The Mark Twain they didn't teach in school

Mark Twain is taught in countless English classes across the country. But he's seldom remembered for his anti-imperialist, antiracist and revolutionary writing and speeches. In 2000, Helen Scott set the record straight in an article for the International Socialist Review. Today, on the centenary of his death, we reprint Scott's essay.

Mark Twain, photographed in 1909Mark Twain, photographed in 1909

THE MARK Twain we learned about in school is a less than inspiring figure: Twain, the children's author of riverside idylls; Twain, the bitter misanthrope who lashed out at society because of his personal failures; Twain, the racist who grew up in a slaveholding family.

Most famously, there is Mark Twain, father of American Literature--the figure consciously created by the American literary establishment in the 1940s and 1950s. This Twain is a powerful symbol of the American dream, the spirit of the frontier and westward expansion--he is a nationalist hero.

Yet Twain was one of the most forthright critics of American ruling-class ideology at the turn of the 20th century. Especially toward the end of his life, Twain's published and unpublished writings and speeches are overwhelmingly antiracist, anti-imperialist and revolutionary:

I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute. [1]

In the light of such passion, it is excruciating to think how schools and universities have managed to make Twain such a boring character! In retaliation, this article will focus on the Mark Twain they didn't teach us in school.

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MARK TWAIN was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in the slaveholding state of Missouri in 1835. He once wrote that slavery dehumanized the slave and made monsters of the slave owner. For much of his early adulthood, however, Clemens did not question the dominant ideas of his childhood.

Following the early death of his father, Sam Clemens had to earn money as soon as he could. His first paid work was as a printer's apprentice. He spent four years in the mid-1850s working in various East Coast cities in horrible conditions and for practically no wages.

Clemens joined the print union and was an active member wherever he went. He also spent his evenings in the free libraries, where he "found a world that he never would have discovered in (Hannibal's) public schools." [2]

Clemens returned to the Midwest in the late 1850s, where his brother Orion, influenced by increased opposition to slavery had become active in Abraham Lincoln's antislavery Republican Party. On the eve of the Civil War, Orion was sent by Lincoln to be Secretary of the Nevada territory.

Meanwhile, Clemens underwent a miserable apprenticeship as a riverboat pilot. In Life on the Mississippi, he describes the development of a closed-shop union and the benefits reaped by all riverboat workers. This chapter was reprinted and read in union halls throughout the 1880s and 1890s. [3]

By his mid-twenties, Clemens had become a prosperous river pilot. His career was interrupted, however, by the Civil War. Although decades later Twain said that "Lincoln's Proclamation...not only set the Black slaves free, but set the white man free also," [4] Clemens remained "neutral" at the outbreak of the Civil War, even while troops were taking positions on both banks of the Mississippi.

At the low point of his life, Clemens joined a militia fighting for the South, which was formed by his old friends from Hannibal. He deserted after three weeks and joined his brother in Nevada in 1861.

After a few wild years during which he tried (and failed at) silver prospecting, lived mostly on credit and consorted with the unconventional Bohemians, Clemens became a journalist. Although Clemens still held many of the prejudices of the day, while in Nevada and then California, he adopted a distinctive brand of social satire that championed the downtrodden and ridiculed the powerful.

He wrote a series of articles protesting discrimination against Chinese immigrants and exposing police brutality in San Francisco. "I have seen Chinamen abused and maltreated in all the mean, cowardly ways possible to the invention of a degraded nature," he wrote in 1868, "but I never saw a Chinaman righted in a court of justice for wrongs thus done to him." [5]

After condemning the law's double standard--he pointed out that the crimes of the wealthy go untouched, while the police brutalize the poor for the crime of being poor--Clemens was himself a victim of police harassment.

In 1865, he told his deeply religious brother Orion that "there is a God for the rich man but none for the poor," which marked the beginning of his consistent skepticism toward religion. [6]

Clemens became a popular public speaker and adopted the persona of "Mark Twain" for his writing and speaking--a name taken from the cry of the Mississippi riverboat leadsman, "By the mark, twain" to indicate that the boat was safe with 12 feet of water under it.

He returned to the East Coast and married Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy but liberal family who had been active abolitionists. Through the family, Clemens met socialists, principled atheists and activists for women's rights and social equality. He befriended figures such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass and the utopian socialist William Dean Howells.

Over the next two decades, Twain achieved fame and fortune through his writing and speaking tours. Some of his best-known works were written in the 1870s and 1880s, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).

