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.