For some years, it has been becoming clearer that the Library of America is the symbol for itself that the United States has long been in search of. Colonial Williamsburg is too Disneyfied to stand for tradition, Disneyland too childish to stand for innovation, Mt Rushmore too big to stand in your living room. You can line up the Library of America on a few shelves. Of course, the French could do the same sort of thing earlier. The Pléiade was the library that Edmund Wilson had in mind when he caned the Modern Language Association for burying the country’s intellectual heritage while pretending to preserve it, sponsoring volumes that owed too much to pedantry, not enough to readability, weighed a ton, and looked like hell. Wilson kept up the campaign for a long time but seemed to stand no better chance of winning it than of beating his income-tax rap. Then the Library of America made Wilson’s dream happen. From its first few volumes it was obvious that the Library of America had struck the ideal balance between authority and portability. Its volumes begged irresistibly to be picked up, like brilliant children.
Remarkably, they didn’t lose this unthreatening quality even as they multiplied. If you own more than about thirty of the sixty-five volumes so far, monumentality becomes a present danger: the massed black jackets loom like midnight, and it starts to look as if the Pléiade had chosen better – first, to wear white, and then, when that started looking like a cliff of snow, to let the horizontally striped gold-blocked spines show through a transparent jacket, like scaling ladders to a Fabergé Bastille of imprisoned wisdom. But you can always alleviate the pangs of gazing at a wall of uniformity by taking one of the Library of America volumes down and letting it fall open in the hand. If this is dignity, it is user-friendly. And with these two volumes of Twain’s minor writings here is the original, unashamed vitality that lies at the heart of the whole enterprise. You could just about convince yourself that Huckleberry Finn was a work of literature in the Old World style, aimed at a refined public – after all, it certainly has the rank, if not the manner. But Twain’s journalism is a daunting reminder that he was ready to lavish everything he had on everybody, every time. He was democratic all the way down to his metabolism. For Twain, there was no division between democracy and creativity. They were versions of the same thing: exuberance.
Twain’s fugitive pieces have been collected before; but now we have, with just the right amount of critical apparatus, the authoritative texts, and all arranged chronologically, so that we can watch him grow. He grew like bamboo in the rain. His first hit was a newspaper sketch called ‘Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog’. Twain wasn’t the first American journalist to write tall tales under a pen name; Petroleum V. Nasby, whom Twain knew and admired, was one of several practitioners already in the field. Nor was Twain the first to combine the high style with the low, squandering highfalutin resources on a shaggy-dog story. What was new, attention-getting, and instantly popular was the quality of the evocation when he worked the switch out of mandarin diction into the concrete vernacular.
The story of the Jumping Frog is told to Twain by a yarn-spinner – ‘good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler’ – who isn’t afraid to be boring: ‘Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair – and then sat down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph.’ Twain is true to his word: Wheeler is what the British would call a crasher. His story of Jim Smiley and the Jumping Frog goes on for pages before it even gets to the frog. Much more of it would put the reader to sleep, even though Twain the narrator makes it clear that the verbosity belongs to his interlocutor, not to him. But Wheeler’s drone goes on just long enough to ensure that we are given the set-up for the story without suspecting how funny it’s going to get. We hear that Jim Smiley, who owns the champion jumping frog, suckers himself into a bet with a hustler who appears to know nothing about frogs. But while Smiley is out of the room (Twain rather muffs this bit: we don’t find out Smiley has left the room until after we are told about how the stranger works his trick) the stranger fills Jim’s precious frog with a meal of lead shot. At just the moment when the champion frog gets the cue to unleash it’s usual stunning jump, Wheeler’s long-winded vocabulary snaps into focus. The champion frog ‘give a heave, and hysted up his shoulders – so – like a Frenchman, but it wasn’t no use – he couldn’t budge; he was planted as solid as a anvil.’ The anvil is good, but Twain’s mentor, Artemus Ward, might have done it. The Frenchman’s shrug is what makes it Twain. You can see it happening.
The Jumping Frog story was reprinted in periodicals all over the United States following its publication in 1865, and two years later it was the keynote piece of Twain’s first collection, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. Twain was disappointed with the way the book’s publication was handled, and was further miffed to find that it didn’t sell very well, but the Jumping Frog had already done its job in the periodicals. The young Mark Twain was made, and so was a tradition. It was a comic tradition, but now more than ever that shouldn’t be taken to mean that it was merely humorous. Every subsequent American humour writer writes in the range of tones established by Twain. When Thurber says of his fellow economics student the football player Bolenciecwcz that ‘while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter’, he is in touch with Twain. Even so cosmopolitan a pasticheur as S. J. Perelman, whose macaronic vocabulary seems bent on superseding provincialism as its first impulse, sounds, when he has a picture to evoke, like Twain talking. There is a Perelman story that begins with the narrator waiting for his date to show up. The story goes off somewhere else, and long after we have forgotten about the date she finally appears, ‘sobbing drunk with a Marine on either arm’.
