Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays: 1871–1879

The 1870s were productive years for Mark Twain, but not too active in the short fiction he started his career with. Having settled in Hartford Connecticut, he spend the decade working on some of his most well-known works: Roughing It, The Gilded Age, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Tramp Abroad. While several of these were not published until the 1880s, he was working hard on them. At the same time he remained engaged in politics, extensive travel, and lecturing. Reading the chronology of his life, we learn that Twain was very engaged in the publishing of his books, often changing publishers or contracts to improve income, and public life, often taking in visitors. His output is impressive. The collected short writings for the decade, much of it speeches, fits into 200 pages.


Mark Twain was a brilliant hacker. There is a piece that suggests his method. In 1875 he had “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” translated into French and then back into English. The results are humorous enough. It seems that he is doing the same thing, translating his wit through the period’s various assumptions and values such as scientism, pretentious public speaking, and journalism. I want to focus today on his fascinating with science. It was not really there in his writings from the 1860s but it comes up again and again in the 1870s. Twain was fascinated by technology and science. He wasted millions (in present dollars) on investments. And while not blindly optimistic (more on this when we look at A Conn. Yankee), he was interested in the way scientists presented their ideas and the assumptions they made about their audience and reality. It is hard not to read his hacks of scientism without feeling skepticism about the claims of scientists. I think we need a voice like Twain’s to mediate in the climate change debates.

A collection of Twain's sketches, released in 1875

A collection of Twain’s sketches, released in 1875

One of his more playful teases of scientism comes in “The Danger of Lying in Bed” warning that beds are much more dangerous than trains because so many thousands more die on their bed. More rich are “A Brace of Brief Lectures on Science” which juxtaposed the confidence of paleontologists about he lives of “Primeval Man” with the apparent ignorance of Twain’s contemporaries in solving a simple case of murder. I do think he is genuinely fascinated with the scientific process, how knowledge is expanded and gained, but is aware that it is a dynamic and changing processes, where knowledge is not static. “Science is as sorry as you are that this year’s science is no more like last year’s science than last year’s was like the science of twenty years gone by. But science cannot help it. Science is full of change. Science is progressive and eternal.” (538) All humor and doubt aside, this is a beautiful observation. And I do not mean this in the way of climate change denialists, but in the sense of someone who is eager to learn of new discoveries. (Some of which may change the rigid definitions of what it even means to be human, and therefore knock off one more set of chains.) Along the same theme is “Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls in Three Parts,” which is about sentient animals digging up and learning about long dead human societies. About mid-way through this set of fables the arrogance of scientism is laid bare. “Surrounding these fossils were objects that would mean nothing to the ignorant, but to the eye of science they were a revelation. They laid bare the secrets of dead ages. . . . We believe that man had a written language. We know that he indeed existed at one time, and is not a myth; also, that he was the companion of the cave bear, the mastodon, and other extinct species; that he cooked and ate them and likewise the young of his own kind, also, that he bore rude weapons, and knew something of art; that he imagined he had a soul.” (625–627)

Twain had a similar approach to the general economism and money-grubbing of what he would coin “the gilded age.” In “The Facts in the Case of George Fisher, Deceased” he documents how a single family milked the government of thousands, generation after generation, for the possible 1813 burning of the family farm during Indian wars. Summed up in “The Revised Catechism” this ethic that reduced everything to a dollar amount and created an economy of robbing the guy next to you is: “Money is God. Gold and greenbacks and stock—father, son, and the ghost of the same—three persons in one: these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme; and William Tweed is his prophet.” (539)

My favorite short piece in this set was “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” about a man who is able to exile his conscience. By doing so, the narrator is able to become a superman of the age. “Out of this with your paupers, your charities, your reforms, your pestilent morals! You behold before you a man whose life-conflict is done, whose soul is at peace; a man whose heart is dead to sorrow, dead to suffering, dead to remorse, a man WITHOUT A CONSCIENCE! In my joy I spare you, though I could throttle you and never feel a pang!.” (660) He uses his powers to enter into a murder spree, but is ready to profit by it by selling bodies to medical colleges. Such was the brutality of the conscience-less gilded age.

I think people should also take a look at “The Great Revolution in Pitcairn,” which uses the Bounty mutineers as a metaphor for social development and revolutionary turmoil. It concludes that no amount of reform can redeem tyranny. The call of the tyrant at the end of the story is that of all states in the face of the angered masses. “I freed you from a grinding tyranny; I lifted you up out of your degradation, and made you a nation among nations; I gave you a strong, compact, centralized government; and, more than all, I have you the blessing of blessings,­—unification. I have done all this, and my reward is hatred, insult, and these bonds.” (720)

Nice Librivox recording of “The Great Revolution in Pitcairn.”

I will return to Mark Twain’s short writings after a while, but for now I have to tackle some of his longer works. In order, they will be: Roughing It, The Gilded Age, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Life on the Mississippi.

