humanist.  Even Lovecraft’s creation of describable or unspeakable creatures, thoughts, or phenomenon suggests that he had serious doubts about the potential of writing to fulfill its job. The proper place for knowledge is locked away and not investigated.  It is not only that humans are not ready for that dangerous knowledge but also that humans will likely never be capable, mentally, to handle the true horrors of the world. In the early story “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” the narrator says: “The weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me. Of his vast collection of strange, rare books on forbidden subjects I have read all that are written in the languages of which I am master. . . As to the nature of our studies–must i say again that I no longer retain full comprehension? It seems to me rather merciful that through reluctant fascination than through actual inclination.” (2) Of course, these studies do lead to a horrific end for Warren.  The same can be said for “The Outsider”, which describes a horrific monster who comes to knowledge about himself by walking out in daylight and eventually seeing a mirror.  In the pulpish “Herbert West–Reanimator” the forbidden knowledge is the science of life itself. West experimetns with reviving the dead.  This too, ends in a horrific disaster.

In fact, you can open up almost any page and find a description warning against humans sticking their nose in places where they do not belong (intellectually or physically) or suggesting the incapacity of the senses. This is perhaps an even more profound anti-humanism and the real base of Lovecraft’s vision.  Here are some examples from these early stories:

“An acute terror now rose within me, for here were anomalies which nothing normal could explain.” (“The Rats in the Wall,” p. 89)  Is there anything like this in real nature

“The more I analyzed the less I believed, and against my newly opened mind there began to beat grotesque and horrible analogies.” (“The Lurking Fear,” p. 73) So studying a phenomenon makes it harder to understand and an open mind courts horrors.

“Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action.” (“The Shunned House”, p. 114)

The description of the Cthulhu statue. “obviously of modern origin. Its designs, however, were far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion; for although the vagaries of cubism and futurism are many and wild, they do not often reproduce that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric writing. And writing of some kind the bulk of these designs seemed certainly to be; though my memory, despite much familiarity with the papers and collections of my uncle, failed in any way to identify this particular species, or even to hint at its remotest affiliations.” (“The Call of Cthulhu,” p. 169)  Suggests the impossibility of taxonomy or knowledge even of a archaeological relic.

The logical conclusion of Lovecraft’s dilution of the senses and knowledge is our inability to really understand the world at more than a visceral level and a deep suspicion over any attempt to improve it.  If we were to describe class or political power in the same way that Lovecraft describes natural phenomenon, we would be helpless to confront their realities.  An example could be something like this: “The eldritch overseer held sway over the horrified factory floor workers with an aura and power that is unexplainable.” It does not recommend itself much as analysis or program for action. Furthermore, we have countless example of science, technology, and knowledge making concrete and measurable improvements in human life. In this way, I think I want to defend the doomed scholars who live out their lives studying the forbidden knowledge. They are the real Promethean heroes in Lovecraft’s stories.

 

Henry Adams, “Esther: A Novel”

Esther is Adams’ second and final novel.  The plot concerns a freethinking young woman’s encounter, through artistic pursuits, with a church, an experienced artist, and a orphan woman from the West.  As Esther incorporates herself into this world, she agrees to marry the preacher, Mr. Hazard.  She is all but an atheist.  Her close friend, George, is a paleontologist and agnostic.  Her father uses religion only for its moral influence on society, not out of any true believe.  Esther is never quite able to resolve her conflict between her love for Mr. Hazard (admitted in the final line of the novel) and her disgust with her finance’s beliefs and practices.  The idea of being a church wife, attending services and putting on the face of a devoted believer disgusts her.

Henry Adams

The world of Esther is a world in change.  We can foreshadow the “dynamo and the Virgin” in Esther.  The rise of the new woman, professional, educated, assertive, and in the public, runs in conflict with expectations about the role of women.  Listen to Hazard’s expectations of the woman he eventually courts.  “The next morning he looked about the church and was disappointed at not seeing her there.  This young man was used to flattery; he had been sickened with it, especially by the women of his congregation; he thought there was nothing of this nature against which he was not proof; yet he resented Esther Dudley’s neglect to flatter him by coming to his sermon.” And later on that same page, this is contrasted with his opinion of Catherine Brooke.  “Her innocent eagerness to submit was charming, and the tyrants gloated over the fresh and radiant victim who was eager to be their slave.  They lured her on, by assumed gentleness, in the path of bric-a-brac and sermons.” (214)  The transition to new ideas is clearly represented in the characters of Hazard and George Strong, the scientist.  The artist, Wharton, and his failed marriage also suggest the coming of a new era where traditional arrangements break down.  That these modern figures (Esther and Wharton) are hired to paint portraits for the church provides yet another dichotomy between tradition and modernity.   Catherine Brooke as an orphan from the West brought to New York City, suggests the conquest of the frontier and the end of that epoch of American history.

