On the night Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born - the 30th of November 1835 - Halley's comet was blazing spectacularly across the autumn sky. And although he was born two months prematurely, a frail little runt, and his mother said, "I could see no promise in him," she nonetheless expressed a hope that Halley's comet was a "bright omen" for her baby boy. Her wish came true in a sensational way. Little could Jane Lampton Clemens have known that her sickly newborn would become a blazing superstar sensation in his own right, a literary luminary and the unchallenged supernova of American society, the likes of which had never been seen - and may never be witnessed on this planet again.
Samuel Clemens fashioned his own creative - and often chaotic - cosmos wherever he went, and he saw all things as connected in some ironic or humorous and even sinister sense - including his own mortality. In 1909, at age 74 - and a year before his death - knowing full well that Halley's returned to light up the night roughly every 76 years, he said:
came in with Halley's comet in 1835...and 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' (Burns, 2001).
And sure enough, just like clockwork, when the 75-year-old Clemens died at 6:22 in the evening of April 21, 1910, there was Halley's, just barely visible on the horizon, but clearly out there to see. It was a fitting celestial conclusion to the extraordinary life of a slave owner's son who hated expansionist wars, loved a good cigar, mingled with presidents and kings, knew poverty and wealth, and made his mighty mark on the literary map as Mark Twain, America's most beloved author. Indeed, since most Americans have a familiarity with Twain's most famous works (Huckleberry Finn; Tom Sawyer; Pudd'nhead Wilson, et al.), Twain's passion for the Mississippi River and the reverence with which he held riverboat pilots is well documented. But this paper will address some of Twain's lesser-known interests - anti-imperialism, travel, politics - and struggles, which have perhaps not received the attention of his legendary books and public presentations.
Mark Twain: Famous yet Controversial
How loved and how famous had Mark Twain become late in his life? The New York Times, after his passing, wrote that Twain had been "...quoted in common conversation oftener, perhaps, than any of his fellow-countrymen, including Benjamin Franklin and [Abraham] Lincoln." Another American cultural icon of the times, Thomas Edison, said, about the death of Twain: "An American loves his family. If he has any love left over for some other person, he generally selects Mark Twain." Twain's demise was prominently eulogized and memorialized in nearly every newspaper in America - and throughout much of the western World. He was remembered as a literary giant, as the conscience of a generation, an astute social critic, and an entertaining humorist, a fellow who smoked up to 40 cigars a day. It was said that in the early 1900s, the only man in America more popular than Mark Twain, was Teddy Roosevelt.
But all that fame and notoriety didn't cut it with the editors of Harper's Bazaar five years prior to Twain's death, during the Philippine-American War, when Twain submitted - and had rejected - a bitterly satirical piece called "The War Prayer." This was not the first rejection Twain had received, but "The War Prayer" - starkly satirical yet boldly political - fell under the heading "unpublished" because Twain had an exclusive contract with Harper's, and could not market the prayer piece elsewhere.
[Note: the phrase "unpublished works" can be misleading; the phrase alludes to the fact that the work was not published in Twain's era, but, of course, was later published in one of any number of anthologies cataloging his life and portfolio.]
Before examining "The War Prayer," it would perhaps be instructive to review that fact that Mark Twain was very openly and emphatically opposed to the Philippine-American conflict, and other wars in which it appeared to him that the U.S. was acting in an "imperial" fashion (i.e., empire-building, not really "defending" the homeland). And he let it be known in numerous writings that he found contemptible those who "hid behind patriotism" and the flag, to justify aggression against other nations. "My country right or wrong..." was a phrase that caused, figuratively speaking, smoke to belch from his ears and flames from his mouth. And when Twain roared, though not everyone agreed with his ranting, people listened.
There are two kinds of patriotism -- monarchical patriotism and republican patriotism," wrote Twain, in his notebook a few years prior to his death, published by editor Jim Zwick, in 1992. Twain continued:
In the one case the government and the king may rightfully furnish you their notions of patriotism; in the other, neither the government nor the entire nation is privileged to dictate to any individual what the form of his patriotism shall be. The gospel of the monarchical patriotism is: "The King can do no wrong."
We have adopted it with all its servility, with an unimportant change in the wording: "Our country, right or wrong!" (Zwick, 1992)
In the critically acclaimed film for PBS, "Mark Twain," by Ken Burns - and the companion book by Burns and two co-authors, Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography - the authors (p. 174) talk about Twain's view of colonialism. Twain was on a world-wide lecture tour in 1895, and had spent considerable time in South Africa, about which the authors offered this:
Everywhere in Africa, European colonial powers were brazenly extending their empires. Taking someone else's land was nothing new in the world, Twain noted.
But this modern imperialism cloaked itself in a hypocritical self-righteousness that he found particularly disgraceful. "Christian governments," he wrote, "are as frank to-day, as open and above-board, in discussing projects for raiding each other's close-lines as ever they were before the Golden Rule came smiling into this inhos- pitable world and couldn't get a night's lodging anywhere
(Ward, Duncan, Burns, 2001).
One wonders how Twain would feel today about the intense tide of patriotism - bordering on nationalism in some instances - that has been rising since 9/11/01. It could be conjectured that Twain would have no problem killing bin Laden and al Queda - given that America was attacked on home shores. But would Twain view the current administration's drive to attack Iraq as "imperialism"? How would Twain have responded to Vice President Cheney's campaign style prior to the fall elections in 2002 - when, Cheney stated, that if you didn't support the president's desire for war with Iraq, you were unpatriotic? (Twain served as vice president of the Anti-Imperialism League 1900-07). Meantime, this excerpt from Twain's unpublished "The War Prayer" strikes to the heart of his rejection of expansionism. It was written in the midst of America's war in the Philippines, and mixes his patented satire with crypticism:
Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended through wastes of their desolated land in rags & hunger & thirst, sport of the sun-flames of summer & the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave & denied it -- for our sakes, who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!
Beyond his antipathy towards America's war in/on the Philippines, it's fair to note that though he also railed against England's colonial aggression in Africa and Asia, he did not oppose all wars. He supported the Spanish-American war because he believed it would "free Cuba" (albeit he later raged about the final settlement of the conflict, which, in effect, transferred Spain's colonies to the U.S.).
Censorship of Mark Twain
It needs to be noted that there are well-documented instances of serious censorship of Twain's work - including, incredibly, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, among other literature - most particularly, his later political writing. "Censorship of Twain's work was so pervasive," writes Twain researcher Jim Zwick (Zwick, 2002), "it is safe to assume that even most people who think they are thoroughly familiar…