Introduction by Adam Hochschild
Some great writers lived lives that seem limited to only a small slice of human experience – Proust, Austen, Dickinson – but they saw far and deep nonetheless. The lives of others – Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – far overflowed what they were able to get between the covers of their books. Mark Twain falls among the overflowers. Even the complete array of his work does not begin to contain the breadth, paradox, and tragedies of his life.
It was a large and restless one that stretched from the era when doctors bled their patients to that of the automobile and the airplane, from the boundless freedom of his childhood (read the passage in these pages about skating on the frozen Mississippi under moonlight, as ice floes break up and separate him from land) to crossing the country by stagecoach, sleeping on top of mailbags, to reach California in the aftermath of the Gold Rush. As a young man, he heard Charles Dickens read David Copperfield
aloud from a New York stage; as an old one he played miniature golf with Woodrow Wilson. He began as Sam Clemens in the remote riverside town of Hannibal, Missouri; under his pen name of Mark Twain he traveled the world as the most renowned American author of his time, visited or received by princesses and presidents, explorers and emperors, even the admiring Shah of Persia. The young Kipling made a pilgrimage to meet him; Sigmund Freud came to hear him speak. Yet, amid these triumphs, Twain saw his beloved wife and three of his four children die before him.
He denounced the love of money and helped coin the phrase Gilded Age but hobnobbed happily with Andrew Carnegie and other robber barons, vacationed on the 227-foot yacht of one of them, preferred the fanciest of hotels, and lived in a palatial mansion with Tiffany furnishings, a marble-floored entrance hall, and a staff of seven. Hankering badly after still greater wealth, he spent himself deep into debt by investing money, his own and borrowed, in a long string of muddleheaded inventions. The most disastrous was one whose failure could have been predicted by a mechanically-minded teenager: a typesetting machine with eighteen thousand separate parts. Into this hopeless dream the ever-optimistic writer poured the equivalent of well over three million dollars (in early twenty-first-century money). It would take another Twain to get all of this into a novel.
His work, like his life, was of volcanic proportions. It is not without reason that one editor entitled an anthology Mark Twain in Eruption
. In addition to the more than thirty books he published during his lifetime, Twain wrote thousands of newspaper articles and left behind some fifty notebooks and six hundred unpublished or unfinished manuscripts. Over his seventy-four years, it is estimated, he wrote at least fifty thousand letters, most of which have long since disappeared. The eruptions never ceased. On April 13, 1897, after working on his travelogue, Following the Equator
, he wrote triumphantly in his notebook, “I finished my book today.” Five weeks later came another entry, “Finished the book again
. Addition of 30,000 words.”
On top of all this material, Twain left behind, largely unedited, some half million words of recollections about his life. The more famous he became, the more often people pressed him to write his autobiography. But he claimed that all written memoirs were fraudulent; instead he would create the first truly honest one by dictating
his, to be published in full only after his death. “If I should talk to the stenographer two hours a day for a hundred years,” he declared, “I should still never be able to set down a tenth part of the things which have interested me.” Between 1906 and 1909, the year before he died, he made a good start on the hundred years, dictating bountifully in 242 sessions.
Rambling from one corner of his life to another, freeassociating, embroidering stories he had once written, mixing fanciful anecdotes, personal experience, and pungent opinions with newspaper clippings and half-finished sketches, Twain’s dictated eruptions most resemble a genre that would not be named for nearly another century: blog posts. This mountain of proto-blogging, sometimes with earlier bits of autobiographical writing mixed in, has been repeatedly reshaped by different editors since his death, depending on whether the compiler wanted to present a non-political, avuncular Twain, an autobiography at manageable length, an all-inclusive colossus, or Twain’s life in chronological sequence rather than in the meandering fashion in which he actually recounted it.
The selections in the first portion of this book, pieces that were published in the North American Review
soon after he dictated them, are only a small part of this gargantuan mountain. But they have a claim to being the most authentic part because – after a $30,000 fee persuaded Twain that not all
of his autobiography should be posthumous – they are the only shoulder of the mountain that he himself edited and approved for publication.
One of the great literary memoirs this is not. It digresses wildly, drops famous names, has sentimental patches, and assumes (true for readers then, but not necessarily now) that we already know a good deal about his life. It has pages about billiards and bowling. It could use a careful rewrite. Nonetheless, it yields sudden stretches of great eloquence, like shafts of sun falling on that mountainside, as when he describes childhood stays on his uncle’s farm: “I can call back the solemn twilight and mystery of the deep woods, the earthy smells, the faint odors of the wild flowers, the sheen of rain-washed foliage, the rattling clatter of drops when the wind shook the trees . . . the snap-shot glimpses of disturbed wild creatures scurrying through the grass.”