That instant of clarity, with all the baroque vocabulary suddenly forgotten, wouldn’t have been the same if Twain hadn’t first written such pieces as his tour-de-force diatribe of 1882, ‘The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm’, in which the new burglar-alarm system makes the house so attractive to burglars that they come to live there, until there is ‘not a spare bed in the house; all occupied by burglars’. The burglars take the alarm system, along with everything else. You could be watching the characters accumulate in the New Old Lompoc House, W. C. Fields’ favoured hostel in ‘The Bank Dick’, or – to go beyond America, as Twain’s influence almost immediately did – you could be listening to Stephen Leacock talking about his first bank account, or Henry Lawson telling his story about the Loaded Dog, the dog that got its teeth fastened into a bomb and terrorized a mining camp. Leacock was active in Canada and Lawson was an Australian determined to free the natural speech of his countrymen from the thralldom of literary precosity. Twain’s style had reached both of them, and in America it was all-pervasive almost from the start.
Unfortunately, American humour, like every other American product, has long since paid the inevitable penalty attached to any consumable in a society of abundance. There are so many choices that they all seem the same. It isn’t really like that – nobody sane has to watch the comedy channel all the time it’s on the air – but it seems like that. There is a humour glut, as if being funny were an escape from reality. Twain never thought so. For him, humour was a way – and just one of the ways – to escape from unreality. He wanted to get the whole of life into his most casual work. He was a comic writer in the classic sense: Dante’s divinely inspired cosmos was a comedy because it mixed low speech with high, the profane with the sacred. In that sense, even Shakespeare’s tragedies were comedies. Twain was in the recognizable position of the storyteller who emerges during the formative history of his country and helps to provide its characteristic voice, thereby incidentally reinforcing the general rule that genius arrives early. Twain and Dickens, in their public position so similar – best-selling authors who electrified audiences when they read aloud – were different in this: Dickens was only metaphorically creating a world, whereas Twain was literally creating a nation.
Perhaps re-creating would be a better word. Like Shakespeare arriving after Bloody Mary left, Twain was lucky in his timing. The new nation looked as if it had just finished destroying itself, in the Civil War. The young Twain had managed to stay out of the war’s way. In ‘The Private History of a Campaign That Failed’, a piece written in 1885, he looks back twenty-five years to the young man he was when history suddenly boiled up all around him. As slaveowners went, Twain’s family had been liberal and even enlightened, but when the war started Twain didn’t hesitate to join a small volunteer group of Confederate riders hiding out in the woods. He just hesitated about what to do next. So did they all. One night, a strange rider materialized from the direction of the Union camp. Twain had a sixth share in shooting him down – or, anyway, he remembered it that way. That was enough for him. He faded away to the West. If President Clinton gets this set of books as a birthday gift from his wife, he will find consolation here, because if Twain didn’t know what to do about a war that split the nation’s heart he did know what to do about healing the wound. When that war was over and he started to publish in earnest, he treated the two sides as if they belonged together. Not that he spread any soft soap. He was fierce on the liberal issues. Mrs Clinton will find her spirit here, too: perhaps the President should give her the gift.
Twain’s journalism is full of contempt for racism in all its forms. Like Swift, he had a low opinion of the human race in general, reserving his admiration for individuals. He was not much given to admiring ethnic authenticity, but he condescended on a cultural basis rather than a racial one. For any creed or colour that was being persecuted he was a vocal champion. Chinese immigrants given a bad time by the locals could count on one kind voice, at least. His initial sympathy for America’s Cuba adventure was based on his contempt for Spain’s horrific colonial record, which was almost as bad as its domestic record. When the United States began to show Spanish tendencies in the Philippines, Twain soon started condemning American colonialism too. As with the Spanish, so with any other European nation: he was always ready to point out that the Old World had dirty hands. Belgium’s depredations in the Congo survived the invective of Roger Casement, but King Leopold II’s reputation was settled forever by Twain’s ‘King Leopold’s Soliloquy’, which had Leopold performing absurd mental gymnastics to disown the atrocities committed in his name.
Twin knew that the brute facts of imperialism undid all pretensions to civilization on the part of the old countries. But he never lost sight of the great crime at home. In view of recent suggestions, inspired by the dubious spirit of political correctness, that Huckleberry Finn and other major works of Twain’s should be swept from the library shelves because of the picture they paint of black people, it is useful to read through Twain’s journalism and see just how much time and effort he put into fighting Jim Crow. When the first lynchings occurred in Missouri, he wept for his home state in a plangent threnody called ‘The United States of Lyncherdom’. It is all written in one long sob: ‘And so Missouri has fallen, that great state! Certain of her children have joined the lynchers, and the smirch is upon the rest of us.’ In another essay, Twain reminded the evangelists that their fathers had thumped the same Bibles while perpetrating the same blasphemy, ‘closing their doors against the hunted slave’.
