Saturday, July 10, 2010

Mark Twain, Cranky and Opinionated? Shocking!

For the first time since his death 100 years ago this year, Twain's autobiography will finally be published in unbowdlerized unexpurgated form according to his wishes. The first of three volumes comes out this year. His surviving daughter, who died in 1962, was always anxious about her father's reputation, and so previous publications were heavily edited and arranged in chronological order contrary to Twain's wishes.

I've always been amazed that parents allow, even encourage, their children to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an angry and violent little book. Huck, who is what we would call a street kid today, goes on a river tour of a society thoroughly corrupted in every aspect by slavery. Even the relatively innocent Huck is not untouched by this corruption. The only one who comes across as genuinely pure in heart in the book is the runaway slave, Jim.

Twain wrote in an age with a lot of parallels to our own. Many writers (including me), refer to our time as a "Second Gilded Age." Mark Twain made a very successful career in the first one. That first Gilded Age loved him, but he did not return the affection. If anything, he loathed it. Then as now, the United States was largely a corporate oligarchy run by a handful of very powerful plutocrats (ambassadors from foreign governments did their real business with JP Morgan, and paid visits to Washington and to the President only out of courtesy). In those days, Congress members boasted about the size of the bribes they accepted; today, the media does that for them. The plutocrats smoking cigars and drinking brandy at Delmonico's had Herbert Spencer (who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" so often mis-attributed to Darwin) to congratulate them on their success and their superiority. Today, the late Ayn Rand and her followers play the Herbert Spencer role. Christianity then mostly played the same role that it does now, less as prophetic critic of the established order than as cheerleader and enforcer of that order. Then as now, we fought imperial wars with largely immigrant soldiers in an all volunteer military (in the Philippines against the Hucks in the wake of the Spanish American War, and in the international expedition in China to put down the Boxers).

Twain hated it all, and made no secret of it. He was an angry liberal before his time. He opposed the Spanish American War as a war of imperial conquest. He opposed the occupation of the Philippines, openly supporting the Huck rebels (I can only imagine what he would have to say about Iraq and Afghanistan). Twain was unsparing in his attacks on the plutocracy of his day. Even more daringly, he opposed the racism and anti-semitism that were the orthodoxy of the day (and would remain so to the middle of the 20th century). He championed women's equality at a time when women did not yet have the vote. He tirelessly supported the cause of labor. Unlike many other intellectuals (especially public ones), Twain's views grew more radical with age, not less.

Like all great satirists, anger drives his humor. Sometimes that anger flashes and crackles into the open in works like The War Prayer. In our age of "managed" news from the war fronts, and war-as-video-game, its message is perhaps even sharper.

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of their guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste to their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble contrite hearts. Amen."

I read this on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.


susan s. said...

Want it!

JCF said...

Twain's War Prayer is surely one of the ten greatest works in (US) American lit . . . if not all the English language! [The TRUTH that's always forgotten in the Rah-rah-rush to war... or even now, as Afghanistan goes on and on and on. Oh look: we just killed another half dozen unarmed civilians there. {Yawn}, turn page... (I mean, {Yawn} click link to another page)]

Unknown said...

I cannot wait to read the first book!

His honesty in that prayer is refreshing. I wish some would see the reality of war for our young men and women.

rick allen said...

We can only welcome the unexpurgated autobiography, but I doubt that we will thereby come to meet a more cynical, acerbic, or bitter figure than the one already abundantly before the public in Twain's other late writings.

It has always been painful to me to see Twain's cheerful irreverence and sharp social conscience leading him into a late nihilism. What must be the interior state of a satirist who is convinced that his satire will not and cannot change anything? How can one both be outraged at what men do and convinced that men are essentially machines? I don't think it diminishes his greatness, and it certainly doesn't lessen the accuracy of his political and social judgments. But it gives his later life an inner tragedy corresponding to the public tragedies that so dogged his later years. Knowing what I know of him, and having read what I have read, I don't know if I could even bear to read this.

Twain said of Huckleberry Finn that, above all else, he had a good heart. So does Twain, and even at his darkest he can't totally obscure it, and that, to me, is his saving grace.

Counterlight said...

It's hard to imagine a man of conscience who lived through the corruption of slavery and then saw the corruption of wealth embraced and celebrated without question, how such a man could not come to bitter conclusions.

At least he remained true to the end. He didn't follow the well-worn path of so many British public intellectuals from Wordsworth to Christopher Hitchens; from angry young radical to pillar of the establishment. Like William Blake, Twain remained true to a prophetic moral vision to the end.

ginny s. said...

Great post on Twain! Thanks for reminding us of his work and contributions.