Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories” (1988)

After a long and mostly pleasurable journey I have finished with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collected stories. I started reading them over a year ago when I first started this blog. The Death of Methuselah was the last of his short story collections, published just three years before his death. It was his tenth collection. As impressive as his stories are, he also published numerous novels and wrote plays and screenplays. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his achievements in 1978. I could not find his Stockholm Speech (the English one anyway), but here is a short address given at the University at Albany, where I got my terminal degree.

He was quite famous outside of the Yiddish reading community—which was diminishing if we believe some of his comments on this in his stories—at the end of his life thanks to the Nobel Prize and a 1986 documentary film Isaac in America. When he died he was 88 years old and still an active writer.

The stories in The Death of Methuselah look and feel like many of his others, although I did notice an even more intense consideration of the question of misplaced and problematic love. He also became more fond of a narration style, where the narrator is only the observer. Most the stories in this collection put the narrator as part of the audience. This gives the feel of oral histories. Of course this makes the stories themselves less trustworthy from the reader’s point of view, but it does get a bit tedious. I came to see the narrator as a single person (Singer himself, I suppose) going through life listening and recording what he heard without embellishment or elaboration. This also gives the collection a feeling of liquidity that I have gotten used to from him. Of course, Singer was devastated by the destruction of the Jewish communities of his homeland and the Holocaust is always in the backdrop. We are constantly reminded that we are talking to the lucky survivors and that most of the people discussed in memory are likely dead.

Take the following dialog from “A Peephole in the Gate,” my favorite in this collection:

“I know Eve is no longer alive. She must have perished in the Nazi slaughter. Even if she were alive she would be a tottering old woman by now. But in my mind, she is still a young girl and Bolek, the janitor’s son, is still a young boy and the gate is still a gate. I lie awake at night, not able to sleep a wink, and I burn up with rage at Eve. Sometimes I regret that I did not hit her harder. I know that I would have married her if I hadn’t looked through the peephole that night. Her father wanted to arrange the wedding in a hall. A carriage would have been sent for her, and Bolek would have been standing there winking and laughing.”

“It may be,” I said, “that if you didn’t look through the peephole that evening you would never have gone to America. You and Eve and your children would all have been burned in Auschwitz or tortured to death in some other concentration camp.”

“Yes, I thought about that too. One look through a peephole and your whole life is changed. . . . What does all this mean? That everything is nothing but a miserable accident.” (651–652)

So, we are back to the question of disaster, mobility, liquidity and fate. How is a solid approach to life possible when the world shifts under our feet? How can we plan or even dream of a future in such a situation? I am finding this to be the central concern of Singer’s work and it was becoming stronger near the end of his life.

Methuselah, a Biblical figure notable for his long life of over 900 years, is presented as a stable figure in a rapidly changing world. Even his illicit love for Naamah is strangely enduring. Like the speaker in “A Peephole in the Gate,” Methuselah’s inaccessible love lives in the realm of ideas. Methuselah is out of time, so aloof from what is going on around him that he cannot tell the difference between his slaves and his grandchildren (he had sired both groups). Yet, he is in a liquid world that seems to have several parallels with modern America.

Methuselah knew that the earth was immense and rich, yet now he could it from on high—mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, fields, forests, orchards, and plants of all kinds. While he, Methuselah, ate, slept and dreamed, the sons of Adam had built towns, villages, roads, bridges, houses, towers, sailboats. Naamah flew with him into Cain’s city, which teemed with horsemen and pedestrians, as well as stores and workshops of all sorts. Methuselah saw many people of various races and colors: white, black, and brown. They had built temples to serve their gods. Bells were ringing. Priests sacrificed animals on altars, sprinkled blood on their corners, burned fat and incense. Soldiers with swords hanging from their hips and spears on their backs bound captives in chains, tortured them, and killed them. (728–729)

In all of these changes, Methuselah was a passive observer. This must have been how Singer and those of his generation felt. Singer’s efforts to document and understand the village life of his youth is symbolized in the everlasting figure of Methuselah. He can look on the rapid changes but he cannot be part of them. As Singer summarized, Methuselah knew the past and had a glimpse of the future.