There is enough said outright in the journalism to remind us, if we needed reminding, that Twain speaking in story form was and remains the great post-bellum writer about the condition of whites and blacks in the America they share. Only his vocabulary can blur the point, and it is a nice question whether the fault is his rather than ours. In the fictional South inhabited by Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson, even the blacks call blacks niggers. It was the way things were. But if you can see past what you hear, the great message of those books is about human equality, and how racism violates it, reducing everyone to servitude, and no one more than the supposed master. The emotional centre of Huckleberry Finn is Jim’s story of how he escaped. Huck listens silently, as well he might, because it is only by grace that Jim is not including him in the vast system rigged against a slave’s bid for freedom – the whole white civilization.
In ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’, the sixteenth-black Roxy is an invention that Toni Morrison might have been proud of: indeed, it is hard to read Beloved without wondering whether Roxy might have been one of the models for its heroine. Roxy has a boy baby– only a thirty-second black, but that’s enough. Twain shirks the probability, which the modern reader instantly suspects, that Roxy’s owner must have been the father, but he doesn’t shirk anything else. Roxy’s boy, black even though he doesn’t look it, is doomed to be a chattel. So she swaps him for the owner’s all-white baby of the same age. What happens to the changelings gives no comfort to the sentimental, for whom a more satisfactory story would have centred on the white boy turned into a black, in the way that Kipling’s ‘Captains Courageous’ made the rich boy poor, and so revealed the actual world to him. Twain concentrates on the black boy turned into a white. He grows up as a wastrel, thief, liar and cheat. We are at liberty to suppose that he got the seeds of these characteristics from his white father, but we would have to ignore what Twain spells out: Twain is saying that a slave-owning household is a bad one to grow up in – even worse for the personality than the shack where the slaves live, with the fear of being sold down the river.
Reading ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’, we would like to rewrite it so that the slave boy’s natural goodness reforms the whole system by example. But one of Twain’s points – and the point that, apart from his vocabulary, is most likely to irritate the politically correct – is that natural goodness doesn’t come any more easily to the oppressed than it does to the oppressor. The only person of noble character in the book is Roxy, and she is no genius: she can’t tell that the bank she puts her hard-earned money into will fold; she doesn’t know how to avoid being whipped until her back looks ‘like a washboard’. (Toni Morrison’s terrifying descriptions of Sethe’s wounds from whipping in Beloved deserve their high reputation, but as a climactic passage in a horror story they can’t hope to have the unexpected impact of Twain’s quiet phrase slipped into a light narrative, like a bite in a kiss.)
Twain thought that the Negro question was the biggest issue facing America both past and present, and he gave it his best efforts, in his private life as in his public work. His personal conduct on the issue was impeccable. It is well known that Twain helped finance the education of Helen Keller. Less well known is that he supported one of the first black students to attend Yale all the way through college without meeting him more than once. Twain thought that to do such a thing was a white man’s plain duty and shouldn’t depend on the personal qualities of the beneficiary. Twain thought that the white man’s debt was endless. He didn’t come out on the side of the Union just because it won. The Southern cause had depended on repressing a minority, and that made the cause irredeemable.
Twain had the same sympathy for all oppressed minorities, including (this would have got him into trouble if he had lived later) the workers. Harbouring no illusions about the benevolence of unrestrained capital or the innate wisdom of the free market, Twain guessed that there would have to be an organized union movement to secure elementary rights for those who had to sweat. But he allowed no crude prejudice against those who made money from them. Accepting human villainy to be even more fundamental than human decency, Twain didn’t believe you needed a conspiracy theory to explain piracy. He deplored anti-Semitism, and pointed out that the Jews were good at making money because so many of them were honest. He was one of the most vocal Dreyfusards after Zola.
Twain’s sympathy for American Indians might not be apparent in an early piece like ‘The Noble Red Man’, of 1870, which would not please Marlon Brando, but really Twain was just mocking the idea that the Noble Red Man had lived in a civil order that made modern American civilization look barbaric by comparison. Twain didn’t believe that you could set about dealing with the deficiencies of modern American unless you first stopped dreaming of Arcadia. He was as optimistic as one could be about modern life without seeing it through pink glasses.
