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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

February 6, 2019: The Philippine American War: Mark Twain and Imperialism

[On February 4th, 1899 Filipino rebels launched an attack on American troops in Manila, the opening salvo in what would become the Philippine American War (or Philippine Insurrection—see Thursday’s post for more on that distinction). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for that largely forgotten, brutal turn of the 20th century conflict, leading up to a weekend post on the war’s legacies for 20th and 21st century histories!]
On a couple ways to contextualize a complex, important essay.
I wrote one of my earliest blog posts, just a week into this blog’s existence back in November 2010 (ah, how young we all were!), on Mark Twain’s turn to anti-imperialism (and specifically to the Philippine question) in his 1901 essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” I had the chance to re-read the essay when I taught my Mark Twain Special Author course in Fall 2017 (more on that course in a moment), and felt then even more strongly what I had already thought was the case about “Person”: that it walks a very fine line between critiquing the kinds of paternalistic and patronizing attitudes that underlie imperialistic enterprises and ironically furthering those attitudes. That is, when Twain opens his essay with the sentence Extending the Blessings of Civilization to our Brother who Sits in Darkness has been a good trade and has paid well, on the whole,” he is clearly satirizing the motivations behind those who extend such “blessings,” and thus implicitly criticizing the notion of the “blessings” themselves; but I’m not as sure that he is using “darkness” entirely satirically, here or at any point in the essay. In any case, it’s a complex essay, and one that deserves extended reading beyond my brief engagement here!
Like all literary texts Twain’s essay also benefits from contextualization, however, and here I want to highlight a couple particular such contexts. For one thing, “Person” was part of an organized, unified turn of the 20th century anti-imperialist movement. Twain’s essay was published through the New York Anti-Imperialist League, a local branch of the American Anti-Imperialistic League. Founded in June 1898 in direct response to the ongoing Spanish American War—in the same month that yesterday’s subject, Emilio Aguinaldo, declared Philippine Independence from both Spain and the U.S.—the League gathered an impressive array of political, social, and cultural voices in opposition to precisely the kinds of imperial ventures that the war helped extend. Twain was a particularly prominent member of the League throughout its existence, and his 1901 essay should thus be read in the context of both his own many anti-imperalist statements from 1898 on and the voices and ideas of his fellow anti-imperialists over those same years. A text always speaks in part on its own terms, of course, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and these contemporary contexts are vital ones for understanding “Person.”
So too are contexts related to Twain’s half-century writing career. As I detailed in this post, one of the most enlightening discoveries I made through teaching the Twain-focused class was of his early efforts at social satire and critique. I had always thought that those genres were part of the final decade and stage of Twain’s career; but while he certainly turned to them more fully in the early 1900s, they had been a part of his journalistic and writing repertoire since at least 1866’s masterful satire “What Have the Police Been Doing?” As that piece reflects, Twain tended to maintain his satires straight through (a la Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”), meaning that it is entirely up to the readers to read between the lines and understand the authorial perspective and arguments behind the voice being both employed and satirized. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case for “Person,” and again any piece has to work to at least some degree on its own terms as we can never know with what contexts an audience would be familiar; but at the same time, we can’t read a satirical essay from an author who frequently worked in the genre as entirely separate from those career-long efforts. Just one more layer to reading Twain’s complex and crucial contribution to the debate over the Philippines and U.S. imperialism.
Next war context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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