Mysterious Stranger: Twain Autobiography Reveals Grandpa’s Dark Side
(Weekend Update: Apparently, some Bronze-Age bible troll reported my Facebook link to this essay as “abusive,” presumably because Twain was an atheist and Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in a nation that stinks to heaven of god-bothering, is the devil’s handiwork. Now, due to Facebook’s guilty-until-proven-innocent logic—a rule of thumb that wins the Idi Amin Dada Award for enlightened online governance—I’m unable to repost. Anything. Whether you like Twain or my work or not, I hope you’ll consider reposting a link to this page on your Facebook page as a way of saying you support free speech. If that sounds like product placement, mea culpa maxima.)
((YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Facebook appears to have repealed its ban on my links, at least for the moment, restoring the link to this article. Heartfelt thanks to all who stood with me in free-speech solidarity by reposting a link to this essay on their FB pages. Twain would be proud of you!
But I will be keeping a close eye on FB’s thoughtcrime police, in the future, and will devote a post to the subject if merited. As I note in the comment thread below, it’s a strange philosophy of community governance that accepts on faith the baseless accusations of self-appointed public morals czars, by which I mean: community members who, under cover of anonymity, bang the “ABUSE” button whenever they hear speech they don’t like. Shouldn’t the burden of proof be on them, not the other way ’round? I applaud FB’s prompt repeal of their ill-advised gag order, but worry about a privatized commons where the worst among us, who seem to have all the passionate intensity (if not the facts) these days, are able to muzzle freethinkers with the click of a button.))
Reports of Mark Twain’s resurrection are greatly exaggerated.
Still, with luck, the University of California Press’s publication of the three-volume, 500,000-word, unexpurgated edition of Twain’s autobiography, the Twain enshrined in the popular imagination as a twinkly eyed rapscallion with a gently pricking wit—Grandpa Walton as Gawker blogger—will be revised along more accurate, which is to say more mordant, lines.
That Twain the Sage of Pepperidge Farm is a sentimental caricature has been obvious since at least 1917, when Mencken published his thoughts on the subject in the New York Evening Mail. Twain had been in the ground only seven years, but already Mencken felt the need to set the record straight, inspired by the posthumous publication of books Twain had suppressed during his lifetime on the assumption that they would demolish, in one blow, his reputation as a lovable curmudgeon. Twain’s misgivings were well-founded: The Mysterious Stranger and What Is Man? are sardonic meditations, respectively, on the hypocrisies and fatuities of religion and the moral depravity and brutish self-interest of the species. “Mark Twain dead is beginning to show far different and more brilliant colors than those he seemed to wear during life,” writes Mencken, “and the one thing no sane critic would say of him today is that he was the harmless fireside jester, the mellow chautauquan, the amiable old grandpa of letters that he was once so widely thought to be.”
He goes on:
The truth is that Mark was almost exactly the reverse. Instead of being a mere entertainer of the mob, he was…a destructive satirist of the utmost pungency and relentlessness, and the most bitter critic of American platitude and delusion, whether social, political or religious, that ever lived.
The Twain rising from the grave on the centennial of his death lives up to Mencken’s press—and just in time for our age of Tea Party know-nothings and bible-thumping flatheads, not to mention CEOs like Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Tony Hayward of BP, poster boys for unchecked corporate arrogance and greed.
Twain was vociferously opposed to American imperialism, fulminating in suppressed passages in the Autobiography against “the iniquitous Cuban-Spanish War” and pouring scorn on a U.S. attack on unarmed tribal peoples in the Philippines, a “long and happy picnic” for “our uniformed assassins” who have “nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory.” As the Times points out, “[T]he uncensored autobiography…includes remarks that, if made today in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, would probably lead the right wing to question the patriotism of this most American of American writers.”
The paper quotes a blast of buckshot aimed, from the distance of a century ago, at the pinstriped swine wallowing in the Wall Street money trough today:
“The multimillionaire disciples of Jay Gould—that man who in his brief life rotted the commercial morals of this nation and left them stinking when he died—have quite completely transformed our people from a nation with pretty high and respectable ideals to just the opposite of that; that our people have no ideals now that are worthy of consideration; that our Christianity which we have always been so proud of—not to say vain of—is now nothing but a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy; that we have lost our ancient sympathy with oppressed peoples struggling for life and liberty; that when we are not coldly indifferent to such things we sneer at them, and that the sneer is about the only expression the newspapers and the nation deal in with regard to such things.”