Twain’s sympathy for women might similarly seem questionable by modern standards – on the whole, he preferred to joke about the issue of women’s suffrage rather than face it – but he was a long way ahead of his time. His work is full of flirtation that now seems like condescension. ‘There may be prettier women in Europe, but I doubt it,’ he writes about the women of Genoa in The Innocents Abroad. ‘The population of Genoa is 120,000; two-thirds of these are women, I think, and at least two-thirds of the women are beautiful. They are as dressy, and as tasteful and as graceful as they could possibly be without being angels,’ etc. Andrea Dworkin probably wouldn’t like that much. Twain suffered from gallantry, chivalry, and all the other virtues that we have since been instructed are vices in disguise. But he always spoke against the exploitation of women as servants and married chattels, regretted the conditions that doomed them to do less than they could, and never doubted that they could do anything. His article reflecting on Joan of Arc’s trial is a clarion call that could fill an issue of Ms. In private, he was famously tender to his sick daughters and lived in a state of controlled despair about his invalid wife: he was so devoted to her that he was thought saintly by powerful men of his acquaintance, some of whom weren’t saintly at all and had had been, by implication, flayed in his regular philippics against the great crime of seduction. (When it turned out that Maxim Gorky, during his tour of America, was sharing his hotel suite with a mistress, Twain ceased to call on him, not because he had broken the law but because he had violated custom.)
In fact, Twain was so blameless that he is likely to make us uncomfortable. Nowadays the press – the cultural press, which is no less implacable than the doorstep reporters, only a bit slower – would try to get something on him. In his last years, he compensated for the loss of his dearest daughter by cultivating the friendship of pre-teen young ladies he called ‘angelfish’. Shades of Lewis Carroll and Ernest Dowson, not to neglect Roman Polanski and the Mia Farrow version of Woody Allen! A promising field of inquiry. On second thoughts, it seems more likely that as he neared the end of his great long life the prospect of new life became incandescent to him. Inviting his young friends to tea, corresponding with them as they grew up, he was passing on his love of the world, which he loved even more than his country, although he could see the world’s faults more clearly than anyone else. But he didn’t despair about correcting them. Having despaired of the human race in the first instance, he was free to cheer any of its achievements, and he thought America among the greatest. His journalism shows, in a more readily detected form than his books, that he cherished and relished America’s entire creativity in a way far beyond the literary – or, at any rate, in a literary way that didn’t leave out the political but brought his country’s every institution and custom under scrutiny, whether to be celebrated or castigated. William Dean Howells was right to call him the Abraham Lincoln of American literature.
Howells was one of the few American men of letters and cultural figures who saw Twain’s literary stature from the beginning. Most of them, even when they revelled in his work, missed the point initially. In a country nominally dedicated to a new start and equal rights, there was still a nervous tendency to keep high art and popular entertainment rigidly separate: the urge to build a first-rate culture came to the aid of snobbery. In the European countries, high-culture was self-assured enough to acknowledge the possibility of art up from nowhere. Twain the entertainer won his first celebrity at home, but the first solid admiration for Twain the great artist happened elsewhere. The Jumping Frog made him famous all over America. The Innocents Abroad made him famous all over the world, and, paradoxically, it was in the old countries, to which American was supposed to be the democratic alternative, that the artist found himself at home. His first internationally famous book was a product of his tentative initiation into foreign travel, and after that he was almost always on the move, clocking up thousands of miles like a modern frequent flier, but with one big difference: he was never blasé about it. The thrill of discovery that he transmitted made him irresistible even to those inhabitants of exotic lands who might otherwise have felt patronized by being discovered.
The Innocents Abroad is a weak book by Twain’s later standards. Even his gift for parody, one of the basic weapons in his comic armoury, was a blunt instrument before he learned that if it was to stay sharp it would have to spend most of the time in its scabbard. In Huckleberry Finn, the duke’s all-purpose Hamlet soliloquy is the paradigm case of all bardic spoofs. In The Innocents Abroad, the parodic instant history of Abelard and Héloïse could have been the product of Twain’s first pseudonym, W. Epaminondas Adrastus Perkins: ‘She lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. I do not know what a canon of a cathedral is, but that is what he was. He was nothing more than a sort of a mountain howitzer, likely, because they had no heavy artillery in those days. Suffice it, then, that Heloise lived with her uncle the howitzer, and was happy.’ And so on.
But if Twain’s comic fantasy had a long way to go before it would be infallibly funny, his gusto for the reality in front of him was fully developed right from the start. He saw everything, relished everything, and without playing the yokel as much as you might think. Rereading the book now, you can see what he had that all of us have lost. He was first in on the new mobility – the first great writer to be a traveller without having had to be an explorer. He is discovering the world as a world citizen: a true Weltbürger is speaking to the people he is travelling among just as much as to those at home – to them and for them.
They loved him for it. In the twentieth century, foreign nations that have been defeated by American power – or, even harder to forgive, saved by it – have comforted themselves with the reassuring caricature of the know-nothing American traveller, who might as well not have left home. In the nineteenth century, Twain was the know-everything traveller, who made his homeland seem doubly attractive by so engagingly representing its energy and creativity. His natural ear for the melody of his own language applied to other languages, too. He could read French well enough to make a good job of pretending to misunderstand it. Late in his life, spending a lot of time in Italy, he acquired enough of its language to write a wildly inventive piece concerning a story in an Italian newspaper about some fatal imbroglio. His German was good enough to enable him to read easily.
