Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1880–1890: A Political Turn

“There was a time for sneering. In all the ages of the world and in all its lands, the huge inert mass of humbler mankind,—compacted crush of poor dull dumb animals,—equipped from its centre to its circumference with unimaginable might, and never suspecting it, has made bread in bitter toil and sweat, all its days for the feeble few to eat, and has impotently raged and wept by turns over its despised housholds of sore-hearted women and smileless children—and that as a time for sneering. And once in a generation, it all ages and all lands, the little block of inert mass has stirred, and risen with noise, and said it could no longer endure its oppressions, its degradation, its misery.” (“The New Dynasty,” 885)

If we consider Mark Twain’s first published writings in 1852 as the start of his career, the early 1880s marks the half-way point in his career, but only a decade into his national fame that began with the travel narrative Innocents Abroad. By all accounts, the 1880s were a productive year for him. Twain’s income from his books was significant enough to afford him various investments (including in the Paige typesetter beginning in 1889, which would almost bankrupt him). His major works from the 1880s are The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The American Claimant, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. As people who are familiar with Twain’s biography know, this decade also was the last before financial woes and the death of Susy (his favorite daughter) led him to begin to look at the world in new ways. Throughout the 1880s, though he is riding high, and focused on his writing and professional obligations.

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Many of Twain’s shorter works from this period are speeches delivered in Hartford or nearby areas. He even joked about how prolific he was as a public speaker and how people like him should stop hogging the stage. Yet his voice was in high demand.

The most striking of these speeches for me was “The New Dynasty,” a speech delivered in March 1886, but not published until the 1950s. I wonder how many Mark Twain fans even know of this importance speech. It was delivered in the context of the Knights of Labor agitating for typesetters. The details are note quite clear from the text; it is more of a broader polemic of power. It is delivered in perfect seriousness. It speaks to American values and history while also making a case for the necessity of revolution against the powerful. It warns of the growing power of the elite and the emerging “dynasty” of a united labor, a group he expresses deep sympathies with. Now, I know of the anti-imperialist Mark Twain, but I was never exposed to this side of him before. I suppose most do not. “The New Dynasty” begins with a general discourse on power. “Power, when lodged in the hands of man, means oppression—insures oppression: it means oppression always.” (883). He moves from the kings of old to the “horse-car company,” engaged in its new industrial forms of oppression. Twain argues that it was in America that this was first and most substantially challenged, not from the works of founders or a simple republican form of government, but from the voices of the underclass. “But when all the children in a little world cry, one is roused out of his indifference by the mere magnitude of the fact­—and he realizes that perhaps something IS the matter; and he opens his ears.” (887) He then moves to the rising power of labor in America. In an almost Marxist analysis he says that they will seize power and use it to oppress the minority. “He will oppress the thousands, they oppressed the millions; but he will imprison nobody, he will massacre, burn, flay, torture, exile nobody, nor work any subject eighteen hours a day, nor stave his family.” (888) And in sharp contrast to much later nineteenth century rhetoric on labor, he calls the organized workers the highest stage of American civilization.

Emblem of the Knights of Labor

Emblem of the Knights of Labor

"Harpers" magazine refusing to take sides

“Harpers” magazine refusing to take sides

 

How I would have loved to have been there to see this speech delivered. This for me is the highlight of this set of documents, but there are some other nice themes Twain considers.

In “Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims,” a speech delivered before the New England Society of Philadelphia, Twain assaults the cult of the Mayflower and the strange devotion Americans had to these founders. He is in full Promethean mode when he assaults the slavish devotion to odd heroes who (he humorously points out) largest claim to fame was getting off a boat; staying on the boat would have been more remarkable. His bolder interpretation of American history comes later in the speech, when he sets his solidarity with the people oppressed by the New England Puritans: religious dissenters, witches, slaves, Indians. “The first slave brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine—for I am of a mixed breed, an infinitely shaded and exquisite mongrel. I’m not one of your sham meerschaums that you can color in a week. No, my complexion is the patient art of eight generations.” (783–785) I guess he is speaking as America—that mongrel and projectoral nation—in this speech.

Two documents refer to his (I guess in jest) attempt to raise a statue to Adam, in which he tries to move beyond a narrow identity as an American. He does this at a time when the United States was mad with commemorations to heroes from the founding era and the Civil War. By proposing a statue to Adam, Twain was calling for a more inclusive commemorations project, that does not simply speak to the values and history of one nation. He wanted it as an alternative to the Statue of Liberty, for Adam was the true outcast.

