Book Reviews

Twain's Gilded Age, and Ours

The sage of Hannibal wasn’t right about everything, but we could use a dose of his outrage today.

By David Levering Lewis

Tagged InequalityMark Twain

Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1 Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith • University of California Press • 2010 • 760 pages • $34.95

The more I think of this, the more nearly impossible the project seems,” Samuel Clemens told would-be amanuensis Albert Bigelow Paine in January 1906. It was Clemens’s penultimate attempt, after numerous false starts, to put his life story as Mark Twain on paper, and he confessed that “the difficulties of it grow upon me all the time.” Even though assisted by an experienced stenographer hired by Paine, the great American novelist and public speaker found “blocking out a consecutive series of events” to be more than he could handle. Sequence and chronology defeated him. It was better simply to “talk about the thing that something suggests at the moment—something in the middle of my life, perhaps, or something that happened only a few months ago.”

Three years later, Twain decided he was enough satisfied with the results of his dictation sessions to incorporate the best of some 30 or 40 false starts at autobiography to produce a final, immense record of memories, writings, newsprint, and letters. He called the collection Autobiography of Mark Twain and stipulated that its contents remain unpublished until a century after his death because of their subversive opinions and bald candor. As that time has come—Twain died on April 21, 1910—the University of California Press has issued a hefty first of a three-volume Twain autobiography, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith.

No doubt Twain scholars will find less to be surprised by in this unexpurgated offering from the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley than the casual student and interested reader. In disregard of the sage of Hannibal’s explicit and well-advertised wishes, Paine, acting as Twain’s literary executor and official biographer, served up a grand tranche of embargoed matter in 1924. Bernard De Voto followed with another in 1940, as did Twain scholar Charles Neider 19 years later, all of them presuming to disclose only what was best for the public’s sensibilities. None of this would have surprised the inventor of Tom Sawyer, one of American letters’ most elaborate pranksters. Readers of the North American Review, the nation’s oldest literary magazine, had been titillated by sanitized portions of the supposedly posthumous autobiography by Twain himself, who winked four years before dying that “no part” of it was to appear in book form “during the lifetime of the author.”

So what has been added a century later to what the informed already knew of Twain’s anti-imperialism, robber-baron animus, tax-dodger mockery, his sympathy for the “weaker sex,” minorities, and the deaf and blind, and his ribald impatience with humbug? A hint of plagiarism in The Gilded Age, a mortifying failure of a tribute to John Greenleaf Whittier at a dinner in proper Boston, a lengthy, excruciating sojourn in a grand Italian villa, ethical questions about publishing rights to Ulysses Grant’s memoirs, together with a good bit more, reveal themselves in this “complete and authoritative edition” as largely time-bound much ados—as, to this reviewer, does the tirelessly debated propriety of Twain’s use of the “n” word. It should occur to readers well before reaching the end of Twain’s strikingly self-indulgent and only intermittently revelatory apologia pro vita sua that its significance a hundred years on is less what it says about its time than what it reveals about ourselves in our time.

One recalls a time not too many decades ago when most Americans conceded to government a moderate regulatory role over the market economy; when the demonizing of inheritance duties as “death taxes” would have been derided as hilarious; even a time when the billionaire rich were neither axiomatically brilliant nor born to rule the republic as a matter of course. Twain royally thumped un-brilliant billionaires and their civic pretensions in the Paine dictations: “Satan, twaddling sentimental sillinesses…could be no burlesque upon John D. Rockefeller” preaching his gospel of the uplifting dime in a Cleveland Sunday school, he snorted. Admitting to a Carnegie Hall audience his “friendly, social, and criminal intercourse with the whole of them” (the tax-dodging rich), a septuagenarian Twain declared that his conscience got the better of him when tax collectors let a “whole crop of millionaires live in New York at a third of the price they were charging me.”