He was no scholar in any language but an easily nourished dabbler in anything he took up. The mistake is to mark him low for being unsystematic. He was, but genius often is. His opinions on literature were pragmatic, not to say erratic. He could praise Cervantes’ romanticism and not say a word for Jane Austen’s realism, although her keen appreciation of the power of money in human affairs lies far closer to his cast of mind than any amount of tilting at windmills. But really Twain was not interested in literature as such. He was interested in it as a part of everything else. When pointing out what he didn’t know about art, one is always wise to remember what he did know about, say, science. His was a wide-ranging mind. He was American global expansionism before the fact.
In England, he was lionized by royalty, the literary establishment, the whole flattering system. Oxford gave him an honorary degree. (Saint-Saëns and Rodin got their degrees at the same ceremony as Twain: cue music and fade up the sound of chisel on marble.) Shaw was only one of the big names who called him a great master of the English language. More remarkably, his magic survived translation – indirect proof that it was his point of view that drove his style, and not vice versa. His work was translated into all the major languages. The Kaiser requested an audience. Nor was the encounter one of those ill-advised diplomatic gestures called for on a whim and arranged by equerries, of the type in which Irving Berlin was called into the presence of Winston Churchill, where he was surprised to find that the conversation had little to do with popular music, a puzzle later resolved when it turned out that Churchill had thought he was consulting Isaiah Berlin on matters of diplomacy. The Kaiser had read Twain’s books and thought Life on the Mississippi to be the best. (The porter at Twain’s hotel in Vienna held the same opinion.) At least when Twain was abroad, he didn’t suffer from being unappreciated. He could have easily suffered from the opposite.
At home, he became accustomed to a high standard of living: even during his recurrent periods of financial embarrassment, there was usually a millionaire friend to provide a private railroad car or a trip on a yacht. But that was nothing to how he lived it up in less democratic lands. The grand hotels of the European spas routinely offered him a reduced tariff, or no tariff at all, just to have his fame on the premises. In Tuscany, he lived in a villa, like Bernard Berenson. He could make himself at home no matter how high the ceiling and exalted the company. Countesses plumed like birds of paradise ate out of his hand. Yet he was never corrupted. The Innocent Abroad stayed innocent. How was that?
Surely the main reason was America itself. He had a pride in his country all the more robust for his loathing of patriotism, which he thought the enemy of common brotherhood. It follows that he thought America was its friend – a contention he could propound without sounding naïve, because he never blinked his country’s follies while praising its virtues. The Henry James option – to go abroad and set up shop where artists were mode coddled – had no appeal for Twain. For one thing, he was much loved in his homeland, even when he wasn’t fully understood. For another, and more important, he would have regarded exile as patronizing, a betrayal of the enterprise that was his burgeoning nation, a flight from adventure into safety, and a craven endorsement of those who looked down from what they imagined were the heights of civilization on a land that he refused to believe was anything less than history’s great opportunity for human fulfilment.
This explains the touch of anger that creeps in when he dismantles Matthew Arnold’s snooty observations on Grant’s use of the English language. There is no evidence that Twain disliked Arnold personally. When they met they seem to have got on like two sets of facial hair on fire. But in print Twain took obvious glee, masquerading as regret, in picking Arnold’s prose style apart to show that it wasn’t as classical, or even as grammatical, as its perpetrator thought. Arnold, according to Twain, had no call to speak de haut en bas: the haut just wasn’t all that high. As a corollary, and without having to say so, Twain demonstrated that the bas wasn’t all that low: his homespun demotic was more economical than that Arnold’s solemn rodomontade, and in prose the economical is the classical.
Twain’s celebrated demolition of James Fenimore Cooper is based on the conviction that American English is a classical style that has to be protected against the impurities of posturing humbug. Twain traced Cooper’s exfoliating verbiage to its roots in the besetting sin of inaccurate observation. ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses’ and ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Further Literary Offenses’, both collected here, are killingly funny – funnier, even, than Macaulay’s pitiless inspection of the poetry of Robert Montgomery. Poor Montgomery was celebrated at the time, but obviously, to anyone with literary taste, doomed to oblivion, a destination to which Macaulay could only help him along. Cooper is still with us, but Twain did his best to make sure that Cooper’s mystery-mongering flimflam wouldn’t be allowed to pass itself off as a model of American prose style. By implication, his own prose style got the job.