If anyone is interested in Twain’s experiences in the Civil War, “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed” is useful. It goes beyond autobiography and becomes an anti-war polemic. His experiences in the Civil War took place over a couple of weeks and mostly involved camping out with friends, practicing shooting, and running away from rumors of Federal Army advances into their area. There was a tragedy however. He describes his involvement in the killing of a stranger who approached his camp. “And it seemed the epitome of war; that all war must be that—the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it. My campaign was spoiled. It seemed to me that I was not rightly equipped for this awful business.” (880)

If young Samuel Clemens was a deserter because he refused to take the lives of another human being, than he is a great hero. We need more such heroes, and maybe a few more monuments to deserters instead of soldiers.  

 

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Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850)

“Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjected by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bridge I Arthur Dimmesdale’s!” (293)

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The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel since his youthful Fanshawe, came after Hawthorne had been writing for over twenty years and only fourteen years before his death in 1864. Despite my training I had never read this novel before, even sitting on it for almost a year after the volume of Hawthorne’s novels came as part of my Library of American subscription. I suppose I was confident that it was well understood without me reading it and there was little I can contribute. Neither have I read any commentary on the novel, outside of the occasional mention. I only knew it was an important novel and somehow (as with folklore in general) knew its basic plot.

In the novel, Hester Prynne’s sin is extremely well-defined, clearly proven, and apparent to all in the community. Even without the infamous red letter on her clothing, she had a daughter obviously born out of wedlock. Of course, the authorities of the state—in this case the Puritan elite—had to follow the letter of the law. It is a well-defined crime, but in my reading of the novel I cannot find any explanation of why it was so odious. The narrator, although occasionally waffling on this point, clearly sees the crime of adultery as evil, the work of the devil, and an unredeemable sin. (Although he is of Hawthorne’s generation, he is more of old New England.) Of course, given the situation—a distant and decrepit husband with a young wife—it is rather hard to find fault in Hester’s actions. But my point is that Prynne, the minister Dimmesdale (Pearl’s biological father), the town, the narrator, Hawthorne, and readers from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century seem to take it for granted that there was a sin committed. The debate would then rest on the proper response, given the situation. I suggest we should not so quickly surrender this point. This is not simply an argument for free love, but the necessary anarchist orientation that requires all authority (moral, legal, political) to justify itself.

The enforcement mechanisms of this moral law are very well-developed and incredibly harsh. The scaffolds and the gallows are a constant threat throughout the novel. The coercive tools of a cynical state hardly seem the appropriate tool of a regime based on moral authority, but when of course, how else can the state enforce moral law. Look at the ridiculous convictions of Pussy Riot members in Russia as evidence that morality can still be a tool of state political control. The list of disciplinary measures applied or threatened in this novel is impressive, even by twentieth century standards, and must have seen downright draconian to Hawthorne’s contemporary readers. These institutions of control included jails, the gallows, public shaming, exclusion, economic and social isolation, family, and religious threats of eternal damnation. Even the governor became intensely interested in the transgression of Prynne. And, if we believe the narrator comes from the society of Puritan New England it seems these threats work most of the time. Prynne and Dimmesdale’s transgression is entirely unique in the world of the novel.

The novel begins with another institution of state power, one that emerged much later in New England history, but became central to Hawthorne’s life and the economic history of the region: the custom-house. It works to create the narrator of the story, who worked in a custom-house, like Hawthorne, and discovered the story of Hester Prynne buried in some documents. As I already suggested, unlike Hawthorne, this narrative has much more fully internalized the values of Puritan New England and is apparently not as detached from that tradition as Hawthorne himself was by the time he wrote the novel. What I want to suggest is that instead of reading this just as a story of sin, guilt, and alienation we should also read it as a story of power and in this way, the “Custom-House” chapter fits nicely. We see the locus of New England society move from the internal morality of its residents to their place in the emerging world system, but power remained central to its working.

