Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Centennial of Mark Twain's Death

This centennial caught me by surprise. By chance I noticed that the google news page for Germany mentioned this item, but there was no heading in the google news page for the US. Surprising that, or perhaps on second thought, not that surprising at all. This post is a response to something that Al commented on one of Ranger's recent posts in regards to "monochronic vs polychronic worldview/behavior" in the US. Lisa responded as well, and I have been attempting to come up with a suitable comment for the last couple of days, but have produced nothing satisfactory so there has been no comment till now.

So what does Mark Twain have to do with this? It's a bit of a long, round about sort of connection, but here goes . . .

Twain was perhaps the first American writer to achieve a "world-wide following" (the "world" was limited to the US and Europe in those days). His work also reflected a grand mixture of high satire and humor, but he was also very politically active as well, being the President of the Anti-Imperialist League of New York from 1901 until his death in 1910. His "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" is still a worthwhile text to read in regards to not only understanding the US policies of Twain's day, but our own. Some of his best writing in this regard was refused by his publishers and only became public much later.

A consideration of Twain and his life brings out many of the dubious assumptions and notions that we simply take for granted, as our "rights" even, today without ever questioning the whole fragile and contingent nature behind them. For instance, Twain who went broke in the 1890s due to poor investments, not to mention believing con artists, would never have assumed "the market" to be anything other than a crap shoot and a very crooked crap shoot at that.

Compare that to our situation today almost two years after the greatest economic collapse since 1929 and it's as if Herbert Hoover had been re-elected to a second term and instituted a program known as "the Old Deal". The market in essence has become our god and we don't question it. Any popular rumblings are quickly side-tracked to pro-status quo distractions.

The great author was also no stranger to tragedy. He buried his wife and three of his four children, and the death of his youngest daughter on Christmas Eve 1909 robbed him of the will to live, the local people said that the man had simply died of a "broken heart".

Mark Twain had a good nose for politics. Besides his clear view on the imperialism of his day, he deserted the pro-Confederate Missouri militia he had volunteered for after three weeks, leaving a humorous account, but not a real explanation as to why he had volunteered in the first place. Civil wars are like that I suppose.

So what is the connection between Twain and Al's comment? Twain was a mature human being who had seen enough of adversity and sorrow and knew that both were inseparable from life. He knew what religion was and what capitalism was and would have never mistaken the two. He knew what freedom was and what tyranny was and would never have labelled the latter with the former. He never would have allowed himself to be controlled by fear or the thought of losing his material possessions which he knew were transitory in any case. He was as adverse to jingoism as he was to hypocrisy. He knew what community was, what American values meant and that those values required struggle to maintain. He also knew the difference between truth and lies and how to think for himself. He never would have assumed that any prejudice was a virtue, let alone a strength or advantage.

Perhaps what Twain was most aware of, and what many of our coutrymen have lost sight of today, is basic human folly. The "partisans" today - although "partisan" is a poor word to describe them since there is no political ideology involved but rather confusion, narrow private interest and scape goat hunting - assume that we need only follow their simple solutions and all will be well and good, everyone will be fat, dumb and happy, smug in their own little cacoon of material trinkets and perfumed air. Never will be and never has been. The country was built on interests, but in the past those interests actually represented something: shipping, factories, plantations, railroads - real assets which did not just reflect economic vitality, they were the actual source of that vitality. Today, our infrastructure crumbles around us as the stock market soars at the news of million $$$ bonuses for well-placed swindlers. Those who orchestrated the greatest economic trainwreck since The Great Depression patch up what's left for their next go at the wheel. This all done in very deterministic fashion before our unbelieving eyes. What would Twain think if he were alive today?

He knew corruption, both economic and political, but they had always been balanced in his day by enough people who were able to put the country's interests first, before their own. These people of course were not only the common people able to agitate for their own interests, but the political elite as well. To get an idea of how our political elite has decayed consider the most significant (in terms of effect) president of Twain's day - Theodore Roosevelt and the most significant in our own - George W. Bush. The comparison and the state of decay should be obvious (if it is not for you try to imagine Bush just reading this speech coherently, let alone writing it).

To argue that one's corrupt narrow interests were actually those of the country would have gotten any politician or other crook tarred and feathered, and run out of town on a rail. We stopped treating people in high places like that long ago; in America today, only the poor and powerless "get what they've got coming, good and hard". Such is progress as we have been conditioned to see it.

When our children were small I used to read to them before they went to sleep. They heard a whole series of childrens' books, but the only novel I ever read to them was selections from Twain's, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain was the first American author (after L. Frank Baum) they were exposed to. I'm glad about that.


Twain and the two generations that followed his had a much clearer view of the human condition, including the human political condition, then ours ever will, I fear . . .

Refer to Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, 1922.

Read starting page 154, "The democratic ideal, as Jefferson moulded it", on to the end of the chapter.