An atheist reader (like me) will be tempted to cheer on Esther as she allows her modern mind to prevent what could only be a disastrous marriage.  We are not entirely sure until the very end what Esther sees in Hazard.  He struck me as too authoritarian, too traditional, and too patriarchal for a women like Esther.  Yet the final confession, that she loved Hazard, reminds us of the danger of allowing the mind to overcome the heart.  Indeed, the conflict between faith and science, between tradition and modernity is not more of a problem than many other things that divide couples (monogamy/non-monogamy, politics, cultural differences).  To assume that faith is the irreconcilable barrier is rather irrational and peculate and boring.  This realization does not make one like Hazard any more, but it makes one dislike Esther a bit.  Without idealizing the concept of “romantic love” (full of capitalist logic, which I can have the chance to discuss in a later post), we can appreciate that Esther threw away an opportunity for happiness, friendship, and community through Hazard.  She simultaneously throws away the advances of George who loved Esther from the beginning of the novel.  (This time the problem is not intellectual, but a lack of feeling.)    These are the mistakes of youth and in my experience common enough.

Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”: Technology

As C. L. R. James has shown us, Ahab is the tyrannical rejection of civilization – and along with it progress and solidarity.  While he thought little of the oil wasted when the barrels started leaking, from the perspective of the working class this was an immediate threat to their livelihood – less profits means a smaller share at the end of the voyage.  Even when Stubbs discovered ambergris in a dying whale conned from some French whalers, Ahab cuts his profitable search short.  A significant symbol of this rejection is Ahab’s scorn for and violence against technology.  At the last moments, his struggle against the “white whale” is made even without the support of a small boat.  He is alone, straddled to the whale with only a harpoon and his words.

As readers of the novel know, much of the text is bound up with detailed descriptions of the whaling industry, its methods, science, and work regimen.  From the opening “exerts” until the final chapters, technology is a driving force of the novel, but it is always under the control of the collective knowledge of the crew.  Ahab shuns it.  He prefers to conduct his search in more primitive ways – following the mystical advice of Fedallah, asking other ships if they saw the “White Whale,” and sail by his senses.

The sailors indeed have a strong connection to the technological systems that they support with their labor and the technological systems that make their work possible: the harpoon that Queequeg shaves with is one example.  In a chapter called “The Lamp”, Melville describes the aura that an oil lamp holds for whalemen.  “Had you descended from the Pequod’s try-works to the Pequod’s forecastle, where the off duty watch were sleeping, for one single moment you would have almost thought you were standing in some illuminated shrine of canonized kings and consellors.  There they lay in their triangular oaken vaults, each mariner a chiseled muteness; a score of lamps flashing upon his hooded eyes. . . . See with what entire freedom the whaleman takes his handful of lamps–often but old bottles and vials, though — to the copper cooler at the try-works, and replenished them there, as mugs of ale at a vat.  He burns, too, the purest of oil, in its unmanufactured, and, therefore, unvitiated state.” (1249)  Melville’s descriptions of chopping up the whales, clearing up the ship after harvesting the oil, and filling barrels has a certain beauty that can only come from a artisan describing their craft.  Any other observer would pass over these details.  “Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distinguished by her try-works.  She presents the curious anomaly of the most solid masonry joining with oak and hemp in constitution the completed ship.  it is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her planks.” (1244)  In chapter forty, when we see the entire crew engaged in revalry and discussion after hearing about Ahab’s mad plan.  This window into the stream of consciousness of the forecastle is not an image of technocrats, but they are worldly and practical.  They pine for women they do not have, they speak of work (“So, be cheery, my lads! may your hearts never fail! While the bold harpooneer is striking the whale!”).  Ahab’s stream of consciousness openly admits madness and irrationality.  While the crew is practical, Ahab is transgressive.  “What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do!  They think me made–Starbuck does; but I’m demonic, I am madness maddened!” (971)   Perhaps this is a powerful sentiment among those in resistance to power, but when held by those with absolute authority is it dangerous.

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He is indifferent to the crew but uses them.  He uses technology in the same way as when he has the carpenter create for him a new leg out of whale bone.

As the novel closes, Ahab’s rejection of technology and along with it reason is symbolized by his destruction of the quadrant.  “Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of they cunning and might; but what after all canast thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no!  not one jot more!  Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with they impotence thou insultest the sun!  Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy: and curse be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heave, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes are even now scorched with thy light, O sun.” (1327)  Contrast this insanity with the narrators: “While now the fated Pequod had been so long afloat this voyage, the log and line had but very seldom been in use.  Owing to the confident reliance upon other means of determining the vessel’s place, some merchantmen, and many whalemen, especially when cruising, wholly neglect to heave the log.” (1348)

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Now I am not unaffected by Ahab’s transgression, force of will, and ambition, but the rejection of reason, progress, technology, and solidarity makes him a fully odious character and a poor model for radical transformation of society.  Do other characters help us any more?  Not likely.  Moby-Dick may, in the end, be little more than a warning against detached and ungrounded vision.