Salem Custom House

Salem Custom House

The consequences of the enforcement of this constructed and pathetically useless morality are catastrophic. Image Hester Prynne’s situation absent the enforcement regimen. Pearl could have had a normal childhood, Hester could have remained of the community, her returning husband would not have needed to pose as someone else and work for seven years for revenge, and a whole lot of internal trauma could have been avoided. The conclusion we can draw is the root tension in the story is not the sin itself, which except for the arrival of Pearl, is largely a non-event, hardly worth anyone’s time to worry about. It is the naming of the sin that is the problem. We should spend less time doing such nonsense. As if to make this point, the narrator clarifies how easy it is to simple stop naming the sin. Hester could remove the “A” at any time, which she does as she develops a plan to leave New England with Dimmesdale.

The straight-forward way to look at Pearl is that she inherited the sin of her mother and father. She becomes obsessed at a young age with her mother’s red “A.” She is not controllable and shocks the Puritan elite because of her non-orthodox understanding of theology. Providing such information is one of Hester’s main responsibilities and doubts about this produce one of the major tensions, the attempt by the elite to take Pearl from her mother. Can we not also look at Pearl in a more optimistic way? Hester’s transgression carries onto her child. It is not sin that is passed on, but the spirit of rebellion, which lives onto the next generation. She survives the story to go to Europe, breaking free entirely of the institutions of power that so oppressed her mother and near ruined her own childhood.

That is enough on The Scarlet Letter. Others have done better than me (I spent a day when others have spent a career), but I hope this is not entirely useless for the commons. Let me end on a nice, politically-powerful quote.

“Before Mr. Dimmesdale reached home, his inner man gave him other evidences of a revolution in the sphere of thought and feeling. In truth, nothing short of a total change of dynasty and moral code, in that interior kingdom, was adequate to account for the impulses now communicated to the unfortunate and startled minister. At every step he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional; in spite of himself, yet growing out of a profounder self than that which opposed the impulse.” (306)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1835): Fear the Gerontocracy

“Old and young, we dream of graves and monuments. I wonder how mariners feel, when the ship is sinking, and they, unknown and undistinguished, are to be buried together in the ocean—that wide and nameless sepulchre.” (306, from “The Ambitious Guest”)

The ten stories I looked at for today all appeared in print first in 1835 and carry with them some common themes as might be expected from such an aggressive expression of creative energies. Actually, he published fifteen stories in that year, including stories I looked at yesterday. One strong common thread is Hawthorne’s ominous presentation of the old, the ancient, the static, and the traditional. When set next to a work such as “Little Alice’s Ramble” (a story I feel in love with yesterday), this contrast becomes much clearer. Can we say that Hawthorne was at roots a Promethean, optimistic when it came to the  youthful, like the American republic itself during his life, and dark only when looking at the decrepit?  I will try to show that, in 1835 at least, Hawthorne consistently presented the old with a degree of suspicion and fear. If he is right, let me say that I totally agree with him. The idea that we have something special to learn from elders (by virtue of age and experience alone) is one of the most dangerous views out there. All things being equal, I will trust the child for a host of reasons, not least of which is that they need to live in this world much longer than the ancient.

The stories for today were “The Gray Champion,” “My Visit to Niagara,” “Old News,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Wakefield,” “The Ambitious Guest,” “A Rill from the Town-Pump,” “The White Old Maid,” “The Vision of the Fountain,” and “The Devil in Manuscript.”

Hawthorne has a gerontocracy to work against thanks to the historical memory of New England and its Puritan elite. They are never far from his pen and they are the most common symbol of destructive, useless, rigid, or just plain silly values. He wants to tell his readers that despite a revolution and a century of distance, the Puritan elders maintain control over the minds of the people of New England, and rarely for the better. This is expressed in several places, including “The Gray Champion.” This story is essentially about the long-standing political and moral power of Puritanism in New England, even during a period of dramatic change brought on by James II’s attempt to rein in the colonies and the later Glorious Revolution. During the tyrannical rule of Sir Edmund Andros, the people of New England were challenged to stand up for liberty against tyranny, but the spirit of fierce independence that brought the Puritans to New England was weakening. This spirit lives on in the “gray champion” who appeared—it seems—out of the mists of time. He condemns Andros and threatens him with the return of the gallows, before retreating back to the shadows. The end of the story meditates on the meaning of these events, suggesting that this same spirit lived on in other events particularly the American Revolution. “But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader’s step pollute our soil, still may the Gray Champion come; for he is the type of New-England’s hereditary spirit; and his shadowy march, on the even of danger, must ever be the pledge, that New-England’s son’s will vindicate their ancestry.” (243) This is actually a fairly positive image of the Puritan spirit, at least the part of it that led thousands to flee England and attempt to establish a new society away from the shackles of the king and his church. The ominous part of this is the Gray Champion’s unending moral authority and his authoritarian personality, his ability to command the attention of all and his immediate willingness to combine independence with the domination of morality, enforced by the gallows. It is also a reminder of how fine the line can be between tradition and liberty.

