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Saturday, November 13, 2010

November 13, 2010: The Emergence of the Twain

The Civil War tends to dominate our sense of the 19th century in America, and for good reason. But the story of the century as a whole, if it’s going to be summed up in one concept, has to be imperial expansion. From the Louisiana Purchase with which the century opened to Manifest Destiny, the Texas Republic and the Mexican War, the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, the Annexation of California and Oregon, and the purchase of Alaska, virtually every decade of the century witnessed a new stage in our pursuit of an expanded national territory. And of course that pursuit came to a head in the century’s final decade, and the first to which the term imperialism is usually explicitly connected, at least in part because the situations that led to the takeovers of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and, especially, the Philippines were controversial and violent in ways that—coupled with the distance across which our empire was now expanding—made it impossible to simply apply a narrative like Manifest Destiny to these pursuits.
I could write a whole post about the Philippines, and probably will sometime, although if so I’m gonna have to work in the newest film from our greatest under-appreciated filmmaker, John Sayles. But here I wanted to focus instead on the ways in which these most blatant and troubling imperialistic pursuits galvanized the satirical political voice of America’s most famous writer (then for sure, and probably now as well), Mark Twain. By the end of the century Twain had written in most every literary genre, and he had certainly never shied away from satirizing even the holiest of topics (literally, like tourist pilgrimages to the Holy Land; and figuratively, like most everything else humans hold dear). Nor am I saying that he hadn’t been engaging for some time already with complex and dark American social realities—whatever your take on works like Huck Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson, they’re certainly dealing with issues of race in American history and identity in ways that represent a significant departure from a kids’ book like Tom Sawyer. But it took the imperialist endeavors, and most especially the clusterfuck (pardon my language, but I spent a good ten minutes and there’s just not a better word for it) that was our campaign against the Filipino insurrection, to draw out a side and voice of Twain’s that is, to my mind, singular and hugely powerful in his very sizeable body of work.
He articulated that voice in “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” an essay he wrote for the New York Anti-Imperialist League in 1901. It’s pretty short and I’ll link to the full text below, and here, as usual, Twain can speak for himself better than I could ever paraphrase or summarize. Plus, filial obligation (see link #2) requires that I not pretend to be the Railton best-equipped to analyze anything Twain-related. So I’ll just say that, while at times the essay devolves into a somewhat dated contrast of the British, “Chamberlain” version of imperialism (which Twain argues we have sadly adopted) and the more noble American one (which we have thus abandoned), it also features a prose style that combines the trenchant political critiques of a Thoreau or Douglass with the plain-spoken vernacular that had made Twain his fortune; a style exemplified by sentences like “The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: ‘There is something curious about this -- curious and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive's new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.’” It’s hard to imagine a voice better suited to make the case to a broad and mainstream American audience for the deep-seated dangers and evils of our turn of the century imperialist endeavors.
I don’t ever want to get too blunt with connections between my daily topics and contemporary situations or issues—partly because that would always do an injustice to the specifics and complexities of those topics themselves; and partly because I believe that while the best scholarship can have political ends, it is not, in and of itself, centered in the political conflicts of its own moment. But it’s damn hard to read an essay like this and not think of a phrase and concept like “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” isn’t it? More tomorrow, on a group of petitioners who took the rhetoric and aims of the Revolution more literally and idealistically than did the Founders themselves.
PS. Those aforementioned two links to start with:
2)      The best first place to go for all things Twain on the web (and that’s the AmericanStudier, not the Railton, in me talking):

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