Both works were established as "literary classics" by the critical establishment in the 1940s and 1950s, but at first the literary elite condemned them. The Library Committee of Concord called Huckleberry Finn "trash, only suitable for the slums." [7]

The subject matter and style of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were deemed "coarse" and "common." Both books tell tales of the adventures of poor boys in the rough frontier towns along the Mississippi River. They reject the moralism of the contemporary Sunday School stories, and they are written largely in dialect, with a liberal sprinkling of swear words and slang.

In an era when steps toward racial equality were being dismantled, the elite hated Huckleberry Finn especially because the white hero, Huck, escapes with a runaway slave, Jim, and they develop a close friendship.

Huckleberry Finn has subsequently been condemned for its racism. The book does contain language that has racist connotations today, and this has been "whitewashed" or ignored by the critical establishment. However, even figures such as Frederick Douglass used the same language when attempting a "realistic" representation of life under slavery.

Furthermore, the story undermines the logic of slavery to such an extent that "the authorities regarded the exposure of the evils of slavery and the heroic portrayals of the Negro characters as 'hideously subversive'." [8] Any antiracist would want to acknowledge these facts, and the book should be understood in this context.

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Identification with the oppressed

TWAIN'S RESPONSE to his critics tells us more about the person he was becoming. By 1889, Twain was identifying with "the mighty mass of the uncultivated" and "not with the thin top crust of humanity." [9]

Mark Twain was a contradictory figure: He continued to identify with the poor and oppressed and became increasingly critical of the social system, but he also lived the kind of life that was unrecognizable to ordinary Americans. He plowed most of his and his wife's immense fortune into a series of crazy and disastrous investment schemes, including a new typesetter that he was convinced would make him a multimillionaire. (The project was ultimately abandoned.)

He was wiped out by the financial crises of the late 1880s and 1890s, and he spent the last decade of the century traveling in Europe, recovering from his financial losses through his always popular speaking tours. In the 1890s, he also underwent a series of personal tragedies and deaths in the family. He faced bankruptcy at one point, only to be bailed out by an eccentric millionaire industrialist.

Some critics have argued that Twain's reliance on such wealthy sponsors undermined his independence and compromised his social criticism. Twain presents his own ironic account of the limits of free speech in Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar: "In our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and the prudence never to exercise either of them." [10] It is true that Twain sometimes chose not to do or say something for fear of offending his sponsors or sections of his readership.

Despite such obvious moments of compromise, however, in the last two decades of his life--he died in 1910--Twain became an outspoken anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist. This era was one of extremes. The completion of the American Revolution with the end of slavery brought the promise of equality and democracy for all. But the same period saw the rise and consolidation of monopoly capitalism, vicious racism and divisions between rich and poor as great as any in Europe.

The turn of the century witnessed the growth of the labor movement and the American Socialist Party. Twain publicly championed the union movement, especially the Knights of Labor. For centuries, Twain observed, the ruling few had sneered at the idea of a challenge from below, but the Knights of Labor--and organized labor more generally--showed the hope for a change in the whole order:

When all the bricklayers, and all the machinists, and all the miners, and blacksmiths, and printers, and hod-carriers, and stevedores, and house-painters, and brakemen, and engineers, and conductors, and factory hands, and horse-car drivers, and all the shop-girls, and all the sewing-women, and all the telegraph operators; in a word all the myriads of toilers in whom is slumbering the reality of that thing which you call Power...when these rise, call the vast spectacle by any deluding name that will please your ear, but the fact remains a Nation has risen. [11]

Twain's talent for humor, satire and storytelling and his hatred of oppression and inequality enabled him to encapsulate the contradictions of the era and also to offer a vision of a better world.

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Mark Twain--anti-imperialist

AS U.S. industry expanded at a dizzying pace at the end of the 19th century, America was using its growing might to challenge its European rivals and conquer markets and territory abroad. In the process, it violated other peoples' rights to independence and self-determination--the very values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The country's first efforts to build empire focused on wresting Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spanish control in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The war was portrayed as one to free subject peoples from Spanish tyranny, and this initially confused Twain. But he quickly came around.

For Twain, and many others at the time, Americas imperialist expansion violated the expectation that America would be different from the colonial powers of Europe. Twain explained in 1900 how he went from praising to condemning the "American Eagle":

[I used to be] a red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific...Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself?...I said to myself, Here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. 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, since then, and I have read carefully the Treaty of Paris [which ended the Spanish-American War], 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.