Even before Michael Lewis, Paul Krugman, and Lawrence McDonald succeeded in exposing ex post facto how today’s masters of speculative finance rigged their deadly games, Twain was on to these character types—first cousins of Huck’s high-strutting confidence duo, the Duke and the Dauphin—most notably in The Gilded Age. “A veering, improvised mess of a book” it may be, as Twain biographer Ron Powers judges; but The Gilded Age fixed greed and grossness in a distinctively American aspic that comes remarkably close to the great potlatch that Wall Street copiously consumed during this century’s first decade. Even with his deep understanding of Americans’ innate optimism and rugged individualism—traits in books like Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It that did so much to shape the exceptionalist American creed—Twain might be stunned to see twenty-first-century Americans either clueless or complacent before the present asymmetry in individual earning power and household wealth: a 300-percent increase in CEO compensation from 1990 to 2005, adjusted for inflation, while ordinary workers gained 4 percent. In 2007, the top 1 percent of New Gilded Age households owned 43 percent of the all financial wealth, while the bottom 80 percent of the population owned a mere 7 percent. When he told Paine that “the gospel left behind by Jay Gould is doing giant work in our days,” Twain probably foresaw that Americans would still have a large share of Jay Goulds among them a hundred years in the future.

Gould, the vilified robber baron, died as rich as Croesus. His daughter Anna burnished the family pedigree by marriage into the upper nobility of France, twice. They epitomized Twain’s Gilded Age: barrels of new money made the old-fashioned way and used to acquire the best of Europe. They were perfect representatives of the nouveaux riche types peopling The Gilded Age and The Innocents Abroad, his ribald 1867 travel satire. Gould would have been too busy watering railroad stock to have taken passage aboard the first luxury cruise ship in American history, but his doppelgangers were aboard the steamship, incongruously christened Quaker City, which transported the original ugly Americans to Europe, the Holy Land, and parts of the Ottoman and Russian empires. Anna, a gilded vedette gliding through Twain’s Gilded Age and fin-de-siècle salons, provided fodder for dinner conversation in New York society and Proust’s haut monde for years with her long-running, operatic divorce from philandering, swindling Count Boniface de Castellane.

Twain allows Anna merely a quick notice between cigar puffs in the flow of desultory dictation, telling Paine that he roots for the American girl getting the best of her “noisy [and] silly” Frenchman. The regret here is that he finds so little to say about a story that was prime rags-to-riches, coming-of-age America, leaving it to flavor Proust’s Jean Santeuil and Remembrance of Things Past. Self-made and status-hungry, affluent Americans trooped through Europe a hundred years ago like pilgrims to shrines, hayseed buyers of wholesale art, and impressionable clients of monocled marriage brokers. Yet in the virtual absence of any mention of his iconic book in the Autobiography, Twain forfeits the opportunity to favor us with the kind of high gossip that serves as history’s grist.

As it seems almost never to occur to Paine to ask Twain to dissert on his literary masterpieces, there are no then-and-now reflections by the author upon The Innocents Abroad. Like Emerson in “The American Scholar” address 30 years earlier, Twain might have told Paine that in that work he wanted to push the American mind to shed its cultural deference to Europe. In fact, as his latest biographer notes, Twain could betray in his crotchety masterpiece an occasional impatience with Old Europe that was almost Rumsfeldian. The Philistine putdown in Milan of the lacquered, grimy “Last Supper” as less impressive than the reproductions offered by artists on site, his parodying of Quaker City fellow travelers’ sighing with rapture from church to museum to temple, the verdict on Venice and its stagnant lagoons as deserving to be bypassed—these were instances of a calculated prose of obloquy to remind the Innocents that they were traveling in a past that their North Atlantic future was destined to surpass. It was in that spirit of the Protestant ethic and triumphant industrialism that he dispatched another of his protagonists, the Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan, on a quixotic modernization mission to King Arthur’s Camelot.

