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.
The people who sit in darkness are Kipling’s “lesser breeds,” waiting for the white man to take up his burden and “civilize” them. Ironically, Twain compares our bloody imperialism favorably with that of the white European powers then abroad in the “unlit” world, busy assembling those colonial empires that now comprise today’s desperate third world. Twain, succinctly for him, lists who was stealing what from whom and when, and all in the name of the “Blessings-of-Civilization Trust.” But now the American writer is so shocked at what his countrymen are capable of doing in the imperial line that he proposes a suitable flag for the “Philippine Province”: “We can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones.”
In 1905, Twain published a second pamphlet (for the Congo Defense Association), “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” subtitled “A Defence of His Congo Rule.” On the cover there was a crucifix crossed by a machete and bearing the cheery inscription “By this sign we prosper.”
The soliloquy is just that. The King of the Belgians is distressed by reports of his bloody rule over a large section of black Africa. Leopold, an absolute ruler in Africa if not in Belgium, is there to “root out slavery and stop the slave-raids, and lift up those twenty-five millions of gentle and harmless blacks out of darkness into light….” He is in rather the same business as Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt in the earlier pamphlet.
Leopold free-associates, noting happily that Americans were the first to recognize his rule. As he defends himself, his night-mind (as the Surrealists used to say) gets the better of him and he keeps listing his crimes as he defends them. He notes that his enemies “concede—reluctantly—that I have one match in history, but only one—the Flood. This is intemperate.” He blames his current “crash” on “the incorruptible kodak…the only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe.” Twain provides us with a page of nine snapshots of men and women, each lacking a hand, the King’s usual punishment. Twain’s intervention was not unlike those of Voltaire and Zola or, closer to home, Howells’s denuciation of the American legal system—and press—that had found guilty the non-perpetrators of the Haymarket riots. Imperialism and tyranny for Twain were great evils but the more he understood—or thought he understood—the human race, the darker his view of the whole lot became, as he had begun to demonstrate in the epigraphs from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar at the head of each chapter of his travel book Following the Equator (1897).
In Paris, 1895, Twain, his wife, Olivia, and their daughter Clara started on a round the world lecture tour. They crossed the Atlantic; then the United States; then, on August 23, they set sail from Vancouver bound for Sydney, Australia. For several years Twain had undergone a series of financial setbacks. Now the lecture tour would make him some money, while a look at the whole world would provide him with a great deal of copy, most of which he was to use in Following the Equator.3
At the start of the tour, Twain seems not to have been his usual resilient self. “Mr. Clemens,” wrote Olivia to a friend, “has not as much courage as I wish he had, but, poor old darling, he has been pursued with colds and inabilities of various sorts. Then he is so impressed with the fact that he is sixty years old.” Definitely a filmy time for someone Olivia had nick-named “Youth.”
The pleasures of travel have not been known for two generations now; even so, it is comforting to read again about the soothing boredom of life at sea and the people that one meets aboard ship as well as on shore in exotic lands. One also notes that it was Twain in Australia, and not an English official recently testifying in an Australian court, who first noted that someone “was economical of the truth.”
In Twain’s journal, he muses about the past; contemplates General Grant, whose memoirs he had published and, presumably, edited a decade earlier. One would like to know more about that relationship since Gertrude Stein, among others, thought Grant our finest prose writer. When the ship stops in Honolulu, Twain notes that the bicycle is now in vogue, and “the riding horse is retiring from business everywhere in the world.” Twain is not pleased by the combined influences of Christian missionaries and American soldiers upon what had once been a happy and independent Pacific kingdom.
They pass the Fiji Islands, ceded to England in 1858. Twain tells the story that when the English commissioner remarked to the Fiji king that it was merely “a sort of hermit-crab formality,” the king pointed out that “the crab moves into an unoccupied shell, but mine isn’t.”
A great comfort to Twain aboard ship is The Sentimental Song Book of the Sweet Singer of Michigan, one Mrs. Julia A. Moore, who has, for every human occasion, numerous sublimely inapt verses that never, even by accident, scan.
Frank Dutton was as fine a lad
As ever you wish to see,
And he was drowned in Pine Island Lake
On earth no more will he be,
His age was near fifteen years,
And he was a motherless boy,
He was living with his grandmother
When he was drowned, poor boy.4
As one reads Twain’s own prose, written in his own character, one is constantly reminded that he is very much a stand-up comedian whose laugh lines are carefully deployed at the end of every observation, thus reducing possible tension with laughter. Of the colonists sent out to Australia by England, Twain observes that they came from the jails and from the army. “The colonists trembled. It was feared that next there would be an importation of the nobility.”
