Mark Twain: “Tom Sawyer, Detective” (1896)

“You bet. Some day there’ll be a big reward offered for them—a thousand dollars, sure. That’s our money! Now we’ll trot in and see the folks. And mind you we don’t know anything about any murder, or any di’monds, or any thieves—don’t you forget that.” (768)

Surprisingly, the last of the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn novels written by Mark Twain—Tom Sawyer, Detective—is not entirely superfluous. It is an extremely short novel (around 60 pages) covering Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn’s trip to the Phelps farm, sometime after the events of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This was the location where they freed Jim. The plot centers on three brothers, the Dunlap. Jubiter Dunlap is Silas’ farm laborer. Jack Dunlap is a convict escaped from jail and stole some diamonds from his ex-partners. Brace Dunlap is a more established man in the community but no dear friend of Silas. Tom and Huck first get involved in this mess when they begin to aid Jack in evading his former partners. When Jubiter goes missing, Silas gets accused of murder and is put on trial.

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Indeed, Silas confesses to striking Jubiter. Perhaps this is to surprising in a slave society build on terror and violence. Of course, such violence only became a legal issue of import when a free man was harmed (women and slaves were not so protected by the law). “He [Silas] said Jubiter pestered him and aggravated him till he was so mad he just sort of lost his mind and grabbed up a stick and hit him over the head with all his might, and Jubiter dropped in his tracks. Then he was scared and sorry, and got down on his knees and lifted his head up, and begged him to speak and say he wasn’t dead.” (785) Jubiter only fled the scene, but it does show the true character of Silas and the nature of rural slave society in antebellum America.

The final chapter shows Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as detectives, trying to prove that Silas did not murder Jubiter. He did this before in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a witness, but he is closer to Silas’ lawyer in this novel, suggesting once again that Tom’s future is in the adult world of law, profit, and capital. I opened this post with a quote by Tom discussing the financial boon he could look forward too, if the duo played their cards right.

The resolution of the case is revealed by Tom at the trial. Jubiter came back to town, unable to talk and in disguise. The murdered man was Jake Dunlap, who was killed by his ex-partners for the diamonds, and his body was made up to look like Jubiter. Brace Dunlap used the murder as a way to get revenge on Silas for not allowing him to marry the young Phelps girl. In the end, Tom gets the reward for the missing diamonds and splits his financial windfall with Huck.

We see the return of several of the themes of the Tom Sawyer novels, such as the odious nature of the adult world, the violence implicit in the search for wealth and power, and the potential of vernacular understandings. Although Tom does seem to be growing up into his future role as a rich lawyer (or something akin to that), he still depended on Huck for solving the mystery and gained information through an understanding of the community from the perspective of the gutter. Lost in this (as in Tom Sawyer, Abroad) is the strong discourse on freedom that were in the earlier books in this series. Huck is important as a narrator and his is still humorous and fun to read, but he is more of a foil for Tom, giving him someone to talk to and at times correct. In both of these later Tom Sawyer novels, Huck makes few autonomous choices. This is in sharp contrast to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he confronted deep moral questions.

For me, the most tragic element of this novel is the growing gravitas of Tom Sawyer, seen in the final court scene. The child who tried to get out of going to school, fought neighbors, and played pirate is slowly dying. Any future novels in the series must be about Tom finding a career. As for Huck, by not following through on his wish to go West, he really does not have a place in the world. But there are signs in this novel and in Tom Sawyer Abroad that Huck is being slowly civilized. This is all very sad.

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Mark Twain: “Life on the Mississippi” (1883): Capitalism and Craft

Ah, yet another autobiographical travelogue by Mark Twain. Over the past few weeks, I have read around 1,400 pages of his writing in this genre without losing interest. Life on the Mississippi is half coming of age story and half travel narrative. The first part concerns his youth working as a steamboat pilot and documents how he got into this profession and craft. The second half is about his later travel on the Mississippi in a steamboat during the professions decline due to the rise of railroads. As a history of the transportation revolution in the United States, Life on the Mississippi remains compelling, especially since it examines how the changing nature of transportation shaped one profession. This is something that still shapes our experience of global capitalism. The decline of longshoremen in the age of containerization is simply one example of this phenomenon in our time.

