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Mark Twain Has Been Gone 100 Years, but His Political Wisdom Endures

5 years ago
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The words still deliver a punch as they make you smile.

"It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." ("Following the Equator")

Mark Twain departed the world he made laugh, and think, a hundred years ago next month -- on April 21, 1910, to be exact. But his observations about politics and America's role in the world retain enduring relevance a century later.

". . . an honest man in politics shines more than he would elsewhere." ("A Tramp Abroad")

"I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics, a man's reasoning powers are not above the monkey's." ("Mark Twain in Eruption")

"I would teach patriotism in the schools, and teach it this way: I would throw out the old maxim, 'My country, right or wrong,' and instead I would say, 'My country when she is right.' " (The New York Times, March 17, 1901)

Less than a decade before his death, he confessed in a 1902 epistle included in "Mark Twain's Letters": ". . . I am a moralist in disguise; it gets me into heaps of trouble when I go thrashing around in political questions."

The "moralist in disguise" was just one aspect of the character Samuel Clemens created for his literary persona and mouthpiece, Mark Twain. Before settling on that pseudonym in 1863, Clemens had written his earliest efforts as "W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab," "Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass," "Quintus Curtius Snodgrass" and "Josh."

As Mark Twain, however, he found the voice he wanted to project in his fiction, autobiographical narratives and essays. His first novel, "The Gilded Age" (1873), jointly written with Charles Dudley Warner, satirized Washington's ways and means in several chapters of melodramatic burlesque.

Despite its numerous story lines and a legion of characters, Garry Wills singled out the work in a 1976 New York Times essay as "our best political novel, more sprawling but more vital than 'Democracy' [by Henry Adams], as ambitious as 'U.S.A.' [by John Dos Passos] but more focused. . . .The book grows on each rereading."

As Clemens settled into public life as Mark Twain, he peppered his prose with political opinions. The wisdom behind the well-phrased wit unmasks the moralist and critic. Particularly in his later years, he became more pointed and less jocular in commenting about the conduct of American democracy and his country's foreign adventurism.

Literary critics explain the darkening humor of Twain's final two decades by citing his personal circumstances. He declared bankruptcy in 1894, forcing him to embark on a grueling round-the-world lecture tour to help pay his creditors. In 1896, a favored daughter, Susy, died, and in 1904 his wife, Olivia, passed away.

With the sunny days of earlier years just a memory, Twain trained his elder's eyes on contemporary affairs, and he took stands bound to provoke criticism among his reading public. For example, he became an opponent of U.S. intervention in the Philippines and said in the New York Herald in 1900, "We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. . . . I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."

Twain's anti-imperialism -- he even served as vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist League the last decade of his life -- was just one dimension of his political activity. He also left behind piles of manuscripts and random political observations for publication after his death. "None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth," he told a friend in a 1905 letter.

In his posthumously published 'Autobiography," a comment on how people form their opinions sounds like a perception more pertinent to our time of continuous, multimedia political chatter: "In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing."

And what about excessive partisanship? Mark Twain couldn't abide it over a century ago, fulminating in the same work: "Look at the tyranny of party -- at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty -- a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes -- and which turns voters into chattels, slaves, rabbits, and all the while their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master."

Looking beyond unquestioning devotion to a particular party, Mark Twain considered the practice of political ideology and its meaning over time. "The radical of one century is the conservative of the next," he jotted down in "Mark Twain's Notebook." "The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them."

Quoting Twain can be dangerous. The seduction of his style and the off-kilter originality of his commentary make it difficult to stop. There's also the risk that a wisecrack attributed to him wasn't, in truth, his creation.
The chestnut that "a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on" sounds like Mark Twain, and he's often cited (by politicians, no less) as the source. But British pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon really deserves the credit, and he appropriated it from a proverb in 1855 -- when Sam Clemens was 20, well before he was Mark Twain.

Quotation, though, is a two-way street. In his autobiography, this lengthy sentence appears: "Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.' "
Scholars have determined that the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli is not responsible for the phrase, and now it's often printed as an original Twainism. Like facts, quotations are stubborn things.

In "Following the Equator" (1897), his narrative of that yearlong lecture odyssey to reimburse his creditors, Twain defines a "classic" as a "book which people praise and don't read." Yet what he wrote about American politics still deserves reading as well as praise.

Indeed, a century after he wrote his last words, Mark Twain remains what novelist and editor William Dean Howells called him in 1910: "sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature."

Robert Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair of American Studies and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy.

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