Twain had already mined a high point of his life, his years as a steamboat pilot, for what most of us consider his greatest work of nonfiction, Life on the Mississippi
, but one of the fascinations of the dictated autobiography is that we can see in his words some of the sources for his greatest work of fiction, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
. Not just the boyhood figures who were to some degree the models for Huck, Tom Sawyer, and others, but the spirit of that boyhood: the universe of woods, fields, caves, and islands to be explored in an age without supervised after-school activities; the pervasive acceptance of slavery; the small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business; the great river coursing past, as ceaseless as the flow of life itself. And in his recollections we can also see Twain’s knowledge of the wider world beyond Hannibal: its chicanery, its illusions, and its lust for gain. Without the experience of all this he never could have imagined into being, in his childhood landscape, an outlaw like Huck.
The letters that form the next part of this volume give us another cross-section of Twain’s life. The selection is again only a small portion of an enormous mass, but the window they provide onto his soul is less mediated and controlled by Twain than the autobiography chapters he saw into print. Through the letters we can feel his thrill at seeing new countries, his enjoyment of his growing fame, and his perpetual grand dreams of making a fortune through a magically successful investment. We see his immense gratitude when his friend the novelist and editor William Dean Howells gives him the greatest gift any writer can give another, which is to mark up a manuscript – in this case The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
. Twain was startlingly willing to let his wife, Howells, and others prune material out of his writing or select which shorter pieces should be included in a collection, but almost everyone was so in awe of him that he received too little of the tough, intelligent, critical feedback that could have benefited his more ragged and loquacious books.
Nonetheless, he did have another way of testing the effect of his words, integral to sharpening his humor and learning exactly what people responded to. During the course of his lifetime he gave well over five hundred lectures, readings, commencement addresses, or after-dinner speeches, at least 140 of them just on one exhausting, round-the-world, 53,000-mile speaking tour he undertook to pay off his huge debts. “I know a great many secrets about audiences,” he says in one letter here, “secrets not to be got out of books, but only acquirable by experience.” He learned to speak in a way that would appeal equally to the 25-cent customers in the balconies and those in evening dress in the front-row seats. He was wearied by this endless round of performing, but at the same time reveled in it, noting carefully which lines worked and which didn’t, learning the value of a drawl and a calculated pause. He was a shrewd and interested judge of other performers. His best work all seems born to be read aloud – which usually it was, first to an audience of his wife and daughters and then on stage. It is this side of Twain that the actor Hal Holbrook brought to life by staging constantly changing versions of his one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!
on Broadway, on television, on recordings, around the country, and across the world for more than sixty years. This talented imitator of Twain has himself had many imitators.
Above all, the letters let us feel with Twain what lay behind his statement that “the source of all humor is not laughter but sorrow.” He feels responsible for the agonizing death of his brother, lethally scalded when a boiler exploded on the steamboat where Twain had gotten him a job. The blows that would come later in his life help account for the darker tone of the writing from his final decade and a half. The loss from spinal meningitis of his favorite daughter, the twenty-four-year-old Susy, is all the more painful because it comes when he is away from her, in England, finishing up his year-long international lecture tour. “She that had been our wonder and our worship,” he calls her. “It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live.” Some weeks after the news of her death, still deep in mourning, he writes to his friend Rev. Joseph Twichell that “she was my superior in fineness of mind, in the delicacy & subtlety of her intellect . . . I know her better now; for I have read her private writings & sounded the deeps of her mind; & I know better, now, the treasure that was mine than I knew it when I had it . . . And now she is dead
– & I can never tell her.”
Another daughter, Jean, years later would die horribly on Christmas Eve, while visiting her father, when an epileptic seizure caused her to drown in a bathtub. She was twenty-nine. But perhaps nothing surpassed Twain’s grief at the loss of his wife, Livy, in Italy, where they had gone in search of the respite and climate that might have aided her heart disease and difficulty in breathing. One evening he came to her “to say the usual good-night,” as he writes Howells, “& she was dead!” To his friend Twichell he describes how he sat with her body for the next twenty hours “till the embalmers came at 5; & then I saw her no more. In all that night & all that day she never noticed my caressing hand – it seemed strange.” It is all the more poignant to read that side-by-side with an early love letter to her, where he speaks of her “eyes that are dearer to me than the light that streams out of the Heavens.”