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In the first half of the book, we are mostly interested in how becoming a steamboat pilot shaped Samuel Clemens’ experience and knowledge of the Mississippi River. As the book begins, the river is presented in mythical terms with a deep history and an organic life of its own. As a boy, young Clemens fantasized about the river and a future career on it. He idealized the heroes of the steamboat business “Boy after boy managed to get on the river. The minister’s son became an engineer. The doctor’s and the post-master’s sons became ‘mud clerks;’ the wholesale liquor dealer’s son became a bar-keeper on a boat. . . Pilot was the grandest position of all.” (256) This position had glory, but all boys dreams of careers on the river.

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Becoming a pilot led to a change in how Clemens saw the river. It went from being mythical and beautiful and endless to something more mundane. Pilots had to know the river at the local, minute level. No longer able to look at it as a whole with beauty, Clemens began to see the river as a workplace. “No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that rippled above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or does n’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And does n’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most of lost most by learning his trade?” (285) I think the same could be said of academia, which many of us got into under a delusion acquired from our deluded perception of the classroom from the student’s perspective. Once through it, it looks more and more disgusting.

Plate from the illustrated edition

Plate from the illustrated edition

That loss aside, is there not something more we can learn from the steamboat pilot. Most of the first half contains the details of the craft of being a pilot. I suppose every major economic or technological change allows the introduction of a new craft for some skilled workers. Many of them are likely as rich and interesting as piloting if looked at closely. There is something attractive in the idea of a craft to me, as an alternative to work. There is status and hierarchy in the profession, but it is at least earned (which is more than we can say for most hierarchies). Unlike the merchant ship, or the whaling ships of Melville, there is an absence of the brutal and arbitrary authority common in hierarchies. Twain writes of the steamboat crew as an egalitarian space.  “In truth, every man and woman and child has a master, and worried and frets in servitude; but in the day I wrote of, the Mississippi pilot had none. The captain could stand upon the hurricane deck, in the pomp of a very brief authority, and give him five or six orders while the vessel backed into the steam, and then that skipper’s reign was over.” (313) Of course, this is because the pilot was a necessity due to his knowledge. The captains were dependent on the skills of the workers. Knowledge of a craft is empowering. He even included two chapters on this specific point (“Rank and Dignity of Piloting” and “The Pilot’s Monopoly”). That said, the path of history has been to eliminate each craft in turn, deskilling jobs. We do not have enough for a strict comparison with railroad work, but my guess it that it provided fewer opportunities for true autonomy at work than steamboat piloting. While providing autonomy and power, owning a craft also made Clemens’ job less like work. It as more of an intellectual activity, and if not quite play it was certainly not the brutal drudgery of most work in capitalist economies. He compares the knowledge of the local environment required of pilots with the knowledge of the Bible required by preachers. The profession also provided lots of time for converse, drink, smoke, flirting and watching the diverse crews. One large part of their play consisted of observing the time it took ships to reach New Orleans, developing this into competitions.

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My preference is still to use technology to abolish as much work as possible, but reading Life on the Mississippi has reminded me that pleasure can be found through employment, even if framed through capitalist economies. That does seem to require a certain degree of autonomy and worker self-management. I think this book has a place in discussions about how we move to worker self-management and convince of a future without debilitating and odious work.

The second half of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi is about his return to the Mississippi River for a trip to New Orleans and back north, sometime after the Civil War (I cannot locate the exact date of this trip). In the first part of the narrative, I was attracted to Mark Twain’s description of the craft of becoming a steamboat pilot and resurrection the idea that craft-based occupations may be part of the escape from the drudgery of work. The second part takes a different tone and approach, consisting mostly of assorted stories and observations of the areas. It goes from strictly autobiographical to the character of his other travel narratives, combining made up anecdotes, tales, serious observations, and philosophical musings. We are put in a world undergoing dramatic change with the defeat of the Cotton South and slavery in the Civil War and pulling of the West into the global capitalist economy of the Gilded Age. The future of the steamboat would be tourism. The railroads would take over the heavy lifting of integrating the region into the world. He describes growing cities, modern stock markets, electrified streets, and new colleges, newspapers and institutions.