In general, Australia gets high marks. Twain and family travel widely; he lectures to large crowds: “The welcome which an American lecturer gets from a British colonial audience is a thing which will move him to his deepest deeps, and veil his sight and break his voice.” He is treated as what he was, a Great Celebrity, and “I was conscious of a pervading atmosphere of envy which gave me deep satisfaction.”
Twain continually adverts to the white man’s crimes against the original inhabitants of the Pacific islands, noting that “there are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.” The Freudian critic cannot quite fathom how the Twain who in his youth made jokes about “Negroes” now, in his filmy years, has turned anti-white and speaks for the enslaved and the dispossessed. Dr. Freud apparently had no formula to explain this sort of sea change.
New Zealand appeals to Twain; at least they did not slaughter the native population though they did something almost as bad: “The Whites always mean well when they take human fish out of the ocean and try to make them dry and warm and happy and comfortable in a chicken coop,” which is how, through civilization, they did away with many of the original inhabitants. Lack of empathy is a principal theme in Twain’s meditations on race and empire. Twain notes with approval that New Zealand’s women have been able to vote since 1893. At sixty, he seems to have overcome his misogyny; our Freudian critic passes over this breakthrough in dark silence.
Ceylon delights. “Utterly Oriental,” though plagued by missionaries who dress the young in Western style, rendering them as hideous on the outside as they are making them cruelly superstitious on the inside. Twain broods on slavery as he remembered it a half-century before in Missouri. He observes its equivalent in Ceylon and India. He meets a Mohammedan “deity,” who discusses Huck Finn in perfect English. Twain now prefers brown or black skin to “white,” which betrays the inner state rather too accurately, making “no concealments.” Although he prefers dogs to cats, he does meet a dog that he cannot identify, which is odd since it is plainly a dachshund. He tries to get used to pajamas but goes back to the old-fashioned nightshirt. Idly, he wonders why Western men’s clothes are so ugly and uncomfortable. He imagines himself in flowing robes of every possible color. Heaven knows what this means. Heaven and a certain critic…
Benares has its usual grim effect. Here, beside the Ganges, bodies are burned; and people bathe to become pure while drinking the polluted waters of the holiest of holy rivers. It is interesting that Twain never mentions the Buddha, who became enlightened at Benares, but he does go into some detail when he describes the Hindu religion. In fact, he finds the city of Benares “just a big church” to that religion in all its aspects. In Calcutta, he broods on the Black Hole, already filled in. The Taj Mahal induces an interesting reverie. Twain notes that when one has read so many descriptions of a famous place, one can never actually see it because of all the descriptions that crowd one’s mind. In this perception, Twain anticipates the latest—if not the last—theory of how memory works. He also broods on the phenomenon of Helen Keller, born deaf, dumb, and blind; yet able to learn to speak and think. How does the mind work?
From India, Twain and company cross the Indian Ocean to Mauritius. Although he often alludes to his lecturing, he never tells us what he talks about. He does note, “I never could tell a lie that anybody would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe.” We learn that he dislikes Oliver Goldsmith and Jane Austen. As a prose writer, the imperialist Kipling beguiles him even though Twain likens empires to thieves who take clothes off other people’s clotheslines. “In 800 years an obscure tribe of Muscovite savages has risen to the dazzling position of Land-Robber-in-Chief.” He is more tolerant of the English. But then he is a confessed Anglophile.
Meanwhile, the ship is taking Twain and family down the east coast of Africa. South Africa is in ferment—Boers against English settlers, white against black. Cecil Rhodes is revealed as a scoundrel. But Twain is now writing as of May 1897, one year after his visit to South Africa, and so the outcome of all this is still unclear to him. He sides with the English, despite reservations about Rhodes and company. “I have always been especially fond of war. No, I mean fond of discussing war; and fond of giving military advice.” As for that new territorial entity, Rhodesia, Twain remarks that it is “a happy name for that land of piracy and pillage, and puts the right stain upon it”; and he also has Puddn’head Wilson observe; “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”
Finally, “Our trip around the earth ended at Southampton pier, where we embarked thirteen months before….I seemed to have been lecturing a thousand years….” But he had now seen the whole world, more or less at the equator, and, perhaps more to the point, quite a few people got to see Mark Twain in action, in itself something of a phenomenon, never to be repeated on earth unless, of course, his nemesis, Mary Baker Eddy, were to allow him to exchange her scientific deathless darkness for his limelight, our light.
May 23, 1996
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. ↩
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. ↩
Following the Equator is available in two paperback volumes in the Ecco Travels Series (Ecco, 1992, 1993). ↩
One does not need a Vendlerian laser-beam acuity to realize that had there been no Sweet Singer of Michigan there could never have been Hull’s own sweet singer, Larkin—Hark! ↩