MARK TWAIN --- PHILOSOPHER OF DEMOCRACY
The Serious Side of the Famous Humorist Whose Dominant Note Was Love of Liberty and Hate of Shams.
"I am through with work for this life and this world." - Mark Twain to the reporters on his return from Bermuda, Dec. 1909.
Call a philosopher a humorist, and for the rest of his life, though he live to be more than 70, people will grin expectantly whenever he heaves a sigh. There are humorists and humorists: there is Marshall P. Wilder, and there was Shakespeare. It might have perturbed Shakespeare a little if, when he returned to London, city editors had called the staff funny man and said, "Bill Shakespeare, the humorist, got back today. Go and get him to spring a few jokes." It might have annoyed him if people had eagerly bought his latest play, and after reading it had said, disappointedly, "I don't see anything funny in this 'Hamlet.' Shakespeare isn't doing as good work as he used to; there isn't a laugh in it anywhere."
But the label "humorist" was clapped on Mark Twain, the same label that is proudly worn by Marshall P. Wilder, and he passed into his seventies leaving a great many Americans unaware that it was an inadequate a description as would be the case if George Washington was described as a "surveyor." Washington was a surveyor, of course; yes, and Mark Twain a humorist.
Therefore it came to pass than an eminent British critic was able to read from cover to cover that terrific, blazing denunciation of monarchy, aristocracy, and class privilege called "A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's court," looking laboriously for the joke. He found it, of course, but he remarked disappointedly that the joke of putting a Yankee at the Round Table was one which was exhausted in twenty pages, and to prolong it over 400 was to spread it pretty thin. If some one had told the Briton that looking for the joke was as silly a proceeding in this case as it would have been in the case of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," he would never have understood it.
Some years ago a well-known American novelist published the story of how he and some of his friends got into a dispute abut what town it really was that had served as the model for "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg." Some thought it was one city, some another. Finally, meeting Mark Twain on a railroad train, they left it to him. Mark Twain listened to them and evaded the subject; the novelist could not imagine why.
It is easy to understand what weariness of soul must have possessed Mark Twain when this man - not an ordinary fool, but a man of letters - and his friends, presumably all men of intelligence, evinced so complete a misunderstanding of him. For, of course, the place that was the model for Hadleyburg were the human race, the nineteen men of light and leading were the virtuous and untempted of all times and all places. What would John Bunyan have thought if some eminent men of his day had asked him, to settle a bet, what city he had in mind when he made Christian flee from the City of Destruction - London or Bristol?
And John Bunyan's purpose was no stronger than, in many of his works, was Mark Twain's. Things hidden from the wise and prudent are revealed to babes. It was a fourteen-year-old child who first saw the truth - that astonishing little Susy Clemens, who studied her father with the wise eyes of a critical childhood and then wrote down:
"He is known to the public as a humorist, but he has much more in him that is earnest than that is humorous. ... His 'Prince and Pauper' is his most original and best production; it shows the most of any of his books what kind of pictures are in his mind, usually. Not that the pictures of England in the sixteenth century and the adventures of a little Prince and pauper are the kind of things he mainly thinks about, but that that book and those pictures represent the train of thought and imagination he would be likely to be thinking of today, tomorrow, or next day, more nearly than those given in 'Tom Sawyer' or 'Huckleberry Finn.' "
"It is so yet," commented Mark Twain, reading this comment over twenty-one years later when the little hand that wrote it had long been dust.
"When we are alone," continued the keen little observer, "nine times out of ten he talks about some very earnest subjects, (with an occasional joke thrown in,) and he a good deal more often talks upon such subjects than upon the other kind.
"He is as much of a philosopher as anything, I think. I think he could have done a great deal in this direction if he had studied while young, for he seems to enjoy reasoning out things, no matter what; in a great many such directions he has greater ability than in the gifts which have made him famous."
By this judgment of his clear-sighted little critic Mark Twain stood. He felt that she understood him. "Two years after she passed out of my life," he said long afterward, "I wrote a philosophy. Of the three persons who have seen the manuscript only one understood it, and all three condemned it. If she could have read it she also would have condemned it - but she would have understood it."
"While I have been waiting here," said George Bernard Shaw, grasping Twain's hand as he stepped on English shores two or three years ago, "the representatives of the press have been asking me whether you were really serious when you wrote 'The Jumping Frog.' " If they had asked him if Twain were merely joking when he wrote "Eve's Diary," "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," "A Connecticut Yankee," or "The Prince and the Pauper," they would have committed a blunder in which they would have had plenty of company.
As long as he used a humorous setting for his doctrines the mass of stupid people looked only at the setting and never saw the doctrine. When he dropped the comic mask and issued straight from the shoulder those savage denunciations of our Philippine policy and of the looting missionaries in China the same stupid people were shocked and grieved, and said it was regrettable to see "the genial humorist" deserting his usual walk to enter into polemics. They actually did not know that what he was saying in those denunciations was what he had been saying all along in the works which they had laughed over for the "genial humor" contained in them.