And you wondered where the William Burroughs of “Roosevelt After Inauguration” and the Hunter Thompson of “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”—not to mention the Matt Taibbi of that joyfully savage beatdown of Sarah Palin and her low-functioning fandom—learned their close-quarter knife-fighting skills.
Nonetheless, the image of Twain as a cigar-puffing wisecracker—George Burns doing a Colonel Sanders impression—will undoubtedly prove tough to uproot, for the simple reason that Americans prefer their history Disneyfied, and have a constitutional aversion to brow-furrowing, especially about deep, dark things.
Even Camille Paglia, a literary critic of no little energy and no small gifts (when she isn’t busy defending the birthers or insisting—no, really—that this Palin gal is an intellectual firecracker) seems to have fallen for the Norman Rockwell school of historical revisionism about Twain.
In her sweeping survey of “art and decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson,” Sexual Personae, Paglia dismisses the “Wordsworthian idylls” of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as “completely out of sync with the internal development of major American literature…bourgeois fantasies about childhood and lower-class life.” With Paglia, every critical verdict is deeply personal; what sets her teeth chattering with rage, in this case, is Twain’s “dislike of the witty Jane Austen” (an English major’s idea of blood libel).Twain, it turns out, is “hateful” not only because he takes Austen down a peg but because “his folksiness and pastoralism are counterfeit, as decadent as Marie Antoinette’s masquerades as a shepherdess.” (Good line, by the way. Paglia comes to any firefight with a speedloader full of zingers.) Oh, and Twain’s late years were characterized by “gloomy negativity” (as opposed to Up with People negativity), which just goes to show that “Wordsworthian benevolence was always false,” in the same way that his boy’s adventure stories—myth “stripped of chthonian realities” (I hate it when they do that)—betray “fear of woman and fear of nature.”
The first problem with Paglia’s reading of Tom and Huck is that, while both books do indeed contain rhapsodic set pieces worthy of the term “Wordsworthian,” they’re hardly outtakes from Bambi. Twain the nature poet is a master of the form, from his Thomas Eakins evocations of the sublime majesty of the big river at night, in Huckleberry Finn, to the jeweled miniaturism of his opening description, in Chapter XIV of Tom Sawyer, of nature coming to life on Jackson’s Island, woodpecker by inchworm, catbird by ladybug, to the sturm und drang of his description in Chapter XVI of the storm that drenches the runaway boys, a Caspar David Friedrich painting in prose: “Under the ceaseless conflagration of lightnings that flamed in the skies, everything below stood out in clean-cut and shadowless distinctness: the bending tress, the billowy river white with foam, the driving spray of spume-flakes, the dim outlines of the high bluffs on the other side, glimpsed through the drifting cloud-rack and the slanting veil of rain.” This doesn’t sound, to me, like a man who fears nature; it sounds like a man who thrills to its gaudiest special effects, cheering on its cannonade of “unflagging thunder-peals” and “booming thunder-blasts.” It also sounds like a literary stylist who understands the Burkean sublime and his era’s hunger for it, and plays to that appetite with a bestselling novelist’s shrewd sense of what sells.
More to the point, Paglia thinks Twain spins “marshmallow myth” because she’s looking for the chthonian in the pagan places that matter most to her, notably, sexuality. True child of the free-love ’60s that she is, Paglia can’t seem to see how ahistorical her analysis is. Yes, Huckleberry Finn is weirdly chaste, but it’s nominally a children’s book and it was published in 1885, after all. Twain the Swiftian satirist may have had X-ray vision when it came to the social injustices and moral hypocrisies that plagued his age, but that doesn’t mean he was immune to the attitudes of the day: he was writing in, and for, Victorian America.
And yes, as Paglia’s avowed influence Leslie Fiedler argues in Love and Death in the American Novel, Huckleberry Finn is a boy’s adventure tale, a fantasy of prepubertal innocents who, spared the meddling influence of women (not to mention sexual awakening), will be boys forever. Huck flees “sivilization,” a scrubbed and stifling world of schoolmarmish scolding and goody-goody piety run by women—Aunt Polly, Aunt Sally, the Widow Douglas and the “old maid” Miss Watson—for the carefree lawlessness of life on the run among Men Without Women (his drunken father, the runaway slave Jim, Tom Sawyer). At the end of the book, Huck is on the run, once again, from the foster mothers who want to drag him back into civilization’s embrace and (s)mother him: “I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilized me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” It’s an evergreen theme in masculinist fantasies, providing the, er, seed DNA for a literary genre: the male-bonding story, saturated by sublimated (or overt) homoeroticism, that stretches from Huck and Jim to Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick to much of Hemingway and Kerouac to the pirate utopias of William S. Burroughs, right up to Brokeback Mountain.
