While in Hartford, CT last weekend, I toured the Mark Twain House again. He built it, lived there seventeen years, and wrote most of his books, including Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, in the third floor billiards room. He was arguably the most famous American of his day, quite possibly our greatest writer, and contrary to what some believe, he was a political progressive, anti-imperialist, and distinctly anti-racist.
For Twain’s critics, the novel is racist on the face of it, and for the most obvious reason: many characters use the word “nigger” throughout. But since the action of the book takes place in the south twenty years before the Civil War, it would be amazing if they didn’t use that word.
A closer reading also reveals Twain’s serious satiric intent. In one scene, for instance, Aunt Sally hears of a steamboat explosion.
“Good gracious! anybody hurt?” she asks.
“No’m,” comes the answer. “Killed a nigger.”
But anyone who imagines that Mark Twain meant this literally is missing the point. Rather, Twain is using this casual dialogue ironically, as a way to underscore the chilling truth about the old south, that it was a society where perfectly “nice” people didn’t consider the death of a black person worth their notice.
Twain,in fact, was an early and vocal champion of civil rights. He sponsored and paid full tuition for the first black to attend Yale Law School, Warren McGuinn. His letter recommending McGuinn for entrance into Yale Law is on display at the Mark Twain House.
From an interview with filmmaker Ken Burns
When Twain visited New Haven in 1885, noted the filmmaker, he met and befriended Warren McGuinn, an African-American student who was struggling to stay in Yale despite grinding poverty. Twain ended up paying the young man’s entire expenses at Yale, said Burns, adding that McGuinn went on to become a respected lawyer and later in his career a mentor to future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall <the first black member of that court.>
Twain also founded an Anti-Imperialist League in opposition to the stomach-turning US invasion of the Phillipines.
From Norman Solomon
At the turn of the century, as the Philippines came under the wing of the US 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.
Twain followed up in early 1901 with an 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.”
Sound familiar? Those who oppose the insane wars of imperialism get accused of being anti-American…
Mark Twain was born as Halley’s Comet streaked through the heavens and said
I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.”
And yes, they did go out together. He died in 1910.
And of course, there were his many witty, now-famous quotes.
“It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.
Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.
Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.
Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.
Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying that I approved of it.
The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.
When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.
The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.
The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.
Sacred cows make the best hamburger.”