American Culture

Mark Twain and public discourse

The prevailing argument among our brilliant crew of writers here  at S&R lately over our public discourses v. those of our opponents goes something like this: some of us want to take the high road in public discussion of the issues; some of us want to go into the same attack dog mode that our opponents use; and some of us, as Sam Smith so eloquently notes in his post on the matter:

… some of us watch the debate with a good measure of conflict in our souls. We think about it, we test the implications, we agonize over it, all because we appreciate the complexities of politics and culture and we understand the human, emotional and spiritual costs as well as we do the collective, physical, economic ones.

Today Scholars & Rogues honors our 50th masthead scrogue, Samuel L. Clemens of Hannibal, MO, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain – arguably (though I don’t think there can be much argument) America’s greatest writer.

I don’t write much for S&R anymore.  I am a novelist and professor by calling (S&R is rife with literary types – at least two novelists besides myself and at least one “big time professional” poet and I know I’m omitting one or several, so forgive me, colleagues). I have, in the years since S&R’s founding, drifted away from writing for this “marketplace of ideas” on a regular basis partly because I prefer the contemplative work of long form fiction writing, partly because I hear the voice of W.B. Yeats in my ear:

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

I would have liked Yeats to use the word “writer” rather than “poet,” but the sense is plain enough, I believe.

Twain, a man of many parts was, of course, a public figure – and as such was obliged to engage in public discourse on occasion. Rather than blather on about his literary genius, I think a look at some of his public discourse might be most enlightening for those who want some idea of one of the deepest wells where S&R draws its inspiration.

The primary mode of public (and private) discourse in Twain’s time was the letter. In this first example, a March 1885 letter to the secretary of the Concord (MA) Free Trade Club, Twain responds to being made an honorary member of that august organization. The letter is rather long, so I offer two paragraphs of several  in which he avails himself of this opportunity to explain why he appreciates the singular distinction conferred upon him:

It does look as if Massachusetts were in a fair way to embarrass me with kindnesses this year. In the first place a Massachusetts Judge has just decided in open court that a Boston publisher may sell not only his own property in a free and unfettered way but may also as freely sell property which does not belong to him but to me – property which he has not bought and which I have not sold. Under this ruling I am now advertising that judge’s homestead for sale; and if I make a good sum out of it as I expect I shall go on and sell the rest of his property.

In the next place, a committee of the public library of your town has condemned and excommunicated my last book (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and doubled its sale. This generous action of theirs must necessarily benefit in one of two additional ways. For instance, it will deter other libraries from buying the book and you are doubtless aware that one book in a public library prevents the sale of ten and a possible hundred of its mates. And secondly it will cause the purchasers of the book to read it, out of curiosity, instead of merely intending to do so after the usual way of the world and library committees; and then they will discover, to my great advantage and their own indignant disappointment, that there is nothing objectionable in the book, after all.

One has only to remember recent Supreme Court rulings concerning the ability of cities to use eminent domain to take private homes and look at a list of highly successful and respected banned authors to realize that Twain is being both entrepreneurial in the best American sense of the word and asserting his First Amendment right to free speech.

Twain’s February 1891 letter to the Hartford (CT) gas company offers us a case where his concern for public safety forces him to take on the menace of corporate indifference towards consumer safety:

Dear Sirs:

Some day you will move me to the verge of irritation by your chuckle-headed Goddamned fashion of shutting your Goddamned gas off without giving any notice to your Goddamned parishioners. Several times you have come within an ace of smothering half of this household in their beds and blowing up the other half by this idiotic, not to say criminal, custom of yours. And it has happened again to-day. Haven’t you a telephone?

This, friends and foes is the essence of public discourse. There are instances in every person’s life when it may become necessary to speak the truth to power in language that anyone can easily understand.

That’s what we do at S&R. We follow the example of Mark Twain. We post our opinions and welcome those of our readers. Feel free to post your thoughts concerning this article.

Just try not to be a Goddamned chuckle-head.

8 replies »

  1. There’s so much I love about Twain–as a writer, humorist, public figure, journalist, and on and on. He’s scholar and rogue all in one. Really nice job contextualizing him for us, Jim.

  2. Thanks for that bit of perspective. I hadn’t realized quite what gigantic footsteps I follow when I teeter back and forth between borderline rabidity and some of my more diplomatic attempts at the smack-down. I thought I was just moody 😉

  3. It’s wonderful to see that Twain is still alive and well. He would surely be one of our great fist shakers if he were here today. I wanted to share with my fellow Twainiacs here that we (the Mark Twain Museum) produced a double-CD last year that tells Twain’s life in spoken word and song. Clint Eastwood provided the voice of Twain, Jimmy Buffett the voice of Huck, and Garrison Keillor is the narrator. Singers include Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, etc. It’s a wonderful project, and we’re trying to get the word out since it’s a fundraiser for our museum. Keep tagging Twain! He’s the best!

  4. the fiction of “speaking truth to power”

    Elegant piece, thanks, and always good to be reminded how much Twain could squeeze out of so relatively little. I don’t write truth (or propaganda) to power as I can’t imagine the top 5-10K power brokers alive in this country knowing or caring what plebes say. Even more celebrated writers.

    I write to entertain fellow travelers, watching the train wrecks and national ruins, and yes, occasional joys, so we may appreciate the parade and the pilgrimage. We are all on the train of history and we should experience what delights it offers. I have no presumption to be a change agent. Of course, no one knows all the ripples from any action, gesture or satire. So we soldier on, though with wit, not guns.