Algis Budrys, “Who?” (1958)

Continuing with the Library of America‘s survey of the “golden age of science fiction,” (collected in two volumes) I read Algis Budry’s Who?  I am struck, after looking at a few of these, how short most of these novels are.  Yes, there are a handful of longer novels from this genre, but the 150-200 page standard seems to dominate.  The vast majority of Philip K. Dicks novels are around 150-200 pages, and contain 12-15 chapters.  I guess this is due to the genre’s connection to magazines or the assumed juvenile audience.  In any case, we should not let this distract us from the brilliance contained in some of these works.  They are short, and yes they often fail to fully develop the ideas they introduce, but they nevertheless have messages for us.  Most of these messages and questions remain useful to us.  Who? asked three major questions.  How does technology shape who we are?  How does technology (and technocracy) undermine our human relations?  And, how – in the modern era – do institutions take the role in defining us, undermining our capacity for self-identification?


Plot: The Cold War divided the world between the Western allies and the Soviet bloc.  Tensions lead to strictly maintained borders, spying, covert plans for weapons developments, and the incorporation of scientists into the state, war-making apparatus.  A scientist, Martino, is captured by the Soviets after an explosion in his lab.  He was working on a top-secret (and never fully defined) weapons system called K-88.  Martino is returned to the allies months later, with a bionic arm and a metal mask – all necessary to repair the damage caused by the explosion.  The allies task is to now discover if the “man” is Martino.  Actually there are three options.  (1) He is Martino and is capable of resuming work on K-88, without risk to the project.  (2)  He is Martino but brainwashed and therefore now a Soviet spy.  (3) Martino is dead or in Soviet control and this “Man” is an expert spy.  Experiments follow for months.  They are unable to determine with any clarity who the “Man” is, although he professes to be Martino.  Even attempts to follow him, observe his life, and make a psychological diagnosis fail, especially when it is learned that an old college roommate of his was a Soviet spy and the “Man” may very well be that old roommate, making use of all the knowledge about Martino he accumulated – including old girlfriends.  The government gives up and “Martino” retires to be a farmer.  An attempt is made to bring him out of retirement but “Martino” refuses and in the end announces that he is not Martino at all.  Whether this is a biological designation of a result of his changed lifestyle is not clearly stated.  Flashbacks to Martino’s previous life and his time in Soviet custody do not answer the novels’ central plot questions.  All three options are possible at the close of the novel.

Technology and Identity: The significant problem is that technology has separated Martino from the outside world and made it impossible for others to recognize, trust, or interact with him.  “Martino” makes his final claim to be someone else is true.  He is no longer a scientist.  He is isolated from his work and loved ones.  He has taken up a job as a farmer.  “I’m not a physicist.  I’m a farmer.  I can’t do that stuff any more!” (671)  This is a frighting and liberating realization.  As I explored before with the question of desertion in Melville’s work, we often look at our life and express fear at alternatives because they are unknown.  We prefer the slavery of a marriage, a mortgage, a job to autonomy.  To the degree we are our place in society, we fear any alternative.  Martino was forced to find an alternative, weeding crops and applying fertilizer.  His technological upgrades and shortened lifespan forced him into isolation.  In a way he is lucky.  Who would want to return to the shenanigans of Cold War science and weapon’s development?  Martino, when he was a scientist, could think of nothing better to do.  Technology, by defacing him, provided him an escape.  It is also important to note he did not become the technology.  So much cyberpunk and fears about cell-phones and Facebook rest on the assumption that the technology defines us.  This only worked partially for Martino.  Ironically, the mechanization of his body allowed him to become a low-tech farmer.

Technology and Human Relations:  Where technology did negatively affect “Martino” was in his inability to interact in the same way with former colleagues, lovers, friends.  If his identify changed, it was through the abolition of the human dimensions of his life.

The State and Self-Identification: When we identify ourselves and someone else says “Not so fast!” we come face to face with the horror of modernity.  “Martino” declared himself the scientist Martino but without independent verification his claims were a lie.  For the plot, this is just a reflection of Cold War paranoia, but I want to go farther with it.  Our value in society is derivative of our value to the state or capital.  By extension our self-identity matters less than what can be objectively proven and utilized.  “Martino” was only valuable as a scientist, of course.  The other matters of his life only came into view when they could be used to establish his identity.  We all experience this phenomenon during job interviews, border crossings, and banks.  In the not so distant past, Inquisitions simply could not accept ones proclamations as true.  The entire concept of the inquisition was the inability of individuals to be authentically Christian without external verification.  Nation-states do not allow individual identity.  No, identify for the nation-state is a product of education, shared folklore, common language, or a shared history.

Who? does much more than warn us about how technology can change who we are.   Budrys’ real concern is the phenomenon of other people defining us.  In the bipolar world where your values are a product of which side of a line you are on, it is made clear, but it happens to all of us in our working lives.  This is why our resumes tell us what other people should value in ourselves.  They are, of course, incapable of saying who we are.  And we fall into this trap every time someone asks us “What do you do?” and we reply with a job title.

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.