Now that the long century of American ascendency appears to be ending, Twain’s colorful opinions about an America primed for a starring role at the beginning of the last century hold a surprising contemporary pertinence. It’s a fair argument that America has defied Bernard Shaw’s prediction that it would go from barbarism to decadence without becoming civilized. Twain’s Innocents collected Italian artworks and French chateaux, acquired English accents and German university degrees. Johns Hopkins and Harvard imported the German university curriculum. Twain’s Connecticut Yankees went off to help Lafayette win World War I, after which a generation of Americans lost themselves in Paris. World War II, won with American money, industry, and the greatest generation (together with Russia’s greatest generation), enabled the American colossus to put the world economy on the dollar at Bretton Woods. A nation of college-educated, suburbanite consumers emerged from the federal largesse of the GI Bill. After rebuilding Western Europe and containing an imploding Soviet empire, the United States matched Augustan Rome for a brief, heady unipolar moment. Europe? Been there, done that, late-twentieth-century Americans were able to say. Certain intellectuals announced the end of history—with American liberalism as its terminus. Mark Twain’s Missouri-bred mistrust of cant could serve his twenty-first-century fellow Americans well at this point.

In a welcome departure from the many omissions and silences, Twain’s voice booms ferociously in the Autobiography when it sums up the fundamental reasons for the pervasive wrong-headedness in the United States at the turn of the last century. Omnipotent wealth and its corollary, the hubris of empire, would, he warned, gain the momentum of fatal inevitability, if not vigilantly opposed by an educated democracy. Fast forward from Twain’s time to 9/11 and our leaders’ Homeric squandering by war of the nation’s moral authority, and the Rumsfeldian putdown becomes the cruelest of self-deceptions a century after the Innocents went off to improve themselves. From Ronald Reagan on, while Americans abided the neutering of their New Deal legacies, relying instead upon the promise of market solutions to address the exigencies of health, education, welfare, transportation, infrastructure, and the environment, Old Europe transformed itself almost unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic into an economic powerhouse rivaling the United States while still mostly preserving its social safety nets. Granted, a degree of economic unreality presently sustains the European Union’s comparatively superior quality of life. But most Europeans have considered the price paid was right for the value returned: universal heath care, social-welfare networks, sanely priced higher education, day care, affordable public transportation, high-speed rail infrastructure, and shrinking defense budgets.

Historians may see something positive in the debut of the Progressive Era with the ascension of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt (those “windy pals,” Twain called them) to the White House in 1896. Not Huck Finn’s creator, who saw their election as a decisive victory of the millionaires over honest labor and popular democracy. He was likewise exceptional among his contemporaries in derogating the prevailing political and military triumphalism: the unnecessary war with Spain, illegitimate occupation of Cuba and the Philippines, annexation of the Hawaiian kingdom, followed by brutal pacification of the Philippines. As deplorable as Twain thought the Spanish-American War, he may actually have believed his own statements that “impulsive” Teddy Roosevelt’s martial celebrity and consequential occupancy of the White House was as great a travesty of genuine progressivism as the war itself. Instead, he cheered the onward march of socialism and bemoaned the bestowal upon Roosevelt of the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for successful mediation of the Russo-Japanese War. “[T]hat fatal peace had postponed the Russian nation’s imminent liberation,” Twain told a visiting leader of the failed 1905 Russian revolution. Nevertheless, he lived for the day when czars and dukes were “as scarce there as…in heaven.”

Unfortunately, the Autobiography reveals that by 1906, Twain felt sure most of his compatriots had forgotten their revolutionary origins. “[O]ur people have no ideals now that are worthy of consideration,” he barreled on to the astonished Russian visitor. Yet despite his insistence that they no longer possessed their “ancient sympathy with oppressed peoples,” a distinguished 3,000 had filled Carnegie Hall on a January evening that year to hear Twain’s fundraising eloquence on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Tuskegee Institute, the renowned Alabama vocational college founded by Booker T. Washington. Tuskegee and its celebrated founder epitomized the nation’s new race-relations compact in the aftermath of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court’s fateful 1896 civil-rights decision ordaining separate and equal citizenship for African Americans.