grave

Certainly, Isaac Bashevis Singer was a conservative writer who looked unfavorably on rapid change and radical thought. This conservatism grew over his lifetime and was certainly shaped by the traumas of the twentieth century. The few pictures we get of anarchists and other leftist activists are not very attractive and focus on either the hypocrisy of their ideas or the rapid evaporation of their significance. He certainly seemed to develop a contempt for irreligious Jews (even if his own beliefs were far from orthodox). But, if we think tradition had any place in the future we hope to build, Singer has something to teach us. More importantly, he believed that no matter how mixed up the world has become the relationships between people—even broken or dysfunctional relationships—are what make us human. Better a series of ruined marriages than isolation. Better a libertine than a hermit. Better a living tradition (full of mystery and wonder) than dead traditions—the living traditions seem to weigh less on our backs.

Advertisements

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Old Love” (1979)

As in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s other short story collections, Old Love is thematically diverse but largely confined to the experiences of the Jewish Disapora, being set either in pre-war Poland or in the United States. The most common character is someone like Singer, an aging scholar or writer who emigrated to the United States and enjoys rising fame. Singer himself was never a radical, although many of his themes touch on the struggle for locating human freedom within familial, institutional and cultural confines. In the introduction to Old Love he writes on what he sees as the major theme uniting this collection of stories.

cover2

The love of the old and middle-aged is a theme that is recurring more and more in my work of fiction. Literature has neglected the old and their emotions. The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience. Furthermore, while many of the young believe that the world can be made better by sudden changes in social order and by bloody and exhausting revolutions, most older people have learned that hatred and cruelty never produce anything by their own kind. The only hope of mankind is love in its various forms and manifestations.

singer

Now, while I certainly agree with the first point and would submit that much suffering would be removed from the world if marriages entered into by people in their 20s expired after five years. The centrality of young people to romantic comedies is ridiculous beyond measure to anyone who actually gone through a dozen relations in as many years (especially the happily ever after parts). I do not think the logical conclusion of this is to reject youthful revolt, and his claim that revolt against the social order is always bloody and exhausting. I think Singer’s own evidence reveals a great number of older people in revolt against the central institution of their lives: family and marriage. Despite wanting to approach the theme of love among older people, we find it quite elusive and frustrated.

cover

Take for instance the first story in the collection, “One Night in Brazil.” The narrator visits an intellectual friend and finds his friend married an old acquaintance from Warsaw. She claims she has been possessed by a dybbuk. The husband goes off with a girlfriend. Lena, the woman, attempts to seduce the narrator but they are consumed by mosquitoes, return home full of bugs and blood. They wash it off in a grotesque scene just as the husband returns. We see in this story the themes of serial monogamy, the resultant alienation in marriage (seemingly made worse by the third or fourth attempt) and a strange pining for lost love. If this is an attempt at love among the old, the next story “Yochna and Schmelke” is about young people. Yochna is raised pious and arranged to marry Scmelk through her father. The story discusses the early feelings of Yochna during the marriage, especially the wedding night and its rituals. Contrary to tradition Scmelke left on the holy days with his father in law. The later returns, with the other assumed lost. She is abandoned and pregnant, because she cannot remarry if they do not find a body. Of course, this is not unlike marriages once they pass the honeymoon which quickly become corpses.

“The Psychic Journey” explores the banality of marriage, the attraction to novelty and the desire for companionship in late capitalist marriages that often keep couples separated. A psychic connection provides some hope for a more meaningful relationship. The narrator meets a woman interested in the occult while feeding birds. They begin a friendship based on mutual interests. It turns out she has been watching him and following his work and interests.  They take a trip together to Israel at the time the 1976 war breaks out. She abandons him. After the trip, he stops seeing Margaret and reunites with wife, Dora. He tells her he went to California, never mentioning the trip to Israel although Dora was in Tel Aviv at the time of their illicit trip. He later learns that Margaret has started psychic business in New York leading him to confess his trip with the strange woman.

