Mark Twain, Free at Last

Mark Twain is often credited as being the first truly great author of international reputation born and raised on American soil. He was not only a writer and journalist; he was also a personality, and late in life, an institution (I suppose if people can be corporations, they can also be institutions). His sly, homespun, and sardonic observations on everything from Congress to cuckoo clocks have passed into our national collective conscience. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) often jockeys with Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) for the status of “The Great American Novel.” Like Benjamin Franklin, he was a noble savage, an American original.

But as so often the case with authors, most of whom also happen to be human beings, there is so much more than meets the eye about Twain. He lived to the (then) ripe old age of 75, saw the continued expansion of the American frontier, the War between the States, the end of slavery and rise of Jim Crow, the massive waves of immigration, the telephone, phonograph, wireless, and moving pictures— and like America, he changed and grew.

Something we are not usually taught in high school when reading Huck Finn is that in the last decade of his life, Twain became an anti-imperialist. And not just an anti-imperialist, but a fervent, outspoken one—so much so, that the highly influential American Anti-Imperialist League appointed him its vice-president.  Although up until the end of the nineteenth century, he had cheered American expansion and interventions abroad, by 1900 he had had his eyes opened. Here he writes to the New York Herald regarding U.S. troops in the Philippines:

“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.”—New York Herald, Oct. 15, 1900

Twain also had a great deal to say about patriotism, and said it.

“[Patriotism] …is a word which always commemorates a robbery. There isn’t a foot of land in the world which doesn’t represent the ousting and re-ousting of a long line of successive ‘owners’ who each in turn, as ‘patriots’ with proud swelling hearts defended it against the next gang of ‘robbers’ who came to steal it and did — and became swelling-hearted patriots in their turn.”—Notebook

“…Remember this, take this to heart, live by it, die for it if necessary: that our patriotism is medieval, outworn, obsolete; that the modern patriotism, the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation ALL the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.”  –“The Czar’s Soliloquy,” North American Review, March, 1905

“A man can be a Christian or a patriot, but he can’t legally be a Christian and a patriot — except in the usual way: one of the two with the mouth, the other with the heart. The spirit of Christianity proclaims the brotherhood of the race and the meaning of that strong word has not been left to guesswork, but made tremendously definite — the Christian must forgive his brother man all crimes he can imagine and commit, and all insults he can conceive and utter- forgive these injuries how many times? — seventy times seven — another way of saying there shall be no limit to this forgiveness. That is the spirit and the law of Christianity. Well — Patriotism has its laws. And it also is a perfectly definite one, there are not vaguenesses about it. It commands that the brother over the border shall be sharply watched and brought to book every time he does us a hurt or offends us with an insult. Word it as softly as you please, the spirit of patriotism is the spirit of the dog and wolf. The moment there is a misunderstanding about a boundary line or a hamper of fish or some other squalid matter, see patriotism rise, and hear him split the universe with is war-whoop. The spirit of patriotism being in its nature jealous and selfish, is just in man’s line, it comes natural to him — he can live up to all its requirements to the letter; but the spirit of Christianity is not in its entirety possible to him.

“The prayers concealed in what I have been saying is, not that patriotism should cease and not that the talk about universal brotherhood should cease, but that the incongruous firm be dissolved and each limb of it be required to transact business by itself, for the future.” –Notebook 

One short story, or prose poem, left unpublished at the author’s death and considered too sacrilegious by both his publisher and family, did not find its way onto the printed page until 13 years later, after the desolation of the First World War. “The War Prayer” depicts a Christian congregation on the eve of war praying for protection and victory for their troops. An angelic stranger arrives announcing that their prayer has been heard in heaven, but that they have left out what logically follows: that in petitioning God for victory, are they not also praying for the destruction and untold suffering of their enemies?

The older Twain grew, the more radical his opinions became. He spoke out for women’s suffrage and labor unions, and against the American art of lynching, the treatment of native peoples, as well as the hypocrisy of what passed for Christianity. His last decade was littered with unpublished works that he knew the country was not ready for. “None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth,” he confided in a friend. His entertaining though meandering autobiography, dictated in his final years, he did not intend to be published until a century after his death. The first volume has now been made available, and in the introduction, Twain states the reason for his lengthy absence:  since he is now “speaking from the grave,” he can finally speak his mind. Free at last! As he once wrote,

“Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take to the pen and pour them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are wasted, becaue I can’t print the result. I have just finished an article of this kind, and it satisfies me entirely. It does my weather-beaten soul good to read it, and admire the trouble it would make for me and the family. I will leave it behind, and utter it from the grave. There is free speech there, and no harm to the family.”


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