The fighting words of Mark Twain
20 April 2010
When Mark Twain died 100 years ago, President Taft praised him for bringing pleasure to millions. Taft didn’t mention the sharp political differences: Twain was a fierce opponent of the American imperialism Taft championed. There is more to Mark Twain that most people realise.
Born Samuel Clemens in 1835, he worked in the printing trade before selling articles to newspapers. He moved from town to town, eventually learning to pilot a riverboat. He travelled west and later abroad, writing humorous sketches which he signed “Mark Twain,” a riverboat term meaning two fathoms deep.
In 1876, he made the big-time, publishing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The book was such a success that he embarked on a sequel. This was The Adventurees of Huckleberry Finn, a much more complex work whose politics are still debated. Twain later lost all his money on scams and dubious inventions and had to stage a world tour to pay his debts. Family tragedies also contributed to a saddened old age.
Huckleberry Finn is a landmark in the history of American literature. Critics have called it a “Declaration of Independence” from what they saw as the stuffier style of English novels. Twain wrote a dramatically earthy prose that jumped off the page. But the book’s landmark status is also to do with its characters.
Tom Sawyer is an amiable rascal, ancestor of Bart Simpson. That’s entertaining. But in Huck Finn we have someone far more perturbing and inspiring: a rough-hewn, impulsive, ignorant yet remarkably insightful boy – sceptical about the virtues of respectable society – who manages to resolve serious moral issues within what is still a largely comic framework. This is utterly engrossing.
Kidnapped and abused by his drunken father, the boy fakes his own death and flees civilisation, escaping to an island where he meets Jim, a runaway slave. Many adventures follow. Twain via Huck touches on some deep social and political questions. There are swipes at organised religion, a critique of slavery, and even jabs at royalty through the figures of two con artists, the Duke and the King.
Moreover we have in Jim a literary portrayal of a black person unusually sensitive for its time. Huck and Jim are outlaws, defying the social order. Huck’s social attitudes evolve as the journey unfolds, and Jim gains confidence in himself. Together they yearn for freedom and independence, symbolised by the vast Mississippi river.
As the great African-American writer Ralph Ellison argued in 1991, we shouldn’t equate Twain’s views with those of his characters (for example Huck’s casual use of the word “nigger”). One key point in the book is that Huck is too naive and ignorant to have a coherent critique of society, or to understand the value of his own rebellion. He accepts that slaves are property and fears being labelled a “low-down abolitionist”. For just this reason, it’s an immense achievement for him to help an escaped slave – despite firmly believing this will condemn him to hell.
Twain’s own thinking was by this time very clear. He had authored an anti-lynching newspaper editorial, attacked racist persecution of Chinese, and married into an abolitionist family. Twain was a personal friend of the famous black leader Frederick Douglass; he hated slavery and argued black people should be compensated for it. In his later writings he also showed an understanding of the oppression of Native Americans and other indigenous people, mocking “the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages”.
Generations of Americans like me who grew up on Huckleberry Finn have pondered the race issues. What almost no one knows about is the Anti-Imperialist League, of which Twain was Vice-President. While he had been neutral during the 1860-65 Civil War, the mature Twain was an increasingly radical man. He described his steady move to the left in a note about the French revolution:
"When I finished Carlyle's French Revolution in 1871, I was a [moderate] Girondin; every time I have read it since, I have read it differently – being influenced and changed, little by little, by life and environment ... and now I lay the book down once more, and recognize that I am a [radical] Sansculotte! – And not a pale, characterless Sansculotte, but a Marat."
But it was the brutal American war to seize the Philippines that turned him into an anti-imperialist campaigner. He confessed to having once been a “red hot imperialist”, but declared that on this too, he had changed his mind:
"I had wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific ...Why not spread its wings over the Philippines …We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American Constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves. But I have thought some more… and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem….And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."
In the face of the Philippines war, the greatest satirist of his time archly suggested a new American flag, with the stripes painted black, and skull and crossbones to replace the stars. His criticism wasn’t confined to the US though. Twain condemned imperialism of all stripes.
He couldn’t always find outlets for these radical ideas. Twain’s anti-war story The War Prayer went unpublished until 1923, and remained obscure until activists brought it out during protests against the Vietnam conflict.
Words being his tools of trade, he despised imperialist propaganda – in which politicians planning to invade another country “invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities…and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.” Mark Twain could have been writing about the Bush-Obama onslaught on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Twain fought for women’s suffrage, making a celebrated speech about it. He supported the labour movement, telling a union audience: “Who are the oppressors? The few: the king, the capitalist, and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat.”
And there is more. Though a maverick suspicious of political parties, Mark Twain expressed revolutionary sentiments. From an initial sympathy for the Russian tsar, Twain changed his views on this too, announcing at an 1888 public meeting that “were he a Russian he would be a revolutionist”. In the aftermath of the 1905 revolution, he said he was “always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolt.” Fine, fighting words, from one of our great writers.