Readers can easily come away from this collection with a feeling that married couples are required to scheme to keep sane, crafting elaborate images of each other or themselves just to keep the facade of the institution together. In “The Bus,” Singer uses the device of changing seats on a tour bus in Spain to allow the narrator to see two sides of each couple. Here is how one married couple talks about each other:

One good trait she did have—she could attact a man. Sexually, she was amazingly strong. I don’t believe myself that I am speaking of these things—in my circles, talk of sex is taboo. But why? Man thinks of it from cradle to grave. She has a powerful imagination, a perverse fantasy. I’ve had experiences with women and I know. She has said things to me that drove me to frenzy. She has more stories in her than Scheherazade. Our days were cursed, but the nights were wild. . .

Nothing is left me except my imagination. He drained my blood like a vampire. He isn’t sexually normal. He is a latent homosexual—not so latent—although when I tell him this he denies it vehemently. He only wants to be with men, and when we still shared a bedroom he spent whole nights questioning me about my relationships with other men. I had to invent affairs to satisfy him. Late, he threw these imaginary sins up to me and called me filthy names. (214–216)

Well, if Singer is after a description of love among middle-aged people, he may have succeeded in convincing me that as we get older our relationships get only more sociopathic and absurd. Maybe there is some wisdom in this. There are limits to how much any one of us can overturn our cultural and social baggage. This must explain the remarriage rates. Rationally, a marriage as a youthful mistake makes since, but remarriage must be insanity (more than once Since shows affairs to have the same banalities of regular relationships). But if for whatever reason staying is impossible and one finds themselves back into relationships, perhaps a bit of playful fatalism is the best we can hope for. But always beware that the strange sleeping next to you may burn your life’s work, decide to put a knife in your chest, or become possessed by the spirits of the dead. This is all to be expected.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Passions” (1975)

I have gone out of the habit of writing. One day a Hitler comes and burns books. The next day it’s a Stalin who demands that all poets exalt his murders. New tyrants will emerge and they will destroy the literature of the world. Since sex is only for two—and sometimes even for one—why must poetry be for many? I am my own bard. Sometimes when I used to lie with Getzele in bed, we held a poetic duet. Well, but two can also be too many. L’chayim. (737)

singer

I am taking another stab at Isaac Bashevis Singer. I do not quite know why he has provided such difficulty for me, more than any other author in the Library of America series. It is not because of the themes, which actually are much in line with this blog. Singer’s characters are often on the move, challenging or controlled by their tradition and institutions in their life. As in his other story collections, Passions, published in 1975, is set either in pre-World War II Poland or in the United States (mostly New York City) in the middle of the century. These twenty stories reflect the experiences of the Jewish Diaspora in the twentieth century, often resulting in extremely lonely, isolated, alienated characters carrying heavy burdens of history (sometimes personal sometimes of the Holocaust). Many of these characters are college professors, writers, or teachers at some level of conflict with the Jewish tradition. Transgression, as a means of escaping these burdens is often an option, but Singer’s characters rarely pursue this path without hesitation or tragic consequences. Nevertheless, Singer is never willing to reject entirely the transgressive option. We can also assume that these writings are heavily autobiographical, either deriving from Singer’s childhood and youth in Poland or his professional success in New York.

cover

Many of his characters exist in a sort of spiritual or social death, often despite success. A general state of paralysis and indifference exists over the lives of several characters people. In “Old Love,” Harry Bendiner lives a lonely life between Miami and New York. He even confesses, when looking at the development in Miami that: “once you pass eighty, you’re as good as a corpse.” (584) He meets a widowed woman who shuffles through life in much the same way. She speaks of her daughter and this almost inspires Harry to seek her out in British Columbia, but the story ends with the same oppressive burden of paralysis that it began with.

Throughout Passions and Other Stories mobility does little to prevent this feeling. People can move around all they want (or sometimes as a result of outside pressure) but they either return home, fall back into new banal patterns, or simply find themselves more isolated and alone than they felt back in their home towns.  Clearly family is one of the burdens that traps people into a place, but it is often no more powerful that ideology. Modernism is a common issue in Singer’s stories, creating young modern Jews who seek out a modern world in the city, often finding only loneliness and isolation.

