One hundred years since the death of Mark Twain
22 April 2010
April 21 marked 100 years since the death of Mark Twain, one of the greatest American writers in history. Twain (1835-1910) was a brilliant satirist, a comic genius, and a master at capturing the sound and rhythm of American vernacular in so many of its nineteenth century varieties.
It is not possible in a single, relatively brief article to examine Twain’s life and writings in the manner they deserve. This is an enormous subject, full of complexities and contradictions. During his lifetime, the writer experienced great acclaim and success, along with financial bankruptcy and bouts of terrible personal tragedy.
One of the great comic writers of all time, one of the few who provoke the reader to laugh out loud, “what burned in him,” suggested the editor of his papers, Bernard De Voto, “was a hatred of cruelty and injustice,” as well as a “deep sense of human evil, and a recurrent accusation of himself. Like Swift he found himself despising man while loving Tom, Dick, and Harry so warmly that he had no proper defense against the anguish of human relations.”
Twain’s life spanned a remarkable period. He was born only 50 years after the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War—when many veterans of the independence struggle were still alive—in Missouri, at the time still frontier territory. Twain lived to see the US undergo a bitter Civil War, develop its industrial might and emerge full-blown as an imperialist power on the eve of World War I. …
Briefly in the Confederate ranks in the Civil War, Twain unquestionably accumulated a deep antipathy for slavery. “A True Story,” a remarkable short story published in 1874, is told from the point of view of a black woman, a former slave. “Aunt Rachel,” now a servant, informed by her complacent employer that she seems to have lived 60 years and “never had any trouble,” turns on him and recounts how, in fact, she was separated from her husband and children by a slave auction, and only united with one of her sons after 22 years. Novelist and editor William Dean Howells, who published it in the Atlantic, told Twain that he thought the story “extremely good and touching and with the best and reallest kind of black talk in it.” (Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, Justin Kaplan) …
Twain wrote The United States of Lyncherdom, a significant essay published posthumously (in 1923), in outrage over the 1901 lynching of three black men in Pierce City, Missouri. In the piece, the author counters the claim that the people constituting the lynch mob approved and enjoyed the torturous killings. Rather, the crowds acquiesced for fear of scorn by their peers. In a plaintive suggestion to end these killings—then totaling more than a hundred per year in the US—Twain wrote: “[P]erhaps the remedy for lynchings comes to this: station a brave man in each affected community to encourage, support, and bring to light the deep disapproval of lynching hidden in the secret places of its heart—for it is there, beyond question.” …
Another fascinating episode in Twain’s life was his sojourn in Vienna from September 1897 to May 1899. It is not possible to do justice here to this period in the author’s life (which is the subject of an excellent book, Our Famous Guest: Mark Twain in Vienna by Carl Dolmetsch). But it should be briefly noted that from Vienna, Twain wrote articles for the American press denouncing the anti-Semitism of the ruling party and articulating a warm sympathy for and appreciation of the Jews who were the subject of widespread persecution. …
If there is a misanthropic vein in Twain’s humor, especially his later humor, it should be seen in the context of these personal difficulties and tragedies, as well as his growing disillusionment with the political and social trajectory of the United States.
Believing initially in the mission of the US government to “spread democracy,” Twain first supported American military intervention in the Philippines during the Spanish-American war. By 1901, however, Twain wrote that he had changed his view diametrically and concluded that the whole campaign had been waged “to conquer, not to redeem.” He went on to become the vice-president of the American Anti-Imperialist League.
Most media treatments of Twain’s life and career shy away from his increasingly critical and radical pronouncements on American society and political life toward the end of his life. Twain had witnessed the transformation of the young American bourgeois democracy into a modern power. Revolted by US imperialism at its birth, Twain became an outspoken critic. The bourgeois press of today does not wish to be reminded, nor to remind anyone else, of this critical element of Twain’s life.
A similar process shows itself at work in regard to Twain’s anti-religious writings.
Initially inclined towards a form of deism, Twain essentially rejected all organized religion and subjected religious conceptions to withering criticisms, especially in his later work. Even his relatively early writings like Innocents Abroad and Tom Sawyer take a fairly irreverent and humorous view of theological matters. But his later writings, especially Letters from Earth (written in 1909, but not published until 1962 owing to his surviving daughter’s apprehension), take a bold and combative turn. In the Letters, Twain has Satan describe with great amusement the self-satisfaction of mankind who “thinks he is the Creator’s pet” even though the reality is that, “[w]hen he is at his very very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at is worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable….” …
When considering Mark Twain a hundred years after the fact, one cannot help wondering what he would have to say about the America of 2010. One can only imagine his shock and dismay at the way in which the malignant social and political tendencies that he had observed in their relative infancy had metastasized.
What an abundance of targets present themselves! The well-heeled hypocrites and liars in the White House and Congress, the relentlessly avaricious corporate aristocrats, the patriotic editors justifying a resurgence of colonialism, the millionaire preachers with their put-on piety, the fake, smiling face of television anchors, the charlatanry of the “self-help” experts and all the other fleecers of the population’s pockets—all of it ripe for, in Twain’s phrase, “a pen warmed up in hell”! Where are his heirs today?
On May 2, 1935 the Sakdalista movement launched an uprising in the Central Luzon region of the Philippines. The peasant-based rebellion opposed an oppressive system of land ownership that enriched a small elite while leaving masses of tenant farmers in poverty. It also demanded the independence of the Philippines from the United States: here.