The third portion of these pages is a sampling of the newspaper articles, humorous sketches, speeches, diatribes, essays, and pamphlets that flowed from Twain’s pen throughout his life. Just because there is a companion Everyman’s Library volume of his writing called The Complete Short Stories
, don’t assume that all the pieces in this one are purely nonfiction. More than one of them has some actual event as its kernel, around which Twain then span a tale at least as tall as anything Tom Sawyer could have invented. “Mark Twain took a democrat’s view of fact and fiction,” his biographer Ron Powers writes; “he . . . let them mingle in his work without prejudice.” If he had lived long enough to write for The New Yorker
, little of his supposed reportage could have gotten past its famed fact-checking department unscathed.
These pieces cover a spectrum of tone from those that seem embarrassingly flat or eccentric today to a few like “A Telephonic Conversation” that can still make us burst into laughter. In them can be found ammunition to supply either side in the famous argument between the critics Van Wyck Brooks and Bernard DeVoto over whether or not this son of the rugged frontier was fatally tamed by his mother, his wife, his wealth, and his long years in the more genteel culture of the East Coast. They show us a Twain who fluctuates between the daringly subversive and the conventional prejudices of his time (about American Indians, for example), and also a Twain who had some decided quirks – a fascination with clairvoyance, for one thing, and the conviction that someone other than Shakespeare wrote those plays.
But these writings also show us something deeper: a man becoming keenly aware of the injustices of his age. From the young Sam Clemens whose father and uncle owned slaves and who even briefly joined a unit of Confederate irregulars (an episode he considerably embellished in “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed”), he grew into the Mark Twain who felt that slavery was America’s original sin. Huckleberry Finn
is surely the most eloquent expression of that feeling in all our literature, a portrait all the more slyly powerful because Huck believes he will be doomed to hell for helping the enslaved Jim – Miss Watson’s lawful property – escape down the river toward freedom.
Twain understood, more clearly than most white Americans, that the Civil War had changed too little and that the United States was still a place of lynchings and other horrors for former slaves. One act of generosity by him would reverberate decades after he was dead. Among a number of black students whose studies Twain helped support was one of the first men of color to enter Yale Law School. Twain met him briefly and may have forgotten his name but told the school’s dean he would help pay the expenses of “this young man” – who was working odd jobs on the side to make ends meet – until he graduated. The student was Warner T. McGuinn, who became a respected lawyer and a Baltimore city council member, and who, decades later, himself mentored and referred cases to a grateful young black attorney just starting out on his career. That
lawyer was Thurgood Marshall, who argued the successful Brown v. Board of Education case that ended legal school segregation in America, and who became the first black justice of the United States Supreme Court. We can imagine the smile that would have brought to Twain’s face.
As the author aged, he came to see that the racism so intertwined with American slavery took other forms around the world – and it was a world he saw as much or more of than almost any other American writer of his day. As he puts it in one piece here, “I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being – that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.” While staying in Vienna in the late 1890s, he presciently observed – unlike virtually any foreign journalist of the time – just who were always the first victims of ethnic nationalist demonstrations. “In some cases the Germans [were] the rioters, in others the Czechs,” he wrote in Harper’s
, “and in all cases the Jew had to roast, no matter which side he was on.”
Although he had spoken as early as 1867 about the harmful impact of American “civilization” on Hawaii and had noticed how brutally Chinese immigrant laborers were treated in California, it was mostly during the last fifteen years of his life that Twain’s ire focused on the worldwide drive for colonies, fueled by “the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.” When he circled the globe on his lecture tour in 1895 and 1896, he encountered evidence at almost every stop. In Australia he saw how British settlers had displaced and almost exterminated the Aborigines and how they had put South Sea islanders to work in harsh conditions on the sugar plantations. In India he noticed how a white man punched his servant in the face, and sensed the undercurrent among Indians of a desire for self-rule. And his reaction to South Africa was different from that of almost all Americans and Europeans at this time, who saw the territory mainly in terms of the conflict over land and mineral wealth between white Britons and white Afrikaners, or Boers, which would culminate in the Boer War of 1899-1902. Twain, however, felt that the underlying crime had been committed by those who “stole the land from the . . . blacks.”
He was appalled when, in the treaty ending the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired a colony of its own by buying the Philippines from Spain, for twenty million dollars. “I am opposed,” he declared in an interview, “to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” This didn’t stop him, however, from thoroughly enjoying the company of the great imperialists of the age, like the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the bellicose Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and the young Boer War hero Winston Churchill.