It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land. [12]

In 1897, Twain published Following the Equator, the unifying theme of which is hatred and condemnation of imperialism of all stripes. He also wrote many pamphlets that were published by the Anti-Imperialist League, which Twain supported after his return from Europe in 1900. The League, which had tens of thousands of members, was organized around opposition to the U.S. slaughter in the Philippines.

In The Conquest of the Philippines, Twain describes the massacre of 600 Moros (a Philippine tribe), who were armed only with knifes and clubs and fortified in an extinct volcano crater, by American troops standing at the rim and shooting down on them. The president called this a "brilliant feat of arms." This is what Twain had to say:

The enemy numbered 600--including women and children--and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States. [13]

A later report revealed that the death toll was even higher, and Twain continued:

Headline: Death list is now 900. I was never so enthusiastically proud of the flag till now. [14]

Twain also wrote and spoke with passion against European colonial domination, which he often compared to plantation slavery. He said of Cecil Rhodes, the mastermind of British colonialism:

He raids and robs and slays and enslaves...and gets worlds of charter-Christian applause for it. I admire him, I frankly confess it. And when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake. [15]

Some of Twain's most sardonic invective was reserved for Belgium's King Leopold III. As sole ruler of the "Congo Free State"--a giant tract of land he acquired by pretending to pursue a humanitarian mission to abolish slavery in Africa--King Leopold used systematic murder, mutilation and starvation to force the local population to bring in ivory and rubber, which was then sold at a massive profit. It has been estimated that some six to ten million Africans perished at the hands of Leopold's henchmen in the Congo.

E.D. Morel, the head of the British Congo Reform Association, asked Twain to write a piece against King Leopold's enterprise in 1904. The result, King Leopold's Soliloquy, could not find a "legitimate" publisher. Twain gave it to the American Congo Reform Association, who built its organization primarily on the popularity and proceeds of Twain's brilliant little exposé.

In the Soliloquy, Leopold whines that though he has spent millions to suppress any revelation of his atrocities, meddlesome missionaries, reporters and activists continue to expose him:

They have told how for 20 years I have ruled the Congo state...seizing and holding the State as my personal property; the whole of its vast revenues as my private "swag"--mine, solely mine--claiming and holding its millions of people as my private property; my serfs, my slaves; their labor mine, with or without wage; the food they raise not their property but mine; the rubber, the ivory and all the other riches of the land mine--mine solely--and gathered for me by the men, the women, and the little children under compulsion of lash and bullet, fire, starvation, mutilation and halter.

These pests!--it is as I say, they have kept back nothing! [16]

A frustrated agent employed in the U.S. by the Belgian government complained that as a result of Twain's pamphlet a strong anti-Leopold movement was developing in the United States.

Imperialism is laid out before our eyes by Twain, not only as the domination of the weak and poor by the strong and rich, but also as a brutal competition between the great powers. In To a Person Sitting in Darkness (1891), Twain refers to imperialism as "the Game" and reflects that the person sitting in darkness (the colonial "savage" in need of "civilization") may just look at America's entry into this game, and say:

It is yet another Civilized Power, with its banner 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? [17]

One of Twain's most powerful pieces against the brutality of imperialist war is The War Prayer. The setting is a pro-war rally in a church to pray for the success of American troops. A messenger comes down from God and insists on putting into words the unspoken parts of these prayers:

Oh 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 the guns with the shrieks of their wounded...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 waste of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst. [18]

In the 1960s, The War Prayer was reprinted in pamphlet form by activists against the Vietnam War.

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Mark Twain's revolutionary sympathies

ALTHOUGH TWAIN denounced imperialist war, he was not a pacifist--he supported violence in the cause of freedom. His revolutionary sympathies in part stem from his appreciation of the fruits of past revolutions, most obviously the American Revolution and Civil War. As he reflected in a letter of 1890:

My privilege to write these sanguinary sentences in soft security was bought for me by rivers of blood poured upon many fields, in many lands, but I possess not one single little paltry right or privilege that came to me as a result of persuasion, agitation for reform, or any kindred method of procedure. [19]

Twain hated monarchy and undemocratic rule of all kinds. The main character in his 1889 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; after describing the farmers and artisans as constituting the "Nation," remarks that:

