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Twain on the Grand Tour


Both Mark Twain and his inventor, Samuel Clemens, continue to give trouble to those guardians of the national mythology to which Twain added so much in his day, often deliberately. The Freudians are still on his case even though Dr. Freud and his followers are themselves somewhat occluded these days. Yet as recently as 1991, an academic critic1 tells us that Clemens was sexually infantile, burntout at fifty (if not before), and given to pederastic reveries about little girls, all the while exhibiting an unnatural interest in outhouse humor and other excremental vilenesses. It is hard to believe that at century’s end, academics of this degraded sort are still doing business, as Twain would put it, at the same old stand.

As is so often the case, this particular critic is a professor emeritus and emerituses often grow reckless once free of the daily grind of dispensing received opinion. Mr. Guy Cardwell, for reasons never quite clear, wants to convince us that Twain (we’ll drop the Clemens because he’s very much dead while Twain will be with us as long as there are English-speakers in the United States) “suffered from erectile dysfunction at about the age of fifty…. Evidence that he became impotent ranges from the filmy to the relatively firm.” This is a fair example of the good professor’s style. “Filmy” evidence suggests a slightly blurred photograph of an erection gone south, while “relatively firm” is a condition experienced by many men over fifty who drink as much Scotch whiskey as Twain did. But filmy—or flimsy?—as the evidence is, the professor wants to demolish its owner, who, sickeningly, married above his station in order to advance himself socially as well as to acquire a surrogate mother; as his own mother was—yes!—a strong figure while his father was—what else?—cold and uncaring.

No Freudian cliché is left unstroked. To what end? To establish that Twain hated women as well as blacks, Jews, foreigners, American imperialists, Christian missionaries, and Mary Baker Eddy. Since I join him in detesting the last three, I see no need to find a Freudian root to our shared loathing of, say, that imperialist jingo Theodore Roosevelt. Actually, Twain was no more neurotic or dysfunctional than most people and, on evidence, rather less out of psychic kilter than other major figures in the American literary canon.

Twain was born November 30, 1835, in Missouri. He spent his boyhood, famously, in the Mississippi River town of Hannibal. When he was twelve, his father died, becoming truly absent as Dr. Freud might sagely have observed, and Twain went to work as a printer’s apprentice. Inevitably, he started writing the copy that was to be printed and, in essence, he was a journalist to the end of his days. Literature as such did not really engage him. Don Quixote was his favorite novel (as it was Flaubert’s). He could not read Henry James, who returned the compliment by referring to him only once in his own voluminous bookchat, recently collected and published by the Library of America.

Exactly where and how the “Western Storyteller,” as such, was born is unknown. He could have evolved from Homer or, later, from the Greek Milesian tales of run-on anecdote. In any case, an American master of the often scabrous tall story, Twain himself was predated by, among others, Abraham Lincoln, many of whose stories were particularly noisome as well as worse—worse!—politically incorrect. Our stern Freudian critic finds Twain’s smutty stories full of “slurs” on blacks and women and so on. But so are those of Rabelais and Ariosto and Swift, Rochester and Pope and…Whatever the “true” motivation for telling such stories, Twain was a master in this line both in print and on the lecture circuit.

Primarily, of course, he was a popular journalist, and with the best seller Innocents Abroad (1869) he made the hicks back home laugh and Henry James, quite rightly, shudder. Yet when the heavy-handed joky letters, written from the first cruise liner, Quaker City, became a text, it turned out to be an unusually fine-meshed net in which Twain caught up old Europe and an even older Holy Land and then, as he arranged his catch on the—well—deck of his art, he Americanized the precedent civilization and vulgarized it in the most satisfactory way (“Lump the whole thing! Say that the Creator made Italy from designs by Michael Angelo!”), and made it possible for an American idea to flourish someday.

Twain was far too ambitious to be just a professional hick, as opposed to occasional hack. He had social ambitions; he also lusted for money (in a “banal anal” way, according to the Freudian emeritus—as opposed to “floral oral?”).

In the great tradition of men on the make, Twain married above his station to one Olivia Langdon of the first family of Elmira, New York. He got her to polish him socially. He also became a friend of that currently underestimated novelist-editor, William Dean Howells, a lad from the Western Reserve who had superbly made it in Boston as editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Howells encouraged Twain to celebrate the American “West” as the sort of romanticized Arcadia that Rousseau might have wanted his chainless noble savage to roam.

While knocking about the West and Southwest, Twain worked as pilot on Mississippi steamboats from 1857 to 1861; he joined the Civil War, briefly, on the Confederate side. When he saw how dangerous war might be, he moved on to the Nevada Territory, where his brother had been made secretary to the governor. He wrote for newspapers. In 1863, he started to use the pseudonym “Mark Twain,” a river pilot’s measurement of depth, called out on approaching landfall—some twelve feet, a bit on the shallow side.

