Sunday, July 11, 2010

100 Years Later, the Real Mark Twain Emerges

Big news in American letters ... the unexpurgated autobiography of Mark Twain is being published by the University of California Press in three volumes.

You know what "unexpurgated" means, right? All the naughty bits are back in.

In the case of Mark Twain's autobiography, the naughty bits are passionate political and social observations, which (bless his heart) Mark Twain's original editor thought too radical for tender, late-Victorian ears. Mark Twain's daughter Clara, who lived until 1962, also had a big hand in keeping the real man sanitized for public consumption.

Compare Mark Twain's opposition to the Spanish-American war to Ron Paul's opposition to the Iraqi/Afghanistan wars. From the NYTimes review of Volume 1:
Twain's opposition to incipient imperialism and American military intervention in Cuba and the Philippines ... were well known even in his own time. But the uncensored autobiography makes it clear that those feelings ran very deep and includes remarks that, if made today in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, would probably lead the right wing to question the patriotism of this most American of American writers.

In a passage removed by [the author's first editor], Twain excoriates "the iniquitous Cuban-Spanish War" and Gen. Leonard Wood's "mephitic record" as governor general in Havana. In writing about an attack on a tribal group in the Philippines, Twain refers to American troops as "our uniformed assassins" [whoa] and describes their killing of "six hundred helpless and weaponless savages" as "a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory."

"Mephitic"? New word for me. It means "foul-smelling," which pretty much sums up a government and a culture that comes to depend on conquest for its economic well being and its self-image as only the bestest God-blessed people on earth.

Compare Mark Twain also to a progressive populist of 2010:
He is similarly unsparing about the plutocrats and Wall Street luminaries of his day, who he argued had destroyed the innate generosity of Americans and replaced it with greed and selfishness. "The world believes that the elder Rockefeller is worth a billion dollars," Twain observes. "He pays taxes on two million and a half."

This is stuff that was cut out of the original publication of the Autobiography in 1924 and in subsequent censored editions. Makes him sound like a contemporary of 2010, not a fossil from a century ago.

Mark Twain's "Letters from the Earth," a series of stories about the state of organized religion on earth purportedly written by Satan himself, was published in 1960 (with daughter Clara's reluctant blessing, incidentally), and Mark Twain's hilarious critique of the pious became my great secret reading while I was a freshman at Wayland Baptist College in West Texas. Subversion of the self-righteous was always Mark Twain's great contribution to our American literature.

1 comment:

Ann said...

I had a sense you would appreciate this newly edited autobiography, Jerry. Anxious to read it.