Despite undergoing dramatic transformations, the signs of the heavy historical burden of slavery and cotton farming existed. At one point, Twain calls these the tell-tale signs of the “absolute South . . . no modifications, no compromises, no half-way measures.” (468) The countryside, to Twain’s eyes did not change much from the time of his youth on the Mississippi. Change and continuity is the major theme of the book in a way, reflecting the natural history of the Mississippi, which also was known to change its course, despite seeming an enduring central artery of the continent.

“How solemn and beautiful is the thought, that the earliest pioneer of civilization, the van-leader of civilization, is never the steamboat, never the railroad, never the newspaper, never the Sabbath-school, never the missionary–but always whiskey! Such is the case. Look history over; you will see. The missionary comes after the whiskey has arrived; next comes the poor immigrant, with axe and hoe and rifle; next, the trader; next, the miscellaneous rush; next, the gambler, the desperado, the highwayman, and all their kindred in sin of both sexes; and next, the smart chap who has bought up an old grant that covers all the land; this brings the lawyer tribe; the vigilance committee brings the undertaker. All of these interests bring the newspaper; the newspaper starts up politics and a railroad; all hands turn to and build a church and a jail,–and behold, civilization is established forever in the land. But whiskey, you see, was the vanleader in this beneficent work. It always is. It was like a foreigner–and excusable in a foreigner–to be ignorant of this great truth, and wander off into astronomy to borrow a symbol. But if he has been conversant with the facts, he would have said, — Westward the Jug of Empire takes its way.” (581)

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.  

 

Mark Twain, “Roughing It” (1872): Part Two

“His flesh was stripped from the bones and burned (except nine pounds of it which were sent on board the ships). The heart was hung up in a native hut, where it was found and eaten by three children, who mistook it for the heart of a dog. One of these children grew to be a very old man, and died in Honolulu a few years ago. Some of Cook’s bones were recovered and consigned to the deep by the officers of the ship.” (919)

What does the killing of Captain Cook in Hawaii have to do with territorial Nevada, despite both appearing in Mark Twain’s Roughing It? Both are part of the scope of American imperialism in the second half of the nineteenth century and both constituted domains of the emerging American empire, eventually to reach beyond the continent into the Pacific. The scale of the second half of  Roughing It is much larger than the first half. In the first half, we follow Twain as he travels by Overland Stage Coach to Nevada, via Mormon Utah. We learn about the Pony Express and the mythology of frontier desperadoes. When Twain arrived in Nevada he quickly got caught up in the silver mining bubble economy and makes an attempt at prospecting. This effort is a failure (although he was a theoretical millionaire for a few days). This put Twain into a hopeless quandary. He had gotten used to the idea of not working and now he was in need of a job. Twain documents his work history, which is quite impressive. I particularly liked his stint at a bookstore. “I had been a bookseller’s clerk for awhile, but the customers bothered me so much I could not read with any comfort, and so the proprietor gave ma  furlough and forgot to put a limit on it.” (744) Ah, that is how I felt as a copy-editor, although my furlough was self-imposed. I am in common cause with Mark Twain. Work (if we absolutely must) should be our own benefit, not for the employers.

Etching from "Roughing It"

Etching from “Roughing It”

Contained within Roughing It is an explanation of how Twain entered into work as a journalist in Nevada. It was not hard for him. Some of his writings had appeared in print before and he was given a staff job as a junior city editor with a salary of $25 a month (later raised). And then he walked a beat around Virginia City. We learn how he managed slow news days, how he got the scoop on the school budget form a competing newspaper. Most interesting is the all too familiar journalistic fascination with conflict, scandal, and violence. Murders, apparently made Twain the happiest man in the territory for it promised something to writer about.

