The Twain Most Americans Never Meet
With the start of 2000 less than two months away, I've been thinking about a beloved American writer who stuck his neck out the last time people went through a change of centuries.
We revere Mark Twain as a superb storyteller who generates waves of laughter with powerful undertows of biting satire. One generation after another has grown up with the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Some of Twain's essays were less palatable; his most scathing words about organized religion seemed so blasphemous that they remained unpublished for half a century after he died in 1910.
The renowned author's fiery political statements are a very different matter. They reached many people in his lifetime -- but not in ours.
Today, few Americans are aware of Twain's outspoken views on social justice and foreign policy. As his fame grew, so did his willingness to challenge the high and mighty.
Samuel Clemens adopted the pseudonym "Mark Twain" in 1863, when he launched his writing career as a newspaper reporter in the wild Nevada territory. During the next five decades, many of his most incendiary paragraphs first appeared in newsprint.
Twain was painfully aware of people's inclinations to go along with prevailing evils. When slavery was lawful, he recalled, abolitionists were "despised and ostracized, and insulted" -- by "patriots."
As far as Twain was concerned, "Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul." With chiseled precision, he wielded language as a hard-edged tool. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word," he once commented, "is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."
Here are a few volts of Twain's lightning that you probably never saw before:
"Who are the oppressors? The few: the king, the capitalist and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat."
"Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal division."
"I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."
At the turn of the century, as the Philippines came under the wing of the U.S. government, Mark Twain suggested a new flag for the Philippine province -- "just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones."
While the United States followed up on its victory in the Spanish-American War by slaughtering thousands of Filipino people, Twain spoke at anti-war rallies. He also flooded newspapers with letters and wrote brilliant, unrelenting articles.
On Dec. 30, 1900, the New York Herald published Mark Twain's commentary -- "A Greeting from the 19th Century to the 20th Century" -- denouncing the blood-drenched colonial forays of England, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. "I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her the soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass."
Twain followed up in early 1901 with an eloquent essay titled "To the Person Sitting in Darkness." Each of the world's strongest nations, he wrote, was proceeding "with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other." Many readers and some newspapers praised Twain's polemic. But his essay angered others, including the American Missionary Board and The New York Times.
"Particularly in his later years," scholar Tom Quirk has noted, "the fierceness of Twain's anti-imperialist convictions disturbed and dismayed those who regarded him as the archetypal American citizen who had somehow turned upon Americanism itself."
We can imagine what Mark Twain would have to say these days. But policymakers in Washington can rest easy. Twain's most inflammatory writings are smoldering in his grave -- while few opportunities exist for the general public to hear similar views expounded today.
Perhaps time has verified Mark Twain's caustic remark: "None but the dead are permitted to speak truth."
Even then, evidently, their voices tend to be muffled.