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Mark Twain’s conflict with America

By Susan K. Harris


My respect for Mark Twain has soared lately. I started looking seriously at his political side in 2003, when I taught his anti-imperialist essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” the week the U.S. invaded Iraq.  For the first time, Twain’s anger resonated with me, but I didn’t know what drove it. I’d always accepted the prevailing biographical narrative that personal disasters fueled Twain’s temper tantrums in his last decade.  That didn’t really work for “Person,” however; the essay indicts the U.S. for complicity in imperialist aggressions throughout the world. Twain’s anger is political, not personal, and it’s based on a definition of American citizenship that, though rife with contradictions, still provides the touchstones for American identity—and for the American political rhetoric that addresses it.

Mark Twain shared a common understanding of U.S. identity and world mission. The  national narrative originated in nineteenth-century history texts, which fuse Protestant-Christian and Enlightenment values.  According to the textbooks, the Puritans came to the New World to establish religious freedom, and American civil liberties are a uniquely Protestant idea.  The doctrine of Free Trade became part of the narrative, semantically shifting words like “freedom” to connote the marketplace rather than the social arena. By the end of the century the energies of 19th-century evangelical outreach crossed over into U.S. national self-fashioning, and history texts positioned the Founding Fathers as directors of a divinely mandated mission to spread American civilization around the globe. The contradiction lay in the fact that although the narrative indicated that it was America’s duty to help other nations gain freedom from oppressive colonial powers, it also suggested that only people of Anglo-Saxon descent were capable of fully enacting modern civilization.

Twain supported American intervention in Cuba because he believed that we had practiced our values by helping Cubans free themselves from Spain.  At first he also supported intervention in the Philippines, but when he realized our intent was “to subjugate, not to redeem,” the Filipinos, he changed his mind. He thought President McKinley’s claim that it was America’s duty to “civilize and Christianize” the Filipinos was “hogwash” and “pious hypocrisy,” and he was keenly aware of the racism that drove the debates—exemplified by Pennsylvania’s Representative Henry Dickinson Green’s declaration that  he opposed a citizenship for Filipinos because “We cannot make them white.  We cannot make them like our citizens.”

Twain also recognized the damage annexation could do to our national reputation. By 1899 Mark Twain was very much a citizen of the world, and he knew that all eyes were on the U.S. as it pondered whether or not to annex. Opinions varied. Rudyard Kipling, speaking for the imperialists, urged the U.S. to “take up the white man’s burden” and help Britain spread western civilization around the world, while Europeans sneered that the Americans, who had berated them for dividing Africa and Asia among themselves, had fallen at the first temptation to get a colony of their own. Rubén Darío, speaking for Latin Americans, accused Teddy Roosevelt of believing “that progress is just eruption,/ that wherever you put bullets,/ you put the future, too.” And Apolinario Mabini, crafter of the Philippine constitution, warned the U.S. that “force … cannot annihilate the aspirations of eight million souls who are conscious of their own power, honor, and rights; blood will not drown them, it will only nourish their great ideas, the eternal principles.”

Clearly, Mark Twain was not alone in thinking that the Americans had betrayed their founding values for what he labeled a “backseat” in the community of imperialist nations.

That narrative still drives Americans’ understanding of national identity. We still believe we are a nation of white Protestants, despite massive evidence to the contrary, and our politicians have to avow their Christianity to be creditable.  Our leaders invoke divine guidance when they dispatch troops, and we quarrel endlessly over the contents of American history texts.  Moreover the rest of the world continues to fling our values back at us: in 2006 Iranian President Mahmound Ahmadinejad asked President Bush how it was possible to bomb Afghanistan and still profess “to be a follower of Jesus Christ…feel obliged to respect human rights, [and] present liberalism as a civilization model.

Twain called the Philippine-American War “a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater,“ adding, “I wish I could see what we are getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.”  We’ve been stuck in a lot of quagmires since 1900. We’ve rarely benefited from them, and each time, policy decisions have eroded civil liberties at home and pummeled our reputation abroad.  Now the fusions of marketplace, foreign policy, and religious ideologies have driven us into a world crisis, but our national narrative has not changed, and we are unable to break through to a clearer understanding of who we are and how we should be conducting ourselves on the world stage.

Susan K. Harris is the Joyce and Elizabeth Hall Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Kansas. She is the author of God’s Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902.

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