What he did to Cooper was only a closer-to-home version of the treatment he habitually handed out to foreign critics of the Arnoldian stamp. The guardian of clear speech at home, Twain didn’t have to bend the knee when pundits abroad curled their lip. Arnold’s idea of a high culture increasingly and necessarily out of reach of a brutalized populace – an idea destined to generate a whole library of its own in the age to come – got its most penetrating answer from an American. Arnold should have stayed on his own turf, where pity for the emerging proletariat was a more plausible attitude. ‘Wragg is in custody’, a four-word sentence in a newspaper, inspired Arnold to a long lament on the predestined cultural impoverishment of the workers – a feat of prescience based mainly on Arnold’s confident assumption that Wragg was inherently a more wretched surname than, say, Arnold. Such sensitivity, however commendable, entailed presuppositions about civilization which Twain, speaking as an American, wasn’t inclined to buy. He just didn’t think that civilization had been all that civilized. ‘Hard’, he called it, ‘and glittering, and bloodless, and unattainable’.
Twain provided the same enlightening information for the French pundit Paul Bourget, and for any other Old World panjandrum who tried to high-hat the new nation. He went at them as if they were imperialists, which, in a way, they were: cultural imperialists. What he couldn’t guess was that he was himself one of the pioneers of a cultural imperialism fated to have a large share in determining the history of the twentieth century.
He couldn’t guess it because he was a nineteenth-century figure – the hardest thing to remember when you are caught up in reading him. He seems so close in time that you wouldn’t be surprised to look up from the book and see him talking to Larry King on television. But he can seem so familiar only because the America we like best sounds like him, not because he sounds like it. He was there first. Even his personal weaknesses presaged the America we have come to know and like from its infinitely exportable popular culture. Twain had a weakness for profitable schemes. The first of them did make a profit: when Twain personally published Grant’s memoirs, the deal worked out so well that he thought he had revolutionized the publishing industry. ‘The propensity of the venture’, as Howells pointed out, ‘was the beginning of Clemens’ adversity, for it led to excesses of enterprise which were forms of dissipation.’ Twain’s further ventures into private enterprise oscillated between a waste of time and a waste of money, not always his own. The typesetting machine he thought would revolutionize printing eventually did so, but not his version of it. He went broke in a big way. Like Sir Walter Scott, he heroically wrote himself out of debt, but as soon as enough money accumulated he was back into another scheme. For years, he maintained his faith in a much-publicized energy food, which in his time performed the same function as the vitamin pills that the British bodice-ripper author Barbara Cartland so enthusiastically favours now – that of helping naturally energetic people convince themselves that they are medically savvy beyond the ken of doctors.
Yet Twain, for all his susceptibility to plausible wheezes, was no crank. He was crazy about know-how. He was a can-do merchant, a prototype for Gyro Gearloose and all those nutty inventors who go on building weird machines in the back-yard sheds of American popular culture, even in the space age. And after all, some of the machines work. Twain’s typesetting machine almost did. Twain was in tune with the mechanical efflorescence of the new nation. For him, there was no separation between machinery and poetry. You couldn’t even call him a proto-Futurist, because for him art and machinery had never grown apart to the point of needing to be reunited. He had been brought up to the practical. The printing house was his high school and the riverboat his university. He could make things work. It was one of the qualities that the women of Paris loved about the liberating American troops of 1944 – all those Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns who rode six to a jeep. It wasn’t just that they could get you chocolate and sheer stockings: when they had finished kissing you, they could fix your bicycle.
If that sounds like sentimentality now, it is only because of the devastating effect on America’s image, and especially its self-image, wrought by the Vietnam War. Since then, instead of a jeep full of smiling boys with girls jumping in to join them we think first of scowling men tumbling out of a helicopter to torch a village. We think of some fat-bottomed sergeant checking crates of ice-cream-making equipment off a C-130 at Cam Ranh Bay while the local girls are being sold into prostitution outside the wire, of the CIA supervising torture sessions in which the questions and answers are both in a language they don’t understand except for the screams. America cast itself as the villain and agreed when the rest of the world hissed. Actually, there was reason even at the time to believe that the average grunt was more remarkable for his kindness than for his insensitivity to an alien culture. Later on, even the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci – whose articles (especially her interview with Kissinger, the granting of which he subsequently called the most stupid mistake he ever made) did so much to put America in the bad light that many Americans conceded was deserved – changed her tune. Interviewed in her turn by the Italian magazine King, she said that her abiding memory of Vietnam was of how well-mannered the American boys had been, even when they didn’t have the slightest idea of where they were or what they were supposed to be doing there.
Vietnam was only part of a postwar pattern in which the United States, whether by accident or design, propped up the kind of authoritarian regimes whose sinister luminaries wore dark glasses indoors. All too often, especially in Latin America, it was by design. Realpolitik was held to be mandatory. But the real trouble with Realpolitik was that it wasn’t real. In foreign policy, ruthlessness undid the best thing America had going for it: benevolence. In the Western countries, it handed the Marxist intellectuals an opportunity – ultimately fatal to them, since it encouraged them to stay Marxist long after their opposite numbers in the East had given up – to misinterpret twentieth-century history. It became temptingly easy to argue that the machinations of American foreign policy were what had stopped the Western European countries from going fully socialist after the Second World War. But American Machiavellianism wasn’t what did that. What did it was American generosity: the Marshall Plan. The same applied to the occupation of Japan. The Japanese economic superstate that we are now all so concerned about was made possible by America. If that was Machiavellianism, it was of a strangely self-defeating kind.