[T]o subtract them would...leave behind some dregs, some refuse in the shape of a King, nobility and gentry; idle, unproductive, acquainted mainly with the art of wasting and destroying, and of no sort of use or value in any rationally constructed world. [20]

Twain celebrated the French Revolution, but in the course of his life he changed his view of it:

When I finished Carlyle's French Revolution in 1871, I was a 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 Sansculotte!--And not a pale, characterless Sansculotte, but a Marat. [21]

The catalyst for his radicalization was what he saw as the transformation of America from a republic to a monarchy--a monarchy not ruled by a king or queen but by money men, corporations and their lackey politicians, all driven by "money lust." [22]

Not surprisingly, Twain supported not only revolutions of the past, but also those of his present. He defended the 1905 revolution in Russia and was bitterly disappointed by its defeat:

Russia was on the high road to emancipation from an insane and intolerable slavery; I was hoping there would be no peace until Russian liberty was safe...One more battle would have abolished the waiting chains of billions upon billions of unborn Russians, and I wish it could have been fought. [23]

In response to Russian reformists who were afraid of revolution, Twain asked:

What is the Czar of Russia but a house afire in the midst of a city of 80 millions of inhabitants? Yet instead of extinguishing him, together with his nest and system, the liberation parties are all anxious to merely cool him down a little and keep him.

It seems to me that this is illogical--idiotic, in fact. Suppose you had this granite-hearted, bloody-jawed maniac of Russia loose in your house, chasing the helpless women and little children--your own. What would you do with him, supposing you had a shotgun? Well, he is loose in your house--Russia. And with your shotgun in your hand, you stand trying to think up ways to "modify" him.

When we consider that not even the most responsible English monarch ever yielded back a stolen public right until it was wrenched from them by bloody violence, is it rational to suppose that gender methods can win privileges in Russia? [24]

Like Frederick Douglass, Twain saw that "without struggle there is no progress." In his 1886 speech, "Knights of Labor--The New Dynasty," Twain asks:

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. [25]

This is a voice that should be remembered and celebrated: anti-imperialist and revolutionary--this is the Twain of our tradition. If Twain were alive today, he would denounce the imperialists carving up Kosovo and killing Iraqis and Serbs in the name of freedom. He would say of Bill Clinton, "When his time comes, I'll buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake!"

The literary establishment--the modern equivalent of those who scorned Twain--has claimed him for their own. It is up to us to keep alive the other Twain and to fight for the world he wanted. As Twain proposed in 1902, "Let us abolish policemen who carry clubs and revolvers, and put in a squad of poets armed to the teeth with poems on Spring and Love." [26]

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Notes

1. Maxwell Geismar, ed., Mark Twain and the Three Rs: Race, Religion, Revolution and Related Matters (Indianapolis: Bobs-Merrill, 1973), 159.
2. Philip S. Foner, Mark Twain: Social Critic (New York: International Publishers, 1958), 13.
3. Quoted in Foner, 98.
4. Foner, 200.
5. Geismar, 98.
6. Andrew Jay Hoffman, Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (New York: William Morrow, 1997), 45.
7. Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), 269.
8. Foner, 209.
9. Quoted in Kaplan, 169.
10. Frederick Anderson, ed., A Pen Warmed Up in Hell: Mark Twain in Protest (New York: Harper, 1972), 5.
11. Anderson, 170.
12. Anderson, 9.
13. Anderson, 22.
14. Anderson, 23.
15. Anderson, 89.
16. Mark Twain, Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays 1891-1910 (New York: The Library of America, 1992), 663.
17. Twain, Collected Tales, 13.
18. Anderson, 110-11.
19. Geismar, 157.
20. Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (New York: Penguin, 1986), 125.
21. Anderson, 8. The Girondins, made up of the high bourgeois merchants and traders, were on the right wing of the revolution and unwilling to carry though the revolutionary war to its conclusion. The Sansculottes were of the lower bourgeoisie, hostile to big business and landowners and associated with the "rabble." Marat was one of the most popular of the Jacobin leaders. Committed to completing and defending the revolution, Marat is famous for his unceasing demands for blood and heads. His assassination by a Girondin sparked the radicalization and mobilization of the Sansculottes against counterrevolutionary forces.
22. See especially The American Plutocracy II, The Coming American Monarchy and Dictatorship, all reprinted in Geismar, Mark Twain and the Three Rs.
23. Anderson, 11.
24. Geismar, 169.
25. Foner, 169.
26. Mark Twain, Collected Tales.