Monday, October 11, 2004

The Ghost of Mark Twain

Mark Twain was a converted anti-imperialist during the Philippine-American war. His satirical wit was invoked for anti-imperialist messages in poems and short stories. Here is one passage from The Mysterious Stranger published in Harper's Monthly November 1916, after the U.S.'s involvement in WWI, although Twain wrote it during the Philippine-American war. Many of his writings on war weren't published until after his death, at his request (although publishers had already rejected some of his more critical submissions).

The loud little handful--as usual--will shout for the war. The pulpit will--warily and cautiously--object--at first; the great, big dull bulk of the nation will rub its sleepy eyes and try to make out why there should be a war, and will say, earnestly and indignantly, 'It is unjust and dishonorable, and there is no necessity for it.'

Then the handfull will shout louder. A few fair men and the other side will argue and reason against the war with speech and pen, and at first will have a hearing and be applauded; but it will not last long; those others will outshout them, and presently the anti-war audience will thin out and lose popularity.

Before long you will see this curious thing: the speakers stoned from the platform, and free speech strangled by hordes of furious men who in their secret hearts are still at one with those stoned speakers--as earlier--but do not dare to say so. And now the whole nation--pulpit and all--will take up the war-cry, and shout itself hoarse, and mob any honest man who ventures to open his mouth; and presently such mouths will cease to open.

Next the statemen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception"(pp. 293-294).*

I quote the "Ghost of Twain" not because there are so many similarities or differences from anti-war/pro-war sentiments today. But simply to highlight that he requested this and "The War Prayer" to be published after his death.

"'I have told the truth in that,' Twain said in adding 'The War Prayer' to the pile of manuscripts that were not to be submitted for publication, 'and only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead'" (p. 295).* He thought the Philippine-American war was a war of avarice and went against the ideals of "Americanism," and worse because the war started with the cry of bringing liberty to peoples under the rule of Spain, which is what he initially supported. He compared critically the Philippines (who fought for their own independence from Spain and then the U.S.) with the Boer War in South Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China, understanding them as imperialistic wars of greed.

I didn't know the level of resistance to the Philippine-American war before I started researching for my dissertation. I also didn't know Mark Twain was an activist until my first year of graduate school. The Spanish-American war was known as the "Splendid Little War" from which the imperialist president Theodore Roosevelt rose as the prototypical strong, gruff and manliest of men. He was after all the leader of the "Rough Riders." I do remember learning this in middle school. Other lesser known things came of that time, such as the "water cure" which is a type of torture mechanism (I may post on this in detail another time) used on Filipino prisoners to gain information and from which many died.

My main point of this anecdote is to point to the role of history in producing political knowledge of a nation and the people making that nation. I knew about Rough Riders, but I didn't know about anti-imperialists. Coincidence, conspiracy? I don't think so. Underlying orders of society that filter and produce educational institutions (and knowledge)? Of course.

* As quoted in Foner, Philip. 1958. Mark Twain: Social Critic. New York: International Publishers Co., Inc


At 1:32 AM, Blogger Carolyn said...

Quite interesting Erin. I also remember being taught about Teddy Roosevelt and the "Rough Riders" long before I knew anything about Mark Twain's anti-war activities. Please note: I have been to the Mark Twain House in Hartford at least four times, and the tour is mostly about how elaborate the home is, not much about Mark Twain as a writer or academic. I digress. As I was reading about Roosevelt, I thought of how much Bush resembles this tough cowboy image. Does this president, and the small group of people who might be future president's, have stock in portraying Teddy Roosevelt as a cowboy, and fail to mention Mark Twain and other influential academics at all? Indeed, its this elite group's way of keeping the institution of the presidency in the hands of a select group, who possess the "favorable" characteristics that Roosevelt did. So, lets teach 4th graders about Teddy Roosevelt, how it was great he was a cowboy and had teddy bears named after him, and groom them into voters who see war as a positive. Great post, Erin.

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