Diehard opponents of the American Empire – on this subject Gore Vidal remains determined to be only half as clever as he is – insist that America rebuilt the defeated nations only to secure markets, and so forth. This seductive notion first took off along with the economies of the rebuilt nations. Quite often, it was noised abroad in newspapers and magazines that owed their editorial freedom to guarantees insisted upon by the victorious allies, with America in the forefront. Suspicion of American power became harder to quell as American power went on increasing. Perhaps that was a good thing: about power, suspicious is the way we should always be. But to focus on America’s misuse of its economic and military strength was to abdicate the obligation, and the opportunity, to talk about the aspect of American power that actually worked – its cultural influence, the thing that made America irresistibly attractive even after it had just finished dropping bombs on you.
The Japanese had been told that the American GIs would rape their women. The threat was easy to believe, since the right to rape civilians was an unofficial but commonly granted reward for conquest in the Imperial Japanese Army. But in the American Army of Occupation the penalty for rape was imprisonment or death. When the GIs handed out gum instead, the Japanese got the point in the first five minutes. The Germans had got the point while the war was still on. German civilians threatened with liberation by the Russians headed in the opposite direction. Surrendering to the Americans became the rule in the Wehrmacht when the SS or the military police weren’t watching. Any defeated nation had something with which to compare America – itself as it had previously been. America’s allied nations, their gratitude either tinged by jealousy or annulled by it, were less inclined to admire but just as bound to compare: America was their measure, whether as a challenge or as a threat. America’s problem was that it had no standard of comparison except its own ideal of itself.
The problem got worse, and by now it is acute. This is where America’s congenital insulation from the less fortunate contemporary world, and its isolation from the needy past brought about by abundance in the present, has played the Devil. Both from the right and from the left, America attacks itself for lapsing from its supposedly normal condition as the ideal state. But the ideal state is a platonic concept destined to be even more frustrating than platonic love. For the Right, modern America is a disappointing lapse from godliness, purity, and order. For the Left, modern America is a disappointing lapse from social justice. Increasingly, the argument between them is about language and its legalistic interpretation, with the Constitution as the unquestioned yet ineffable ur-document, as if God’s will were literally a will, leaving everything he ever owned to America, but on certain conditions, all of which conflict.
In sober moments, we know that the Constitution of the United States would mean nothing without the laws that grow out of it and back it up. Without them, the rights it promulgates would be no better guaranteed than those enshrined in the old Soviet Constitution, a document that, as the dissident sociologist Alexander Zinoviev suggested, was published only in order to find out who agreed with it, so that they could be dealt with.
Americans, however, are less inclined to realize that the laws would mean nothing without the spirit that gave rise to them, and that this spirit was first made manifest in the country’s classic literature. To see the problem, it helps to be outside America looking in. Angst at falling short of its dreams for itself has sapped the country’s initial confidence that it could alter circumstances in its own favour: the lure of the ideal has stymied the practical. It is a dream to imagine that even the most comprehensive laundering of language would expunge racism from human consciousness. The realistic alternative is to deny racist consciousness practical expression. It won’t be easy, but to disarm the population would be a good start. A start can’t be made, though, because the gun lobby has too much power. On this point, as on so many others, left-wing idealists and right-wing idealists work in a fearful synergy to undo the possibility of practical government. Seemingly conflicting interests have combined to erode an institution.
As a more recent institution, one that is actually still growing rather than falling apart, the Library of America provides a heartening example of what can be done. Perhaps it will give courage to people who would like to see public television properly funded. In the United States, public-service institutions, unless they are operating in a field where private enterprise has no urge to compete, are in the position of a heresy against an orthodoxy. But in matters of the mind they are essential to the nation’s health. Twain was in no doubt on the point. In 1898, having grown old in the new country, he warned against the consequences of a free-market culture. Thirty years before, he said, Edwin Booth had played Hamlet a hundred nights in New York. Now Hamlet was lucky to get a look-in. Comparing the Burg Theatre, in Vienna, with Broadway, he thought Broadway was nowhere. ‘You are eating too much mental sugar; you will bring on Bright’s disease of the intellect.’