The story “Errors” points out how oppressive the traditional family can be, showing that there is not a clear preference in his writings for tradition or for modernity. Both can be ultimately alienating. In this story, the patriarchal Zablocki stands out as a symbol for traditional filial oppression, violently abusing both the farm hands and his wife, who he “tormented to death.” (599) Zablocki was finding his domain slowly evaporated by modernity, symbolized in his tendency to lose lawsuits. “The New Year Party” gives a brief glimpse into how migration forced shifting family relations, often disempowering patriarchs. Although a positive development, Singer wants to point out how distributing and alienating the change could be. In that story, Pearl’s father lost his moral authority over his family in part due to being forced to work on the Sabbath and seeing his daughter become attracted to leftism and atheism. The man she eventually married kept patriarchal privilege (suggested through his domination of the family and his serial adultery), while being nominally politically progressive.

The signs of modernity are everywhere, besieging the traditional moral communities that Singer grew up in. The following passage is from “A Tutor in the Village.”

The peasants were becoming enlightened. The young generation wanted leather boots, not makeshift shoes of rags and bark. They wanted shingled roofs, not thatch. They girls wanted to dress in the city style. Witos, the leader of the peasant party in the Sejm, sent speakers to Kocica, who lectured to the peasants on their needs. The Communists, too, had their agitators. (693)

This is repeatedly the cause of the dislocation and alienation that the characters often feel. This is not something we should necessarily worry too much about. For many of the men, what is being lost are patriarchal privileges rooted in the family and in tradition. Others did not have much of this power to begin with, but they were losing their voice. Many of the characters are writers and thinkers and speakers working in esoteric traditions that simply lose much of their power when facing the modern world. An idiosyncratic theologian may still have a place in a village, but in New York City or Israel or Miami he is forced into conformity or risk total alienation. “Modern civilization wipes out all individuality.” (750)

My three favorite stories in this collection are “The Witch,” “The Admirer,” and “The Fatalist.” “The Witch” is about a widower and math teacher who becomes strangely infatuated with an ugly, stupid former student of his. He begins a relationship with her, a relationship that he is ashamed to confess publically, but only after learning that she may be a witch and cursed his wife to die of cancer. This can be read literarily, that he was bewitched. But a more promising reading is that the man was declaring his independence from social expectations. The young woman’s ugliness is an objective, not a subjective fact. She is ugly and stupid in her eyes based on social expectation. The death of his wife helped liberate him from these expectations. “The Admirer” is an odd tale about a writer who gets a visit from a fan, who is exposed through a series of phone calls from her estranged husband and her mother to be crazy. It is another case where a lonely intellectual is prevented from possible companionship through external expectations about what is normal and proper (enforced in this case through telephone calls). “The Fatalist” is just a fun story about a believer in fate who wins a girl by taking his belief in fate to its logical conclusions.

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1906–1910

Who devised the blood? Who devised the wonderful machinery which automatically drives its renewing and refreshing streams through the body, day and night, without assistance or advice from the man? Who devised the man’s mind, whose machinery works automatically, interests itself in what is pleases, regardless of his will or desire, labors all night when it likes, deaf to his appeals for mercy? God devised all these things. I have not made man a machine, God made him a machine. I am merely calling attention to the fact, nothing more. It is wrong to call attention to a fact? Is it a crime?

The last five years of Mark Twain’s life were devoted to religious speculation. Most of his published and unpublished writings from this period focused on two related arguments, both of which are developed most formally in “What is Man?” The first of these is about the lack of human agency (“man as a machine”). The second argument is about the basic self-interest of human and the impossibility of real selflessness. These are essentially related because Twain believed that humans were by nature and design selfish and could not choose to be altruistic. This extends the problem of evil in an interesting way. God is the direct cause of human evil as the creator of a flawed animal.

“What is Man?” was published during Twain’s lifetime, but not under his name. It is presented in the form of an extended dialogue between an old man and a young man. The young man is idealistic and a believer in selflessness, individual merit, and freedom. The old man breaks down all of these concepts by showing that people are machines with set natures, like animals, and do all things out of selfishness. Even the charitable person, who gives his last cent to a poor woman is doing this either for self-satisfaction or for the praise of others. The dialogue ends with the young man pleading to the old man never to publish his ideas, as they will have a horrible effect on human society.

These arguments are very troubling to libertarians, but these are ideas that need to be taken on, especially since people have been making compelling arguments that free will may be a myth. What meaning can liberty have when free will is an illusion? Often these arguments can be used to justify the state, prisons, police, and asylums. We require protection from our fallen nature. The best we can hope for is freedom in the form of amor fati, acceptance and love of fate.