Not surprisingly, Filipino nationalists who had fought for independence from Spain had no wish to see themselves colonized anew by the United States. The brutal Philippine-American War that broke out in 1899 was one of our most shameful: a war of naked conquest that killed at least 200,000 Filipinos and saw American troops use widespread, systematic torture. The war spurred congressional hearings, protest meetings throughout the country, and Twain’s most influential work on imperialism, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” The title alludes to the Gospel according to St. Matthew where “the people which sat in darkness” are those not yet enlightened by Christ’s good news; there had been much talk in the air about how it was America’s duty to bring Christianity to the backward Filipinos. Millions of Filipinos were already Catholics, but this was ignored. President William McKinley would later say that he wished “to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”
Against Washington’s claim that it was fighting this war on the other side of the world only from the most high-minded of motives (does that sound familiar ?) Twain lumped the new American imperial venture with the seizure by Britain, France, Germany and Russia of territory in Africa and China. This pamphlet was reprinted by many newspapers and magazines, and parts of it were read into the Congressional Record
. Twain followed it up with “To My Missionary Critics” and several other articles. In Massachusetts, the Springfield Republican
called him “the most influential anti-imperialist and the most dreaded critic of the sacrosanct person in the White House.” In 1901, succeeding the assassinated McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt became that person. When Roosevelt, who ardently craved an American colonial empire, heard a crowd cheering for Twain, he angrily muttered that anti-imperialists like him should be skinned alive.
Soon Twain threw himself into another anti-imperial cause. Artfully outflanking larger European countries, King Leopold II of Belgium had made himself an early beneficiary of the rush for African colonies. He succeeded in having first the United States and then all the major nations of Europe recognize a vast territory in the Congo River basin as belonging to him personally. Soon after Leopold got his hands on the area, the invention of the inflatable tire sparked a worldwide rubber boom. The king amassed a fortune equal to well over one billion dollars in today’s currency by turning much of the Congo’s male population into forced laborers to harvest this valuable commodity.
The forced-labor system and the millions of deaths it led to attracted the attention of a brilliant young British journalist, Edmund Dene Morel, who mounted, over this issue, the biggest international human-rights campaign of its time. Morel came to visit Twain in 1904, and persuaded him to make three trips to Washington to lobby President Roosevelt and the State Department to bring pressure on the king, and to write about the Congo. The result was “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” which the author’s usual publishers found too acid for their taste. Twain gave it, and the royalties from it, to the American branch of Morel’s Congo Reform Association, which published it as a pamphlet in 1905. Although the king’s soliloquy is of course imaginary, it is based on real events and has quotations from eyewitness testimony. Morel’s campaign tools included a slide show of atrocity photographs, some of which Twain printed as well. He has the monarch of his pamphlet rage against “the incorruptible kodak . . .
The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe.” The writer joined Booker T. Washington in speaking to several protest meetings. “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” clearly stung its target; the king’s formidable public-relations apparatus issued a forty-seven-page pamphlet entitled “An Answer to Mark Twain.”
Remarkably, for decades after Twain died, this whole stream of his writing largely disappeared from new editions of his work. “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” and several other attacks on imperialism were not republished until more than half a century after his death. The chief sanitizers of Twain’s legacy were his authorized biographer and literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine, and the author’s one surviving child, his daughter Clara, who lived to the age of eighty-eight. They were eager to have the public remember only Twain the humorist, the sage of Hannibal, the kindly white-suited figure with the big mustache and flowing mane of hair. The Twain who had been the strident opponent of colonial conquest they shoved out of sight.
In the various volumes of the writer’s speeches, letters, notebooks, and other work that he edited, Paine downplayed, greatly condensed, or simply omitted many of Twain’s comments on events like the Philippine War. In his three-volume biography, he never even mentioned that Twain was a vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. When Paine edited a collection of the letters, for example, one sentence where Twain had written “I am going to stick close to my desk for a month, now, hoping to write a small book, full of playful and good-natured contempt for the lousy McKinley” ended simply with “hoping to write a small book.” Paine’s versions of various Twain texts were long accepted as authentic by later editors, who had no idea that they had been bowdlerized. Happily, enough omissions had been discovered and undone by the late 1960s for American opponents of the Vietnam War to be able to use his prophetic work in support of their cause.
All of the Twain pieces in this book, however, are exactly as he wrote them. It is surely testimony to his subversive side that he was in effect censored for so long after his death. In the following pages you will find him utterly unsanitized, in full eruption.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Twain; Introduction by Adam Hochschild. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.