"Mark Twain," said Shaw, "is by far the greatest American writer. I am speaking of him rather as a sociologist than as a humorist. Of course he is in very much the same position as myself - he has to put things in such a way as to make people who would otherwise hand him believe he is joking."
And to judge by the shrieks of rage which were aroused by Twain's assaults upon Gen. Funston and the American Board of Foreign Missions, Shaw was almost literally correct, even as to the hanging. Yet all Twain did in those cases was to take the comic mask off and say without it what he had been saying from behind it for years.
Never was there a more splendid democrat than Mark Twain. His democracy is the sort that searches below the forms and cant words of the conventional democracy. Take, for instance, this view of "loyalty to the institutions of the country" - how Mark Twain's idea of it differs from that of the routine patriot:
"You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one's country, not to its institutions or its office holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from Winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rages - that is loyalty to unreason; it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it."
When Mark Twain came out seriously - with the comic mask off - against our Philippine policy his denunciation was received with grieved pain and surprise, as something entirely new, by the very people who ten years before had read and laughed over the "Connecticut Yankee," in that book, written long before the Philippine annexation, is this clear exposition of Mark Twain's doctrine on that point:
"There is a phrase which has grown so common in the world's mouth that it has come to seem to have sense and meaning - the sense and meaning implied when it is used: that this is the phrase which refers to this or that or the other nation as possibly being 'capable of self-government,' and the implied sense of it is that there has been a nation somewhere, sometime or other, which wasn't capable of it - wasn't as able to govern itself as some self-appointed specialists were or would be to govern it."
When Elihu Root, in 1906, made his speech pointing out the rapid centralization of Government at Washington, the rapid wiping out of State rights, Mark Twain commented in his autobiography:
"He did not say in so many words that we are proceeding in a steady march toward eventual and unavoidable replacement of the Republic by monarchy, but I suppose he was aware that that is the case. He notes the several steps, the customary steps, which in all ages have led to the consolidation of loose and scattered governmental forces into formidable centralizations of authority, but he stops there, and doesn't add up the sum.
"Human nature being what it is, I suppose we must expect to drift into monarchy by and by. It is a saddening thought; but we cannot change our nature; we are all alike, we human beings; and in our blood and bone, and ineradicable, we carry the seeds out of which monarchies and aristocracies are grown: worship of gauds, titles, distinctions, power....We have to be despised by somebody whom we regard as above us, or we are not happy; we have to have somebody to worship and envy, or we cannot be content.
"In America we manifest this in all the ancient and customary ways. In public we scoff at titles and hereditary privilege; but privately we hanker after them and when we get a chance we buy them for cash and a daughter....And when we get them the whole nation publicly chaffs and scoffs - and privately envies - and also is proud of the honor which has been conferred upon us. We run over our list of titled purchases every now and then in the newspapers, and discuss them and caress them, and are thankful and happy.
"Like all the other nations, we worship money and the possessors of it - they being our aristocracy, and we have to have one. We like to read about rich people in the papers; the papers know it, and they do their best to keep this appetite liberally fed. Then even leave out a football bullfight now and then to get room for all the particulars of how, according to the display heading, 'Rich Woman Fell Down Cellar - Not Hurt.' The falling down the cellar is of no interest to us when the woman is not rich; but no rich woman can fall down cellar and we not yearn to know all about it and wish it was us...
"I suppose we must expect that unavoidable and irresistible circumstances will gradually take away the powers of the States and concentrate them in the central Government, and that the Republic will then repeat the history of all time and become a monarchy, but I believe that if we obstruct these encroachments and steadily resist them the monarchy can be postponed for a good while yet."
Mark Twain was an advocate of every reform which seemed to him in line with this fundamental democracy of his - curtailment of privilege, extension of human rights - the democracy which was always his passion. He was an advocate of woman's suffrage, for instance. When he returned from Bermuda last December he was asked his views on that question and replied that he had advocated it in his writings "for fifty years."
The reporters asked him: "That was before the recent demonstrations of the work of the militant suffragettes. Do you approve of their methods? And the sturdy democrat made this significant reply:
"The cause of freedom cannot be won without vigorous fighting. Militant methods have appeared necessary to the women who have adopted them. The women have the interests of a great cause at stake, and I approve of their using any methods which they see fir for accomplishing the big results which they are fighting for. You may use one method to carry a cause to victory; I may use another. Militant methods have appeared necessary in the fight of the suffragettes in many places where the cause finds its main supporters."
Here, from his autobiography, is a terrible visualization of some of those statistics which seem so meaningless when we gaze blankly at printed tables. With his usual dramatic method, he introduces it with a reference to Tennyson's verses forecasting "a future when air-borne vessels of war shall meet and fight above the clouds and redden the earth below with a rain of blood." Then he introduced his statistics - that on our 200,000 miles of railway we annually kill 10,000 persons outright and injure 80,000. Now for the picture:
"I had a dream last night. It was an admirable dream. What there was of it.