  1. Excellent post, sir. I cannot add anything to your commentary other than, time to re-read some Twain books.

  2. Well of course this centennial was noticed in Germany:

    "Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth."

    - A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

    Not to mention "The Awful German Language" from A Tramp Abroad.

    So who says the Germans are a bit lacking in a sense of humor?



    P.S., I regret being nothing but a lurker for so long but I haven't been able to scrape up even 2 cents worth to add to the eloquent discussion have been having for some time now.

  3. Oh, and to tie Twain's centennial into the general topic of milpub, see:



  4. Almost Drafted,
    Can you name a famous German comedian?

  5. Jason-

    Thanks, but I'd watch that "seydlitz68" . . . sounds like an unreliable Typ to me . . . ;


    Twain's German essays are funny, but he loved Germany and its people.

    I did link the war prayer btw . . . "only became public much later" . . .

  6. jim-

    Heinz Rühmann, although he's better known as an actor as in "Ship of Fools" (1965).

  7. Jim,

    I confess that your question stumped me but Google came to the rescue. This guy is alleged to be Germany's most famous comedian:

    Robin Williams he ain't but I give him points for trying.

    On the topic of comedy from former WWII adversaries, the late comic Pat Morita (better known as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid) said that he was offered a standup gig in Hawaii early in his career.

    He accepted without asking any questions, only to find himself in front of 2500 VFW members who had come to Hawaii to pay respects to the servicemen entombed in the USS Arizona.

    After a few interminable deer-in-the-headlights seconds, he said, "Sorry about your harbor..."

    And the place cracked up.

    Although I'm a card-carrying member of the WASF crowd, I think that if anything can save us, it's humor.



  8. n you name a famous German comedian?

    Sgt. Schultz?

    . . . from Hogan's Heroes?

    Hoo Boy, seydlitz68 is famous. Found this linked at


  9. oops, got the # wrong.

    silly keyboard.


  10. basilbeast,

    And did you know Shultz (Johann Banner) was a Viennese Jew who on an acting tour and was banned from return to his country in 1940, after which he emigrated to the United States and served in the Army Air Force from 1942 to 1945.

    Col. Klink and others on Hogan's Heroes had similar backgrounds.

    Banner's family was wiped out in Nazi concentration camps, and that's not very funny.

  11. I read that the four main German characters in Hogan's Heroes were all Jewish, Banner even saying in effect, "who better to play a Nazi than a Jew?"

    Of course Twain's experiences were in a different Germany, a different world from what Otto Kemperer and the others experienced . . .

    Good to see you back commenting Basil . . . and posting as well? You can't expect us to run the bar all by ourselves . . . ;

    The C&L's quote of me was of Jason quoting me . . . btw. Ain't the Internet wonderful?

  12. Apropos of German-language humor, I seem to recall a rather odd little story called "Tobermory" by Saki, in which a linguistics expert teaches a cat to speak English.

    This causes great consternation among the residents of the cat's household, who are much relieved when Tobermory falls victim to a domestic dispute. The final paragraph, tho, reads:

    "A few weeks later an elephant in the Dresden Zoological Garden, which had shown no previous signs of irritability, broke loose and killed an Englishman who had apparently been teasing it. The victim's name was variously reported in the papers as Oppin and Eppelin, but his front name was faithfully rendered Cornelius.

    "If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast," said Clovis, "he deserved all he got."

  13. Crooks & Liars picked up on Jason's thread . . .

    #2 on the goggle blog search of "Mark Twain" . . .

    Kinda sad reading the comments. You don't really get the sense that many have picked up anything from what Jason posted, or me, or let alone the subject itself . . .

    Mark Twain, who is one of the significant cultural literary figures of this country . . .

    Doesn't come down to much beyond how he fits in some narrow partisan application . . . essentially whether he fits in the larger scam or not . . . whether I'm going to fall for the GWOT/latest buzzword or not . . .

    What exactly do you call that? How does one describe it?

    Mark Twain, where are you when we need you?

  14. Dead.

    Sadly, so is much of the great humanist Enlightenment from which he grew. We have become more like the weapons-grade morons he grew up around in the early 19th Century. Twain's tradition is the pre-Entertainment Era of US. history. As such we are unlikely to see his like again...

  15. And let's not forget - we remember Twain because he was a great writer. We forget that a lot of other writers of his day were writing about our "noble undertaking" to "civilize our brown brothers". Remember MSR's bullshit about the "tutelary democracy" that was our colonial rule? Yeah, that shit. I suspect there's not all that much more now then there was then.

    For all Twain could do, we DID take the PI, we DID kill a hell of a lot of people whose only fault was not wanting us there, and we DID leave and saddle them with a loathsome dictator.