But to argue that, because Twain is a sucker for nostalgia, he is therefore all folksiness and pastoralism is to misunderstand him profoundly.
Yes, Twain is nostalgic for the distant, drowsy summer of his boyhood, synonymous for him and us with an arcadian America shattered by the Civil War and dragged headlong into modernity by the industrial revolution. But Huckleberry Finn’s “Wordsworthian idyll” hangs in tense, perfect balance with Twain’s scabrous portrait of the herd mentality and mob violence that keep threatening to scuttle our little raft utopia, an unsteady, sometimes rudderless experiment in mass democracy. Not for Twain Whitman’s big-hearted, bear-hug embrace of a mythic American People. He knows what’s behind our tear-jerking public homilies about the American Dream, our fulsome Palin-isms about the Real America. Twain has lived in the Real America, and he knows that at its best—for instance, when a friendless, homeless boy finds the moral courage to help a runaway slave find freedom—it lives up to its myths. But he also knows it at its too-common worst: in the grotesque institution of slavery, of course, but also in the terrifying ignorance of one-horse towns where bored hicks amuse themselves by “putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to his tail and see[ing] him run himself to death” or tarring and feathering “some poor friendless cast-out women.” He grew up in the age of the lynch mob and the carpetbagger and the jackleg preacher, bilking the rubes at a tent-show revival with sanctimonious blather.
Reborn in our time, Twain would probably recognize the America of his antebellum childhood in our Tea Party rallies and subprime-mortgage peddlers and prosperity-gospel televangelists in their stadium-sized megachurches. In Huckleberry Finn, he says, across a century, this land is your land, too.
Fiedler, unlike Paglia, understands this, which is why he says, in Love and Death, that Huck is the product of “a terrible breakthrough to the undermind of America itself,” a figment of the American unconscious as it dreams “the anti-American American dream.” Yet something puzzles him:
“[T]his thoroughly horrifying book, whose morality is rejection and whose ambiance is terror, is a funny book, at last somehow a children’s book after all; and the desperate story it tells is felt as joyous, an innocent experience. This ambiguity, this deep doubleness of Huckleberry Finn is its essential riddle. How can it be at once so terrible and so comfortable to read?”
My answer to the question Fiedler posed in 1966 is simply that Huckleberry Finn’s deep doubleness is our doubleness as a nation, and thus feels familiar, terrible though it may be.
Twain dramatizes our essentially double nature—the weird mix of sentimentality and cynicism, idealism and rough justice, gregariousness and loneliness that is an essential part of the American genome. Because he was, as Mencken argues, the most American of American writers, in voice and sensibility and subject, he knows all of our secret places for the simple reason that they’re his secret places, too. His mythic portrait of the American psyche is in some ways a self-portrait. He captures our Hallmark sentimentality at odds with our love of violence; our Reaganesque nostalgia tripping over the half-buried bodies in our genocidal history; our lip-service to Christian ideals making a jarring noise against the ugly reality of our bigotry. And he manages to conjure a world that is terrible and comfortable at the same time because his yearning for a boyhood lost in time is as sincerely felt as his fury at racism and ignorance.
Twain is strangely at home with some of his scoundrels, and even exhibits a perverse fondness for them, because he realizes that he, like all Americans, shares some of their family traits. How many American icons began by reinventing themselves at Ellis Island, their dreams still echoing with the howl of the mob at their heels? How many American millionaires made their fortunes peddling promises—the dream of home ownership, say, with no money down and no background check?
Like W.C. Fields and William S. Burroughs and Tom Waits, Twain’s voice echoes with the cadences and jargon of that archetypal American, the confidence man. A felon with a thousand faces, we see him everywhere in our nation’s family photo album: carny barker, riverboat gambler, revival-meeting preacher, traveling salesman, soapbox orator, politician. He may not be the best of Americans, but he is likely the most American of Americans, with a silver tongue and something to sell and his cardboard suitcase always packed, ready to light out for the territory if somebody wises up the marks.
“On the road…I told Tom all about our “Royal Nonesuch” rapscallions, and as much of the raft voyage as I had time to; and as we struck into the town and up through the middle of it—it was as much as half after eight then—here comes a raging rush of people with torches, and an awful whooping and yelling, and banging tin pans and blowing horns, and we jumped to one side to let them go by, and as they went by I see they had the [rapscallions] astraddle of a rail—that is, I knowed it was [them], though they was all over tar and feathers, and didn’t look like nothing in the world that was human—just a couple of monstrous big soldier-plumes. Well, it made me sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”