What this argument does give us is a rejection of hero worship and the claim that the wealthy and powerful are somehow worthy or more deserving of their share of the world’s bounty.

Personal merit? No. A brave man does not create his bravery. He is entitled to no personal credit for possessing it. It is born to him. A baby born with a billion dollars—where is the personal merit in that? A baby born with nothing—where is the personal demerit in that? That one is fawned upon, admired, worshiped, by sycophants, the other is neglected and despised—where is the sense in it? (737)

Perhaps in this we can extract a type of argument for socialism, since individual merit does not account for individual success. But it does not see very convincing as an argument for freedom.

A second major late work of Twain’s was not published during his life is “Letters from Earth,” which consists of reports by the devil to God about the progression of his creation. It is largely a restatement of “What is Man?” but adds some mockery of Biblical literalism and the manifestation of religion among the humans. He also adds that people seem to take satisfaction in the reality of the problem of evil.

Then, having thus made the Creator responsible for all those pains and diseases and miseries above enumerated, and which he could have prevented, the gifted Christian blandly calls him Our Father! It is as I tell you. He equips the Creator with every trait that goes to the making of a fiend, and then arrives at the conclusion that a fiend and a father are the same thing. (905)

As with his arguments for political hierarchy, Twain believes that humans prefer to be unfree, not responsible, and controlled.

cover

Several months ago, I questioned the utility of cynicism when looking at Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Although Twain is much more thoughtful than Bierce in his lampooning of human nature and human motivations, the result is the same comfortable inaction. Twain is probably aware that he is establishing a self-fulfilling philosophy. By arguing that optimism is an odious immaturity and saying that moral progress is impossible, he justifies inaction and therefore a lack of moral progress. Even if Twain’s cynicism is largely right (at least for humanity since the rise of civilization), his arguments can easily be used to accept the world as it is. While this attitude may have helped give birth to the Duke and the King, it did not create Huck Finn and cannot explain his moral progress and courage.

It seems to me there is little liberty to be gained in attempting to define human nature. Perhaps that is my prejudice as a historian. Even the worst historians can tell you that humans have lived in a great diversity of social structures with a great diversity of values. Mark Twain’s approach in later life, moving from a critique of an expanding and overly optimistic America to a condemnation of all of human, strikes me as rather lazy and without benefit. On this, I am with the young man in “What is Man?”

I will leave this systematic reading of Twain’s works troubled that the same mind that created Huck Finn could leave the world so burdened by cynicism, constantly repeating the argument that man is a selfish machine. I wonder if he had to repeat it so many times to convince himself.

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1901-1905: Displays of Power

To worship rank and distinction is the dear and valued privilege of all the human race, and it is freely and joyfully exercised in democracies as well as in monarchies–and even, to some extent, among those creatures whom we impertinently called the Lower Animals. For even they have some poor little vanities and foibles, though in this matter they are paupers as compared to us. “Does the Race of Man Love a Lord? (514)

The final decade of Twain’s writing reveals the depth of his cynicism and frustration with humanity. The Chinese writer Lu Xun believed these later writers exposed Twain as a misanthrope. At least is reveals his disgust with the world as it is, in all its pettiness and corruption. Lacking in Twain’s view of the world, at least in these later works, is a belief in the potential for human solidarity. Even with Adam and Eve is was difficult to achieve.  In this post, I will look at Twain’s writings from 1901-1905. His major accomplishments from this period include his greatest anti-imperialist writings and the completion of his series of fictional writings of Adam and Eve.

 

The essay, “Does the Race of Man Love a Lord?” brings forth one of the most important questions anarchists need to answer: Why is it so common on human history for one man to oppress thousands or even millions. Twain is not always the most promiscuous with answers to the conditions he critiques, but he does venture one here. He suggests we are very easily seduced by the symbols of power and distinction. Hierarchy creates a situation where any one of us can partake in the “little distinctions.” We accept a big lord because it makes us possibly a little lord.

