Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The wisdom of Mark Twain

I spent an entire semester reading and studying Mark Twain in college, and it was one of the most enjoyable classes I ever took. My novel in progress owes a huge debt to Twain. So when I saw Time magazine's recent cover feature on Twain, I had to read it. The first article was written by Roy Blount Jr. (talk about a writer who owes a huge debt to Twain!). Blount points out much of Twain's scathing commentary could have been written about today's news:

What about those Abu Ghraib photographs? In "King Leopold's Soliloquy," a fulminating essay he published in 1905, when he was a very cantankerous 70, Twain imagines the ruler of Belgium pitying himself for the inconvenience of photos showing natives of the Congo whose hands have been cut off by Belgian exploiters. In the good old days, Leopold complains, he could deny atrocities and be believed. "Then all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible Kodak--and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn't bribe."

Waterboarding? In 1902, American soldiers were involved in a war to suppress rebels in the Philippines, which the U.S. had taken from Spain in the Spanish-American War, then decided to keep for itself instead of granting the Filipinos the independence they thought they had been promised. That outcome enraged Twain. So did "the torturing of Filipinos by the awful 'water-cure.'"

"To make them confess--what?" Twain asked. "Truth? Or lies? How can one know which it is they are telling? For under unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless."

The companion article to Blount's is by Stephen L. Carter, "Getting Past Black and White," in which he argues that Twain was the "man who popularized the sophisticated literary attack on racism...Twain, raised in a slave state, briefly a member of a Confederate militia, and inventor of Jim, may have done more to rile the nation over racial injustice and rouse its collective conscience than any other novelist in the past century who has lifted a pen.
Or typed on a computer."

The articles sent me back to my 2-volume set of Twain's Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays, published by the Library of America in 1992. In response to a lynching that occurred in Missouri, Twain wrote an essay titled, "The United States of Lyncherdom."
But what struck me, in the context of my novel, was this passage:
It is thought...that a lynching crowd enjoys a lynching. It certainly is not true; it seems impossible of belief. It is freely asserted--you have seen it in print many times of late--that the lynching impulse has been misinterpreted; that it is not the outcome of a spirit of revenge, but of a "mere atrocious hunger to look upon human suffering." If that were so, the crowds that saw the Windsor Hotel burn down would have enjoyed the horrors that fell under their eyes. Did they? No one will think that of them, no one will make that charge. Many risked their lives to save the men and women who were in peril. Why did they do that? Because none would disapprove. There was no restraint; they could follow their natural impulse. Why does a crowd of the same kind of people in Texas, Colorado, Indiana, stand by, smitten to the heart and miserable, and by ostentatious outward signs pretend to enjoy a lynching? Why does it lift no hand or voice in protest? Only because it would be unpopular to do it, I think; each man is afraid of his neighbor's disapproval--a thing which, to the general run of the race, is more dreaded than wounds and death. When there is to be a lynching the people hitch up and come miles to see it, bringing their wives and children. Really to see it? No--they come only because they are afraid to stay at home, lest it be noticed and offensively commented upon.
Twain proposes that we remedy this situation by stationing one morally courageous man in each community to "encourage, support and bring to light the deep disapproval of lynching hidden in the secret places of the heart." But Twain doubts that there are enough brave people for the task, and so proposes bringing American missionaries in China back home to the lynching fields, because "our country is worse off than China."

My novel is about a boy who becomes one of those brave men. I hope to do him justice!

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