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Mark Twain: writer and tribune of the oppressed

by Peter David

Huck and Jim in one of the original illustrations from Huckleberry Finn

Huck and Jim in one of the original illustrations from Huckleberry Finn


Mark Twain remains one of the US’s best loved novelists, 100 years after his death. The writer of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has been declared the “father of American literature”.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the US literary establishment carefully cultivated an image of Twain as a hero of the American frontier and expansion.

However, this vision was very far from the reality. Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in the US state of Missouri in 1835. He was an anti-racist, trenchant critic of imperialism and a revolutionary.

The release of the first volume of his unexpurgated autobiography offers an entertaining tale of his life and shows his hatred of capitalism and imperialism.

It is no conventional autobiography. It has an unusual structure, with the narrative starting at no particular point and then being driven along by what Twain was interested in at that moment.

Clemens became a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River in his mid‑20s. He took his pseudonym from this time—it was a term used to denote that the boat was safe as there were two fathoms of water beneath it. He went on to work as a miner and later a journalist.

Exposed

He became a champion of the poor and oppressed, and an enemy of the powerful. Some of his earliest newspaper articles exposed state racism towards Chinese immigrants in San Francisco.

He married Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy family that campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Through her family he met socialists, atheists and women’s rights campaigners—he supported equality for women.

He became friends with the former slave and leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, and later befriended Helen Keller, the inspirational deaf and blind woman who was also a committed socialist. A letter from Keller to Twain concludes this volume of his autobiography.

Tom Sawyer was published in 1876 and Huckleberry Finn in 1885. They are now established literary classics, but the elite at the time condemned them. Many libraries refused to stock them because the adventures of poor boys in the tough towns along the Mississippi River were considered coarse and immoral. Both novels are written largely in dialect, with swear words and slang included.

The books are set before the abolition of slavery and Huckleberry Finn was particularly despised as the white hero escapes with Jim, a runaway slave, and they from a close friendship.

Huck even rejects the advice of his “conscience”, which tells him that in helping Jim escape he is stealing his guardian Miss Watson’s property. Huck says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!”

Twain wrote this at the time of a racist onslaught against black people in post-Civil War America.

The novel remains controversial today due to the use of the word “nigger” and the sometimes stereotypical depiction of Jim, so it is still one of the most banned books in the US.

Sympathies

But all of Twain’s sympathies are with the boys and Jim, and all his condemnation is aimed at the slaveowners.

Twain had a penchant for ploughing all his money into disastrous get-rich schemes. Despite—or maybe because of—this, he was also an anti-capitalist. He supported the Knights of Labour, one of the most important parts of the early union movement.

He said, “Who are the oppressors? The few: the King, the capitalist, and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat.”

Twain supported the 1905 Russian Revolution. When he was criticised for his political views, he argued, “I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle.

“I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute.”

The last two decades of Twain’s life saw him become a trenchant anti-imperialist as the US attempted to spread its power and influence. After the 1898 Spanish-American War drove Spain from the Philippines, Twain wrote, “We do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.

“It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

We will learn a lot more about the life and views of Mark Twain by the time this 2,000-page, three-volume autobiography is finally published in full.

Radio Four is serialising the autobiography in its Book of the Week show. Go to www.bbc.co.uk/radiofour for details


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Tue 9 Nov 2010, 18:50 GMT
Issue No. 2227
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