All the human race loves a lord–that is, it loves to look upon or be noticed by the possessor of Power or Conspicuousness; and sometimes animals, born to better things and higher ideals, descend to man’s level in this matter. In the Jardin des Planets I have seen a cat that was so vain of being the personal friend of an elephant that I was ashamed of her. (523)

The same point is more of less made in “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” in which the Czar confesses that the only thing standing between him and destitution and powerlessness is his clothing. The story consists of a divine right ruler asking the same question so many anti-authoritarians have asked throughout the ages:

A horse with the strength of a hundred men will let one man beat him, starve him, drive him; the Russian millions allow a mere handful of soldiers to hold them in slavery — and these very soldiers are their own sons and brothers! (643-644)

Twain presents a quite convincing argument that it is again the accoutrements of power that matter. We have seen this in The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee, and even Joan of Arc, where Joan does little more than convince the French King that he is rightful (basically giving him a new hat).

Display of power

Display of power

In Twain’s later life, the most grotesque abuse of power was the expansion of the European and American empires across the globe. This inspired his two great anti-imperial essays, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” and “King Leopold’s Soliloquy.” Both are satires addressed to the victims and enemies of empire. The later exposes the vapid and brutal reality of Belgian rule in the Congo, and by presented the defense, he exposes the argument’s weakness. In both articles, the argument presented in favor of empire is also a matter of accoutrements, in this case civilization, business, and Christianity. These are all elements of American presumption that Twain has been at war with for much of his career. What the West was exporting to the rest of the world were precisely its most ridiculous, hypocritical, and anti-social characteristics. As Russia was forced to muse: “It is yet another Civilized Power, with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other. Is there no salvation for us but to adopt Civilization and lift ourselves down to its level?” (465) “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” is a more brutal document, inspired by the exploitation of the Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. King Leopold is presented as a self-conscious man, needed to defend his actions from the public, the press, missionaries, and the English critics. Of course Leopold has a point that his critics often had shameful records of their own and shares with Leopold the view that “Civilization” is so valuable that any degree of violence is acceptance in achieving it. In this way, the argument is not that far from the one in “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” but instead of thee display of power being used to gain popular support for hierarchy, they are being used as a more direct justification. Civilization is the ultimate accoutrement of power in the age of imperialism.

This is their style! I furnish “nothing!” I send the gospel to the survivors; these censure-mongers know it, but they would rather have their tongues cut out than mention it. I have several times required my raiders to give the dying an opportunity to kiss the sacred emblem; and if they obeyed me I have without doubt been the humble means of saving many souls.

By closing the article with King Leopold’s confession, “I know the human race,” we get the sense that Twain connected empire with his earlier questioning of why it was possible for the few to rule the many.

leopold

Twain’s answer to this harsh reality of human nature seems to be Adam and Eve, those original rebels who refused to submit to the lawmakers. The most moving aspect of Twain’s series of tales about the life of Adam and Eve is how they started as strangers with great differences and end up with a profound and convincing solidarity. Adam’s gasp at Eve’s grave sums this up”

Whosesoever she was, there was Eden (709)

Eve’s explanation for their bind was based on difference. She loves him not because of his many good qualities and labors, but because he is masculine and “mine.” We also observe that their relationship is based on incredible struggle and personal trauma: the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This had to be recreated in their relationship and I would like to think exists still in those examples of shared solidarity.

 

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1896–1900

Mark Twain spent the last half decade of the nineteenth century abroad, most of the time, first on a tour of the world (which would become the foundation of the only book he wrote during this period, Following the Equator) and then settling in Vienna. During his tour he lectured, but he seemed to have been more silent while in Vienna, writing little. When he did speak it to protest American foreign policy. After the publication of Following the Equator he became more and more involved in anti-Imperialist politics. This was also a period intense tragedy for Twain, who endured the death of his daughter in 1896. Of the sixteen pieces collected in the Library of America volume for these years, the three most sizable were not published during his lifetime and exist in fragmentary form (“My Platonic Sweetheart,” “Which Was the Dream?” and “The Great Dark”). Some smaller works were also delayed until after Twain’s death: “Man’s Place in the Animal Kingdom” and “A Word of Encouragement for Our Blushing Exiles.” Thus, we have only eleven short pieces, one of which is a poem dedicated to the memory of his daughter Susy and another a short speech introducing Winston Churchill.