"In it I saw a funeral procession; I saw it from a mountain peak; I saw it crawling along and curving here and there, serpent like, through a level, vast plain. I seemed to see a hundred miles of the procession; but neither the beginning of it nor the end of it was within the limits of my vision. The procession was in ten divisions, each division marked by a sombre flag, and the whole represented ten years of our railway activities in the accident line. Each division was composed of 80,000 cripples, and was bearing its own year's 10,000 mutilated corpses to the grave; in the aggregate 800,000 cripples, and 100,000 dead, drenched in blood."
Another quotation, showing the quality of Mark Twain's democracy - again from the "Connecticut Yankee":
"Why, it was like reading about France and the French before the ever-memorable and blessed Revolution which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal wave of blood - one; a settlement of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery, the like of which was not to be mated but in hell.
"There were two 'Reigns of Terror,' if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions, but our shudders are all for the 'horrors' of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake?
"A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror - that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves."
Here is his view of an Established Church:
"Concentration of power in a political machine is bad; and an Established Church is only a political machine; it was invented for that; it is nursed, cradled, preserved for that; is it an enemy to human liberty, and does no good which it could not better do in a split-up scattered condition."
"The Prince and the Pauper" is a beautiful story, but it is also the plainest of parables. It is the parable of democracy, the equality of man - the Robert Burns democracy of "a man's a man for a' that." Put the pauper in the Prince's clothes, and after he has become adjusted to his circumstances no one can tell the difference; indeed, no one does suspect it even before that adjustment is made. And the pauper rules the kingdom wisely as the King.
Who has analyzed the meaning of mobs, the psychology of lynching, the philosophy of hoodlumism, the truth of White Capping, as Mark Twain has in the speech which he puts into the mouth of Col. Sherburn, addressing the cowed Arkansas mob that has come to lynch him, in "Huckleberry Finn"? And its bitter analysis of certain phases of the South is all the more pregnant as coming from a born Missourian and ex-Confederate like Mark Twain:
"The idea of you thinking you had pluck enough to lynch a MAN! Because you're brave enough to tar and feather poor, friendless women that come along here, did that make you think you had grit enough to lay your hands on a MAN? Why, a MAN'S safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind - as long as it's daytime and you're not behind him.
"Do I know you? I know you clear through. I was born and raised in the South, and I've lived in the North; so I know the average all around. The average man's a coward. In the North he lets anybody walk over him that wants to and goes home and prays for a humble spirit to bear it. In the South one man, all by himself, has stopped a stage full of men in the daytime, and robbed the lot. Your newspapers call you a brave people, so much that you think you are braver than any other people - whereas you're just as brave, and no braver. Why don't your juries hang murderers? Because they're afraid the man's friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark - and it's just what they would do.
"So they always acquit, and then a man goes in the night, with a hundred masked cowards at this back, and lynches the rascal. Your mistake is that you didn't bring a man with you; that's one mistake, and the other is that you didn't come in the dark and fetch your masks...
"Now the thing for you to do is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole. If any real lynching's going to be done it will be done in the dark, Southern fashion, and when they come they'll bring their masks and fetch a MAN along."
If any one wishes to know what Mark Twain though of women let him read "Eve's Diary" - but read it understandingly. Thousands have laughed over it; there must have been hundreds with sensibility enough to read it with a warming of the heart. How, throughout it, Mark Twain laughs at women with tears in his eyes! It is a portrait of woman. Running through all of it is this dogma: Through woman alone can there be a sense of beauty in the world.
The superiority of woman to man is a tiresome and meaningless stock-in-trade after-dinner orators [sic]. It is doubtful if anybody has ever believed in it sincerely, or if he has it is certain that he never succeeded in explaining it. But Mark Twain, without saying it at all, has deftly wrought, on every page, the explanation of wherein this superiority consists - without discussing at all that other question, the superiority of man to woman. Contrasted with the sensitive, imaginative, eager creature is the unimaginative, materialistic Adam, who conscious throughout of the things in which he is superior, never learns of the things in which she is superior - never, that is, until the lonely man writes this inscription on her grave:
"Wheresoever she was, there was Eden."
And with that the story closes.
There is much more than democracy in Mark Twain's philosophy, but the other features of it would require a chapter by themselves. But his view of such matters as heredity, environment, and other catch words of the sort is never summed up better than in the "Connecticut Yankee":
"Training - training is everything; training is all there is to a person. We speak of nature; it is folly; there is no such thing as nature; what we call by that misleading name is merely heredity and training. We have no thoughts of our own, no opinions of our own; they are transmitted to us, trained into us.
"All that is original in us, and therefore fairly creditable or discreditable to us, can be covered up and hidden by the point of a cambric needle, all the rest being atoms contributed by, and inherited from, a procession of ancestors that stretches back a billion years to the Adam-clan or grasshopper or monkey from who our race has been so tediously and ostentatiously and unprofitably developed.
"And as for me, all that I think about in this plodding sad pilgrimage, this pathetic drift between the eternities, is to look out and humbly live a pure and high and blameless life, and save that one microscopic atom in me that is truly ME; the rest may land in Sheol and welcome for all I care."
Return to The New York Times
Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search