Arrest warrant for Andros by the people of New England (not the Gray Champion, as it turned out).

Arrest warrant for Andros by the people of New England (not the Gray Champion, as it turned out).

“Old News” is a summary of the highlights of New England’s history, including the French and Indian War and the Revolution. He makes some wonderful observations, including the way in which the newspaper record the minutiae of the life of the elite. Whatever nostalgia Hawthorne feels over this bygone age, is tempered by the realization that these newspapers are records of a dead world. “Whether it be something in the literary execution, or the ancient print and paper, and the idea, that those same musty pages have been handled by people—once alive and bustling amid the scenes there recorded, yet now in their graves beyond the memory of men—so it is, that in those elder volumes, we seem to find the life of a past age preserved between the leaves, like a dry specimen of foliage.” (275) We are ashamed not to reflect on those glories but cannot escape the fact that they are dead and poor models for the living.

The horrific nature of the Puritan past is the major theme of the famous “Young Goodman Brown,” about a man who attends a Witch’s Sabbath, populated by many of the town elders, who learns about the deep connection between New England’s traditions and the works of the devil. The events take on a dream-like quality when the protagonist, Goodman Brown, escapes the proceedings (which involve his wife he thought he left behind), but nevertheless, the hypocrisy of the community is exposed. Goodman Brown’s guide into the forest provides this historical context. “I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war.” (278)

In other stories, the ancient is just associated with oddness or a vapid stability. A character in “The Ambitious Guest” said: “Old folks have their notions as well as young ones. You’ve been wishing and planning; and letting your heads run on one thing and another, till you’ve set my mind a wandering too. Now what should an old woman wish for, when she can go but a step or two before she comes to her grave? Children, it will haunt me night and day, till I tell you.” (305) In “A Rill from the Town-Pump” it appears as a location in the town that is home to deep traditions and many ghosts. The story contains a warning against inherited sin and a celebration of alternatives freed from these traditions. “Until now, the phrensy of hereditary fever has raged in the human blood, transmitted from sire to son, and re-kindled, in every generation, by fresh draughts of liquid flame. When that inward fire shall be extinguished, the heat of passion cannot but grow cool, and war–the drunkenness of nations–perhaps will cease. At least, there will be no war of households. The husband and wife, drinking deep of peaceful joy–a calm bliss of temperate affections–shall pass hand in hand through life, and lie down, not reluctantly, at its protracted close. To them, the past will be no turmoil of mad dreams, nor the future an eternity of such moments as follow the delirium of the drunkard. Their dead faces shall express what their spirits were, and are to be, by a lingering smile of memory and hope.” (312)

The Good Old Days of 17th Century New England

The Good Old Days of 17th Century New England

The stories go on like this. “White Old Maid” gives us a quasi-ghost story about a widow who wanders through the town stuck in her grief for years. While the woman grows old from grief, we witness decaying buildings and the dominance of death and woe, which can only from from a world dominated by the past.

Ah, how I much prefer Little Annie and her ramble.

 

 

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1830-1832)

I am going to take a leisurely approach to reading the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, using as many entries as necessary in order to come to an understanding of him and his place in the American tradition. Over the course of a couple of extended delays, I have come to terms with impossibility of the schedule I set for myself. And as this project of reading the entire Library of America from an anarchist perspective is a wonderful experience, I see no reason to rush things too much.

Hawthorne’s work is divided into two volumes: the stories and the novels. The volume of tales collects Hawthorne’s stories from Twice-told Tales, Mosses from an Old Manse, The Snow-Image, A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, and Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys. I suppose there are about 100 stories collected within. My rough plan is to take on around 10 of these a day and see what comes of it. The editors arrange the stories in order of publication so we will be beginning along with Hawthorne’s literary career, in 1830. (Fanshawe was self-published a couple years earlier and we will get to that in due time).

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Hawthorne was 28 when his first sketches and tales were published and he had not yet left New England, but he had seen the whole of it, from rural Maine to Boston. Something we notice straightaway from Hawthorne is that New England provides one of the central tensions in his work. New England was home to both an American literary tradition as well as an authoritarian tradition (seen in colonial-era British aristocracy and in the Puritan autocrats) and it was never very clear which tradition was dominant.  In any case, breaking free from the influence of tradition was a near impossibility.