As for the works published during his lifetime we find a handful of crucial themes. One of these is Twain’s anti-imperialism. This is the theme of “A Word of Encouragement for Our Blushing Exiles,” which urges the United States not to get involved in the games of national pride and supremacy that motivates European empire-building at the end of the century. There is no reason, Twain points out, to play the game of empire, since the United States has nothing to prove to Europeans, with their ignoble history. “Is it France’s respect that we are going to lose? Is our unchivalric conduct troubling a nation which exists to-day because a brave young girl saved it when its poltroons had lost it—a nation which deserted her as one man when her day of peril came? Is our treacherous assault upon a weak people distressing a nation which contributed to Bartholomew’s Day to human history?” (260–261) In a slightly different way, Twain makes the same point in “Diplomatic Pay and Clothes,” which mocks the expenses of American diplomats and their efforts to impress Europeans with excessive lifestyles. His farewell to the nineteenth century is also a poke at empire. “I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chow, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pockets full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking glass.” (456) “Man’s Place in the Animal Kingdom” works for us as a summary of Twain’s attitude toward humanity. It is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a highlight. “Man is the only animal that robs his helpless fellow of his country—takes possession of it and drives him out of it or destroys him.”

Another theme is the corruption caused by money. This is not a new theme, of course. It runs through his entire critique of the Gilded Age and American capitalism, infused with the corruptive power of money and influence. The most relevant story regarding this is “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg,” which is about a man slighted by a town that prides itself on its purity (even taking the slogan “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.” Corrupting and embarrassing the town is a trifle; the man needs only use a fake bag of gold and a contest. For Twain, the exposure of the corruption is a moment for celebration, because it means that for the first time the town could be honest, evening changing its slogan to the more honest “Lead Us Into Temptation.”

hadleyburg

A third theme is general hucksterism. This is also not a new observation of Twain’s (see the Duke and the King from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), but it has new targets. I suppose the two at issue in these works are anti-Semitism and Christian Science. His essay on anti-Semitism is quite serious. He attempts, and fails, to understand the reasons for European anti-Semitism. (He also is amazed at the longevity of the Jews as a distinct people.) The closest he gets to an answer is that persecution of Jews is another form of hucksterism by non-Jews attempting to explain away their success, while also attempting to grab their piece of their success. “It [the Golden Rule] is strictly religious furniture, like an acolyte, or a contribution-plate, or any of those things. It has never been intruded into business; and Jewish persecution is not a religious passion, it is a business passion.” (369) More humorous to readers is Twain’s takedown on Christian Science (something developed into a later book, for some reason not collected by the Library of America). Their main position was that human existence is ethereal and that illness was strictly an idealistic ailment. Actually, quite an easy idea for someone of Twain’s satiric power to humiliate. Although I fear technocracy for good reason, my anarchism is a product of a scientific view of the world, from the Enlightenment if you will. Today, as in Twain’s day, there are many stupid ideas out there. Some wrong ideas can be liberating, but they would still be wrong. And those wrong ideas could be easily replaced by positions that are both more liberating and more correct. Anarchism does not mean the “liberal” acceptance of every stupid delusion religion.

cover

There are two short stories, published after Twain died: “Which Was the Dream” and “The Great Dark.” Both are very modernist and very personal. “Which Was the Dream” spends much of the time reflecting on a young woman seems to be a reflection of Twain’s recently deceased daughter. I was most touched by its comments on the raising of children and the horrible consequences of introducing military style discipline and education to the home. These lines should be the starting point of any educational program. “The child soon learned that her mother was not a tyrant, but her thoughtful and considerate friend. . . . It is a shameful thing to insult a little child. It has its feelings, it has its small dignity; and since it cannot defend them, it is surely an ignoble act to injure them.” (230) “The Great Dark” is about a man, who imagines himself shrunk down with a whaling crew in order to explore a drop of water. Although a rather dreary tale of the endless, unsatisfying darkness of exploring the unknown, there is a Promethean spark that encourages us to embrace those dangers as we search for something fresh in life. “An ocean in a drop of water—and unknown, uncharted, unexplored by man! BY man, who gives all his time to the Africas and the poles, with this unsearched marvelous world right at his elbow!” (299)

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)

cover

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.

adam

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.