After the war, Twain began to use life on the river and the river’s bank as a background for stories that were to place him permanently at the center of American literature: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876); Life on the Mississippi (1883); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). He liked fame and money, the last perhaps too much since he was forever going broke speculating on experimental printing presses and under-financed publishing houses. He lived in considerable bourgeois splendor at Hartford, Connecticut; oddly for someone who had made his fortune out of being the American writer, as he once described himself, Twain lived seventeen years in Europe. One reason, other than douceur de la vie, was that he was admired on the Continent in a way that he never was, or so he felt, by the eastern seaboard gentry, who were offended by his jokes, his profanity, his irreligion, and all those Scotch sours he drank. Fortunately, no one then suspected his erectile dysfunction.

Whenever cash was needed and a new book not ready to be sold to the public, Twain took to the lecture circuit. An interesting, if unanswerable question: Was Mark Twain a great actor who wrote, or a great writer who could act? Or was he an even balance like Charles Dickens or George Bernard Shaw? Much of what Twain writes is conversation—dialogue—with different voices thrown in to delight the ear of an audience. But, whichever he was, he was always, literally, a journalist, constantly describing daily things while recollecting old things. In the process, he made, from time to time, essential literature, including the darkest of American novels, Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).

Mark Twain’s view of the human race was not sanguine, and much has been made of the Calvinism out of which he came. Also, his great river, for all its fine amplitude, kept rolling along, passing villages filled with fierce monotheistic folk in thrall to slavery, while at river’s end there were the slave markets of New Orleans. Calvinist could easily become Manichean if he brooded too much on the river world of the mid-1800s. In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain’s as yet unarticulated notion that if there is a God (What is Man?, 1906) he is, if not evil in the Manichean sense, irrelevant, since man, finally, is simply a machine acted upon by a universe “frankly and hysterically insane” (No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger): “Nothing exists but You. And You are but a thought.”

The agony of the twin boys in Pudd’nhead Wilson, one brought up white, the other black, becomes exquisite for the “white” one, who is found to be black and gets shipped down river, his question to an empty Heaven unanswered: “What crime did the uncreated first nigger commit that the curse of birth was decreed for him?” All this, then, is what is going on in Mark Twain’s mind as he gets ready for a second luxury tour, this time around the world.


When one contemplates the anti-imperialism of Mark Twain, it is hard to tell just where it came from. During his lifetime the whole country was—like himself—on the make, in every sense. But Mark Twain was a flawed materialist. As a Southerner he should have had some liking for the peculiar institution of slavery; yet when he came to write of antebellum days, it is Miss Watson’s “nigger,”’ Jim, who represents what little good Twain ever found in man. Lynchings shocked him. But then, pace Hemingway, so did Spanish bullfights. Despite the various neuroses ascribed to him by our current political correctionalists, he never seemed in any doubt that he was a man and therefore never felt, like so many sissies of the Hemingway sort, a need to swagger about, bullying those not able to bully him.

In 1898, the United States provoked a war with Spain (a war with England over Venezuela was contemplated but abandoned since there was a good chance that we would have lost). The Spanish empire collapsed more from dry rot than from our military skills. Cuba was made “free,” and Puerto Rico was attached to us while the Spanish Philippines became our first Asian real estate and the inspiration for close to a century now of disastrous American adventures in that part of the world.

Mark Twain would have had a good time with the current demise of that empire, which he greeted, with some horror, in the first of his meditations on imperialism. The pamphlet “To the Person Sitting In Darkness”2 was published in 1901, a year in which we were busy telling the Filipinos that although we had, at considerable selfless expense, freed them from Spain they were not yet ready for the higher democracy, as exemplified by Tammany Hall, to use Henry James’s bitter analogy. Strictly for their own good, we would have to kill one or two hundred thousand men, women, and children in order to make their country into an American-style democracy. Most Americans were happy to follow the exuberant lead of the prime architect of empire, Theodore Roosevelt—known to the sour Henry Adams as “our Dutch-American Napoleon.” But then, suddenly, Mark Twain quite forgot that he was the American writer and erupted, all fire and lava.

  1. 1

    Guy Cardwell, The Man Who Was Mark Twain (Yale University Press, 1991). This oddly repellent work might have been more accurately—and more modestly—called The Mark Twain Nobody Else Knows.

  2. 2

    The above article will serve as Gore Vidal’s preface to Following the Equator and Anti-Imperialist Essays (including “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” and “King Leopold’s Soliloquy”), which will appear as one of the volumes of The Oxford Mark Twain, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and to be published later this year by Oxford University Press.

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