I read the following stories: “The Hollow of the Three Hills,” “Sir William Phips,” “Mrs. Hutchinson,” “Dr. Bullivant,” “Signs from a Steeple,” “The Haunted Quack,” “The Wives of the Dead,” My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” and “Roger Malvin’s Burial.” Some of these are short stories, but others are biographical sketches. “Mrs. Hutchinson” (1830) is one of these, retelling the story of the life of Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan heretic. Hutchinson’s life essentially maps out the conflict between the authoritarian and the libertarian. Her crime was a rejection of the spiritual authority of the Puritan clergy and her argument for the spiritual equality of believers. Of course, brought before the court made up of these established clergymen, the outcome was not in doubt. Her punishment was exile and she was transformed into a vagabond, traveling first to Rhode Island and then to New York, where she was later killed by Indians. This, as we see in other early Hawthorne tales is one of the central conflicts in New England. The conflict between vagabondage and belonging parallels the conflict between authority and freedom.

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Take for example, the description of a changing society in “Dr. Bullivant,” another biographical sketch. They sketch is set in the context of a changing New England, under siege from an English state eager to reign in the colonies, which they attempt under the leadership of the much maligned Sir Edmund Andros. A passage from this sketch is worth quoting at length: “The early settlers were able to keep within the narrowest limits of their rigid principles, because they had adopted them in mature life, and from their own deep conviction, and were strengthened in them by that species of enthusiasm which is as sober and as enduring as reason itself. . . . When therefore the old original stock, the men who looked heavenward without a wandering glance to earth, had lost a part of their domestic and public influence, yielding to infirmity or death, a relaxation naturally ensued in their theory and practice of morals and religion, and became more evident with the daily decay of its most strenuous opponents. This gradual but sure operation was assisted by the increasing commercial importance of the colonies, whither a new set of emigrants followed unworthily in the track of the pure-hearted Pilgrims. . . . Freebooters from the West Indies and the Spanish Main, — state criminals, implicated in the numerous plots and conspiracies of the periods, — felons, loaded with private guilt, — numbers of these took refuge in the provinces, where the authority of the English king was obstructed by the a zealous spirit of independence.” (36–37) The point here, is similar to the one Melville made in some of his Pacific writings. Mobility is a key to freedom, stagnation is its enemy.

A changing New England

A changing New England

Another theme in these early Hawthorne tales is burden we carry from history. It is in “The Hollow of the Three Hills” about a young beautiful woman who visits an old crone in an attempt to wash away her dubious past sins. However, washing away these sins is not as easy as walking away or moving to a distant land. This is the lesson of the rather humorous tales “The Haunted Quack” (1831). It is about an apprentice quack doctor who learned to brew and sell false potions to gullible people. After venturing on his own, the doctor (Hippocrates Jenkins), poisons an old woman and flees, only to be haunted every night. He flees and spends the last of his money running from the police. Eventually, he turns up at the place he started and learns that the old woman did not die and that he was sought after for his incredible healing skills, not for prosecution. He returns to his old craft of peddling fake medicines. The ghostly appearances are not explained but were likely a psychic projection of his guilt, a guilt that could not stop him from his immoral career.

It is most striking in the longer tale “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” (1832) which combines the legacy of British aristocratic traditions with the burden of the past and the necessity of independence from it. The story follows a young man who is seeking Major Molineux, a British military officer for a job. He is in the old mindset of patronage, duty, and family duties. He is an outsider in Boston and therefore is taken to be a tramp. Indeed he has all the appearances of a tramp since he has little money, no local connections he can call on except for the “Major Molineux,” and no job. Furthermore, with the American Revolution brewing in the background, most Bostonians are not eager to help this sniveling youth find his aristocratic patron. All the youth can do is wander around the town asking for leads on Molineux. He is finally discovered as old, frail, and in the process of being publicly humiliated by the Bostonian crowd (tar and feathered). The narrator is advised to seek his own way in the world. In a real sense, they are asking him to take his place as one of the American revolutionaries, overthrowing the old system, represented by the aging and weak Major Molineux. With this, Hawthorne seems to place himself on the side of rough, contentious liberty. This does not mean that the past will always be easily overcome.