  16. Agree, sadly. Our political/economic elite has pretty much given up on the ideal of an informed and participating electorate . . . instead the idea is for an atomized and easily manipulated pulp, responding mostly to fear . . . (as Al has effectively argued). Leo Strauss was of course a pre-enlightenment or rather anti-enlightenment thinker, and his view seemingly holds sway today . . .

    Obama's priority at this point seems to be to consolidate the radicalism of Cheney/Bush and to make sure the "secrets" of the Cheney bunker stay that way . . . in this regard, I found this interesting . . .

  17. Ah, MSR Roadkill has achieved a form of immortality here ... (Someday, we shall have to speak of Dr. Frank Drackman, too.)

    Seydlitz brings out a good point with this:

    "Twain ... brings out many of the dubious assumptions and notions that we simply take for granted, as our "rights" even, today without ever questioning the whole fragile and contingent nature behind them."

    I am always amazed by people's assumption that there are some sort of "natural rights" accorded man. The words in our Constitution are lovely --

    ...all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...

    but sans vigilant application, they are naught but sands in the hourglass. Every right is violable, and by the meanest among us.

  18. Lisa: The point behind our system of government was that the natural tendency of powerful men as gathered in institutions of power is to aggrandize as much power as possible, and that the only way to delay and deter this (to the extent possible) is to divide that power between branches and agencies, and, particularly, to devolve as much of it as possible onto the most representative and least executive portion as possible.

    Of course, this assumes that 1) the government will remaind the most potent organ of political power extant and that 2) the citizenry will remain suspicious and vigilant in defense of their own interests.

    Twain was one of those that "got" that the combination of human venality and greed would work to leave the structure in place but hollow out the inside of democracy. IMO he was shouting over the waves, tho. This nation has ALWAYS been about the rule of the rich, well-born and "able". Joe and Mary Lunchpail were never going to keep John and Jane Gotrocks from retaking the reins of power. When the powers-that-are determined that imperialism was the Game to Play, we played it. Now we've decided that we "need" to play the Great Game against local Islamics in central and south Asia. If this means that we must be surveilled, deceived and spun, well...

  19. Lisa: Ah, Frankie Drachman - as Al would say, The Immortal Memory!

    Let's not forget ol' Dionysus, too. He was a piece of work.

  20. FDC:

    What a wonderful crew that was, really! I was a tremendous lurker, but the boys wouldn't play with me. I remember Publius's sign off post to Frank: "Frank, we didn't like you, but you hung in there..." The highest compliment that could be paid Frank.

    As you say, "[our democracy's] success assumes ... 2) the citizenry will remain suspicious and vigilant in defense of their own interests."

    Socrates and others were wrong in thinking that man always operates in his own best interest. One need only look at Hostess Ho-Ho's, pork rinds, Lotto and "Lost" to get the idea...

  21. Lisa:

    And did you know Shultz (Johann Banner) was a Viennese Jew . . .

    I believe I saw an interview a long time ago with someone from the show, not Banner, who said that Banner loved portraying the Nazis as stupid because he was Jewish and lived during that time, but I didn't know about his family.


    Good to see you back . . .

    I've other things on my mind with a "Time of Troubles" over the past year, and it's not over yet. A bit of change of life sequence.


  22. bb-

    All the best with your "change of life sequence" . . .


    "Socrates and others were wrong in thinking that man always operates in his own best interest. One need only look at Hostess Ho-Ho's, pork rinds, Lotto and "Lost" to get the idea... "

    OK, but that does not explain the fact that my (notice I don't say "our") grandparents generation were pretty good at identifying their best economic and political interests. The success of FDR was based on that in effect. The whole "tea party movement" would have fallen flat in the 1930s and been dismissed as a "suckers rally".

    Consider the opening scene from "The Gold Diggers of 1933" . . .

    "We're in the Money" gets crashed by the cops for not paying the bills . . . not to mention "My Forgotten Man" . . . or "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?". It was very clear to them that they had been scammed and that a new way forward had to be presented, or else . . .

  23. bb,

    I, too, hope your transitions will be for the best, though change is never easy and often unwelcome. I send my best thoughts your way.

    seydlitz says,

    "my (notice I don't say "our") grandparents generation were pretty good at identifying their best economic and political interests"

    --And why would you not say, "our"? My grandparents (and parents) were the same. I am the same; I don't understand all these other dupes. (Yeah, I do, actually: greed and disingenuity.)

    The Gold Diggers of 1933 provides a very nice pop culture example of the tenor of the etimes.

  24. Lisa-

    A Southern gentleman would never directly ask a lady her age and being older would always assume her to be much younger than himself . . . my mother taught me well . . . ;

    My father was WWII generation - born 1922 - my grandparents the parents of that generation . . .

    As a kid I always heard stories of the Great Depression . . . WWII from my father's crowd, but for the older ones there was no comparison . . .