With his job as a journalist secured, Twain eventually become a Western writer of some renown, but he does not focus too much on his career, using the space in Roughing It to discuss the social and economic conditions of the territory. The chapters on the silver boom are a useful study of an economy based on speculation. It was much like a game Old Maid where the deck had 50 Old Maid cards. Most people’s claims were worthless or near enough. So the game became convincing others of the inherent wealth of this claim or that claim. In some cases, this meant even “salting” mines with silver in order to create the impression of future wealth, but only long enough to sell the shares in the mine to some sucker. However, since everyone was in on the game, it does not seem that “exploitation” is the right word to use. Twain says less about the working class in the territory. We know that there were people who worked for wages. This did not mean they forsook the brinkmanship of prospecting.

Much of his concern is with with violence and the legal order. It is not quite right to say that the violence was a product of a lack of state presence. There were courts, juries, police, and executions. None of this really prevented the violence that was integral to the social network. If we take him seriously people’s reputations were tied up into their histories of violence. “If an unknown individual arrived, they did not inquire if he was capable, honest, industrious, but — had he killed his man?” (781) Juries existed but seemed to not convict many people (“only two persons have suffered the death penalty.”) Twain associates this violence and vice with the prosperity of the region. “A crowded police court docket is the surest of all signs that trade is brisk and money plenty.” (798) But crime was not the only sign of vibrancy. Twain puts the emergence of a literary journal at the same level.

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Twain next takes us on his adventures in California and Hawaii before closing the narrative. Roughing It is as much a story of Twain’s quest for fulfillment and satisfaction with life as it is a document on the Nevada frontier. I find some commonality with Herman Melville’s early work, where characters existed in a constant state of discontent. As he described the thoughts that led him on his first trip to Hawaii, he confessed this nature. “I was out of debt, but my interest in my work was gone; for my correspondence being a daily one, without rest of respite, I got unspeakably tired of it. I wanted another change. The vagabond institute was strong upon me. Fortune favored and I got a new berth and  delightful one.” (862) His “moral” at the end of the book addresses how creativity emerges from this spirit. “If you are of any acocunt, stay at home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are ‘no account,’ go away from home, and then you will have to work.” (960)

The final section of the book explores his half year in Hawaii as a journalist and lecturer. Here we are given a darker side of the U.S. Empire as it was completing its conquest of the islands. Of course, the Empire was alive and well in Nevada as well, but since we only see the frontier there from the perspective of white men. He has a few asides about Chinese, but he simply repeats the stereotype of the model minority: well-behaved and hard working. In Hawaii, we see the full extent of American commercial power over other people through his tour of the islands and his visits to the plantations. This is carefully set aside a retelling of the story of the killing of Cook, one of Hawaii’s first blows against Western imperialism in the Pacific. However, Twain is not really interested in a story of economic exploitation in the empire (this would come later in his work). He is acutely aware at this point of the culture wars, between the missionaries and Hawaiian society. We meet, for instance, Christian converts but no plantation workers.

Early American Honolulu

Early American Honolulu

Mark Twain: “The Innocents Abroad” (1869): Part Two

“Gray lizards, those heirs of ruin, of sepulchers and desolation, glided in and out among the rocks of lay still and sunned themselves. Where prosperity has reigned, and fallen; where glory has flamed, and gone out; where beauty has dwelt, and passed away; where gladness was, and sorrow is; where the pomp of life has been, and silence and death brood in its high places, there this reptile makes his home, and mocks at human vanity. His coat is the color of ashes; and ashes are the symbol of hopes that have perished, of aspirations that came to nought, of loves that are buried. If he could speak, he would say, Built temples: I will lord it in their ruins; build palaces: I will inhabit them; erect empires: I will inherit them; bury your beautiful: I will watch the worms at their work; and you, who state here and moralize over me: I will crawl over your corpse at the last.” (387)

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Mark Twain was inspired to write these words by visiting the “Holy Land.” He saw both the decline of the Ottoman empire and the relics of ancient empires that existed in the Levant. In the same section, Mark Twain suggest that the tourists, himself and his companions on the voyage, were not much better than grave robbers or perhaps necrophiliacs in their fetish of these fallen worlds. He uses the term “tomb-desecraters” for his companions, adding that “whithersoever they go they destroy and spare not.” (390)

The second half of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad continues the adventures of the band of mostly Christian tourists on board the Quaker City as they explore all the required sites of the Mediterranean. After braving their way through France and Italy (including a risky venture to the known dangerous Mt. Vesuvius). They prepared to head to Russia and the Ottoman Empire, two empires frequently at war. Thankfully they survive all of this and return home safely have their experiences documented by the then obscure Western writer Twain. They will live on in history as some of the great explorers of the nineteenth century.