Rehearsing the Carnegie Hall evening for Paine some days later, the author of the leading contender for the Great American Novel shared a most curious confidence. Having found himself in Washington’s company several times before, only on the Carnegie Hall stage had Twain made the sudden discovery that the Tuskegee principal was a mulatto: “Always, before, he was black, to me.” “Last night, he was a mulatto” and had “blue eyes,” Twain marveled, adding he had “never noticed whether he had eyes at all,” then going on to praise Washington’s “wonderful work in this quarter century.” Dr. Washington, the Great Negro Leader, and the corporeal Booker Taliaferro Washington, a man of as much personal capacity as any accomplished white man, fused in a flash in Twain’s mind that evening. It seems certain that Mark Twain and W.E.B. Du Bois never met; nor do any of the former’s thoughts about Du Bois’s American classic, The Souls of Black Folk, spring to mind. Even so, Twain’s Carnegie Hall epiphany seems to have been a perfect illustration of the existential divide between the races incomparably described by Du Bois in his 1903 classic: “like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”

To write about American slavery, as Twain did with picturesque verisimilitude in “A True Story,” Pudd’nhead Wilson, and, superbly, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, entailed passing moral judgments on a disgraceful institution; it did not mean, however, that Twain ever took the next step from judging an issue to knowing the people victimized by it. As he tells Paine, he never saw anything wrong with slavery as a boy growing up in the pre-Civil War South. “All the negroes were friends of ours,” he said, adding significantly, “we were comrades, and yet not comrades.” The Autobiography recalls that at age nine, Twain was saved from drowning by an elderly slave woman. A childhood playmate’s sad singing annoyed him and elicited his mother’s unforgettable reprimand that the little slave, Sandy, sang constantly in order not to think about never seeing his mother again—“but be thankful for it.” Twain gave Sandy a small part in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The whites and blacks of Twain’s antebellum generation were united by a common history that was separately experienced.

Ron Powers, in his biography, relates the delicious story of how Twain, upon introducing himself to legendary editor William Dean Howells soon after The Atlantic Monthly’s favorable review of a short story, chortled that he was as relieved about the review as a woman who was “glad her baby had come white.” This was said four or five years after Appomattox, when he stood on the threshold of his career as a national literary treasure, when the Fifteenth Amendment had just given black men the vote, and the defeated Confederate states were about to be upended by Radical Reconstruction. By then, Twain had developed a fine sense of the injustice and risible irony of the arbitrary advantage of being white in America. Perhaps it was more than enough that he felt so, notwithstanding that time-bound caricature in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn of inarticulate, superstitious, woebegone “nigger” Jim. Following Ernest Hemingway’s interpretive lead, a consensus of literary critics locates, two-thirds into this American ur-text, the great flash of definitive meaning when Huck decides, in violation of religion, culture, and the law, not to send his letter reporting Jim’s whereabouts to his slave mistress. “And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day, and in the night time,” says Huck. “ ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.”

Huckleberry Finn tells its readers that systemic problems spawned by racial slavery in America must be confronted by liberal white women and men whose consciences will measure up to Huck’s. When the Supreme Court of the United States screwed up as much moral courage as Huck for its unanimous 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, its implicit premise was much the same as the great storyteller’s. One hundred years after Mark Twain fell silent, the nation has embraced a self-forgetful accommodation in a new era of putative post-racialism in which even the word “nigger” is edited out of foundational texts. Agency is no longer, if ever it truly was, the prerogative of white people. The enormous changes in American society since the civil-rights revolution were achieved in large part by men and women whose individual complexions and eye color Mark Twain would have been slow to notice. One can as easily imagine Huck Finn as a black or a white person now, or as multicolored. Whether or not many of these new Huck Finns can exhibit the equivalent moral courage to face the problems of the present that still bear surprising resemblance to antecedent ones remains very much uncertain.

Read more about InequalityMark Twain

David Levering Lewis has written biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1994 and 2001. He is Julius Silver University Professor at New York University.

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