As we now know, Broadway was to be the fons et origo of twentieth-century popular culture in its most sophisticated form: the musical show. But Twain still had a right to speak, because the popular culture that was on its way wouldn’t have been the same without him. What he couldn’t guess – because he was only a genius, not a clairvoyant – was that it would go so far, that entertainment would become, on such a scale, mere entertainment. Modern America is a society of abundance in almost every aspect, even when it comes to quality. The visitor who prides himself on his sophistication is first startled, then benumbed, to find that everything he thought treasurable where he came from is present in America, only more so. If he is interested in the Books of Hours of the early Renaissance, he will find the world’s greatest collection in the Pierpoint Morgan Library. He can be a world expert on Ming vases and still not survive the shock of turning a corner on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles to find a glass-fronted warehouse chock-full of them. There are classical-music lovers in London who pay for a return plane trip from New York with what they save buying a suitcase full of CDs at American prices. A few years ago, in a music shop on Broadway, I reached into a discount bin and fished out a boxed set of cassettes of the Mahler First and Second Symphonies in the touchstone performances conducted by Bruno Walter. Five bucks. It made me annoyed that I had previously paid so much, and then afraid that I was not paying enough. The precious was practically free. It was value without price.
But that doesn’t offset the menace of price without value. The abundance isn’t intelligently distributed, and never could be by a free market, whose famous invisible hand is incurably short of a brain. Unless public-service institutions are made robust, the art will go to the élite that knows what it wants, while those who might have wanted it but never found out about it are stuck with the junk. Twain was an élitist: when he punished Cooper for supposing that ‘more preferable’ was a more impressive way to say ‘preferable’ he was saying that literary expression isn’t just self-expression. But he would have been appalled to be told in advance that the enlightenment of the American people was going to be a matter of niche marketing. He would have regarded that, surely correctly, as a boondoggle.
Thought beset by remorse for his own failings, Twain had a sure sense of his rank, but he didn’t imagine that he had attained it by his own unaided efforts. He had an institution to help him – the world literary heritage, which he regarded as belonging to America by right, because America was the world’s country. Twain’s own contribution, daring in every way, was most daring in its dedication to the principle that the institution belonged to the people, and not to its adepts. He was a man so superior he needed no support from self-esteem. One wonders whether the Kaiser, for once in his life face to face with a real aristocrat, realized the implications.
They weren’t revolutionary – not politically, anyway. Though a devout republican at home, Twain abroad had a soft spot for monarchs. But culturally he was a bigger revolutionary than Karl Marx, and, in the long run, more successful, because what Marx started went backward in the end, while the popular culture to which Twain gave such a boost has gone on expanding. Doing that, it has necessarily left him behind. The precious modernity that makes him seem so close to us can only obscure, not obviate, the dependence of his inspiration on a more immediate world than any we know – or anyone will ever know again, unless the industrialized world dismantles itself. The young Twain rode on stagecoaches and talked to strangers. He saw people murdered. Death and disease struck his family at a time when such things didn’t happen just to other people; they happened to everybody. Life has improved, but in improving it has grown less real, and there is no going back except through a disaster.
Huckleberry Finn may survive the misguided clean-up of the library shelves. Unless I lost count, there are forty-two instances of the word ‘nigger’ in the first fifteen chapters of the book, but its heart is so obviously in the right place that it may weather the intentions of the politically correct, whose salient folly is to arouse false expectations of the past. Even if Huck makes it, however, he won’t ever again be read by everybody. Professional admiration for the book will remain intense. (In Green Hills of Africa, when Hemingway names Huckleberry Finn as the book that made American literature, for a moment the campfire fabulist is speaking the truth.) Amateur enjoyment must remain restricted to those who actually read books instead of just hearing about them or watching the video of the movie. Twain was marginalized by the popular culture he helped to create. It had to happen.
Where these four beautiful books will have their effect, along with the Library of America as a whole, is in the academy. With a few exceptions (which have been punished ferociously by qualified reviewers who realize that this project, above all others, is too important to permit lapses from its own standards) every volume in the collection is a model of scholarship in service to literature. By now the damage reports are in and we know that a whole generation of students have had literature killed for them by the way they have been obliged to study it. Instead of the books, they have had to study theories about the books, always on the assumption that the theories are wiser than the authors. And finally scholasticism, as always, has reduced itself to absurdity, with the discovery by the theorists that there were no authors. There weren’t even any books, only texts, and there wasn’t any history for the texts to emerge from, because history was just a set of signs, too.
Well, here are the books, with not a text in sight except as a reasoned agreement on what the author actually wrote. Every volume in the Library has a chronology to help you follow the life of the author (who actually existed), with pertinent notes to place him in the context of history (which exists, too). Armed with this subsidiary information, the student will be able to give a book the only ‘reading’ that counts – the one by which the book brings something to him, without his bringing a load of hastily acquired pseudoscience to it. The authors will emerge as the living human beings who made the larger Constitution, the one behind the document. And one author will emerge as even more alive than the rest, stricken by tragedy but unquenchable in his delight, shaking his head as if he had seen everything – even the future that is our frightening present – and not given up.
New Yorker, 14 June, 1993