The dark cloud over The Innocents Abroad is the end of wild spaces. Even the apparently underpopulated regions of the Ottoman Empire that they visited were prepared for the tourists, with all the necessary wares, transportation modes, and proper sites. I suppose it is much worse today, as Holy Land tourism is booming. Twain acknowledges the tedium of tourism when the Quaker City reached a Russian city (Odessa I think), where there was nothing important to see according to the guide books. Of course, this created an interesting moment in which they group could enjoy a slightly more authentic day, without having everything planned, arranged, and commercialized. In contrast is the visit to the pyramids where they were surrounded by people eager to take them to the summit. “Of course we were besieged by a rabble of muscular Egyptians and Arabs who wanted the contract of dragging us to the top—all tourists are.” (496)

I rather enjoyed the moments documented by Twain when the ship’s crew got a good laugh at the tourists’ pretentions and self-confidence. These sailors were more likely than the middle and upper class tourists to be real adventurers. After bumping into the Russia royalty while in Southern Russia during their Black Sea component of their tour, the Americans fell into awe of the spectacle of the empire. I never quite understood what Americans (or British for that matter) saw interesting in the British royal family. I suspect that the answer to why—despite an anti-monarchical revolution—Americans still like to gawk at nobility can be found somewhere in this book. Anyway, on the return to the ship, the sailors had some good fun recreating the silly tourists and the feeble attempts impress the Russian nobility. One suspects the sailors had no such desire to lick the boots of those authority figures. They particularly enjoyed mocking the silly address that the tourists wrote. The sailors have a point, as Twain realizes. It did open with the silly: “We are a handful of private citizens of America, travelling simply for recreation,—and unostentatiously, as becomes our unofficial state—and therefore, we have no excuse to tender for presenting ourselves before your Majesty.” (321)

I think there is something quite fascinating about the Ottoman Empire’s relative success at diversity. This was not uncommon in early modern Asian empires (the Manchu Qing and the Mughals had similar ethnic openness), but did run against the trend of nineteenth century European empires based as they were on scientific racism and nationalism. I am less pro-imperial than I am anti-nationalist, and I find the apparent ease at which the Ottomans lived with diversity fascinating and something we can learn from. Twain certainly noticed that during his visit to Constantinople and other locations in the Empire. At the same time, Twain was impressed with how modern Constantinople seemed to him. He felt the railroad to the city looked out of place.

Twain saves his most depressed commentary on empire for the journey through the Holy Land, which he constantly sees as a tomb, depopulated and abandoned. (Now I know that some ink has been spilled over these descriptions in respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The suggestion has been made, I forgot by whom, that Palestinians are an invented people. That Twain saw so few of them in the 1867 suggests that they were not true occupiers of the region. According to my reading, the region was sparsely populated by a diverse group of people,—“particularly uncomely Jews, Arabs, and negroes”— but I will let the experts go at it). The vision of an impoverished and devastated “Holy Land” is clearest in his descriptions of Magdala, full of “vermin-tortured vagabonds,” beggars, and the crippled. It seems Jesus checked out before he completed his task. These places where which were more “wild” in the sense of being untamed by profit motif are easily seen by tourists as backward and dangerous.

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I found the most powerful moments in this book to be Twain’s often sad commentary on the fate of empires and the relationship of a forward thinking people without history to the past. I am reminded suddenly of the Chinese tourist who defaced an Egyptian artifact. Such a crime is only possible from someone who has lost all connection to their own past and is thus unable to respect the past of the others. But how is it better to fetishize the past? In any case, the defacement of the Egyptian tombs started when they were opened up to tourists, not when the Chinese youth took out his carving knife.

The engraving by a Chinese student

The engraving by a Chinese student

Egypt, Open for business

Egypt, Open for business

 

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.