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The following review appeared 10 December 2012 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Mark Twain and others have commented that when great armies face each other in battle each thinks God is on their side. In much the same way, whenever a political battle is waged in America, some commentator eventually emerges to say which side Mark Twain would favor if he were alive today. Name any issue, or event, or personality, and some bumpkin will step out of the shadows and confidently proclaim exactly what Twain would have thought about it. Published during an election year when the battles were fierce, the votes were often very close, and emotions ran high on both sides, the title of this book seems to hint that Donald Bliss might be that bumpkin stepping into the light. As if to make matters worse, Bliss is the great grandson of Twain's publisher Elisha Bliss, and the possibility hangs in the air for a moment that this might be his only qualification to write such a book.
Approaching this stout volume with extreme trepidation, the reader quickly discovers that Bliss is exceptionally well-qualified to write a book on Twain and politics. Bliss, a partner in an international law firm in Washington D.C. served in the Federal government for thirteen years. He was the U.S. ambassador to a Canadian aviation organization for three years, was the Executive Secretary to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and was acting General Counsel of the Department of Transportation. He was also a registered lobbyist, appeared before the Supreme Court, worked on a Presidential campaign, served on several nonprofit boards, and published several books. So far, so good.
Twain scholarship has often benefited when experts in fields outside literary studies have written on Mark Twain's relationship to topics within their own field of expertise, but will Bliss prove the exception and fall victim to the temptations of his subject matter and tell us where Twain would stand on every issue, or which candidate Twain would support? In his preface Bliss anticipates that concern and assures us that he has "sought to differentiate between Clemens's views and [his] own views about how his commentary remains relevant today. [He does] not mean to speculate as to what Clemens would have thought about the changed circumstances that even his most vivid of imaginations could scarcely have predicted " (pp. xix-xx). Bliss keeps his promise, and neither he nor Twain endorse any candidates or tell us which side of any specific issue they stand.
Instead, Bliss traces the evolution of Twain's political views and participation, culminating in a close examination of Twain (and Charles Dudley Warner's) sweeping political novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, and then follows Twain's political involvement and education to the end of his life. It is a long and fascinating journey from Twain's early days of enthusiastic immersion in the rough and tumble skullduggery of Nevada's ethically-challenged legislatures of the 1860s to his bitter denunciations of Presidents and Generals as they dishonored America's principles before the entire world. Bliss acknowledges and frequently cites Philip Foner's Mark Twain: Social Critic, Lou Budd's Mark Twain: Social Philosopher, Paul Carter's 1939 Ph.D thesis on Twain's social and political ideas, and Jim Zwick's writings on Mark Twain and imperialism, among others who have written on Twain and politics. Although Bliss follows Foner in discussing Twain's social criticisms of intolerance, tyranny, injustice, cant, and pretension, and follows Budd in describing Twain's admiration for free enterprise, capitalism, and the pragmatic side of political participation, and covers much of the same ground covered by Zwick when Twain was attacking American foreign policies the last decade of his life, Bliss is the first to chart Twain's political outlook from his earliest days to the end of his life, through every phase of his political thought along the way, using his public writings, his private letters and journals, his conversations, his lectures, and other sources that document the evolution of Twain's changing and frequently contradictory attitudes. The result is an expertly guided tour for the reader who seeks a unified theory of Twain's politics.
In the first six chapters Bliss describes Twain's early exposures to politics and the influence of his life's experiences on his reactions to political events. Twain's childhood was filled with tragedies (the death of his father and three siblings), conflicting religious dogmas, the financial failures of his father, a fiercely independent mother, the human face of slavery, and frontier storytelling. As a result, events in his childhood planted the seeds of his sympathy for the down-trodden, his distrust of all dogmas and the risks of unfettered capitalism, his admiration of independence and strong women, his evolving views of race, and his love of storytelling. His work on newspapers as a teenager brought him into daily contact with local politics, and he quickly learned how the game was played and gleefully joined in, frequently writing on political events. Bliss does err when he cites the 1861 Quintus Curtius Snodgrass letters in the New Orleans Crescent, saying "many scholars" identify Snodgrass as Clemens. The consensus among today's scholars is that those letters attacking Lincoln and commenting on local Louisiana politics (at a time when Twain was in St. Louis) were not by Clemens.
By the time Twain was twenty-five he had been a "typesetter, tourist, river pilot, erstwhile soldier, and journalist" and had visited "the cradle of liberty and the nation's capitol." He was also a "rapacious reader" and had "observed hypocrisy of established institutions--schools, churches, and government." (pp. 33-4). When Twain arrived in Nevada he was ready and willing to participate in the political process. He quickly learned that he could influence legislation with his writings and use his position as a reporter to manipulate the value of mining stocks, but he also joined local campaigns for various reforms and when he became a reporter in San Francisco he actively attacked local corruption and injustices--and thereby learned how political retribution works. Twain got a first-hand look at government corruption when he briefly clerked for Nevada Senator William Stewart in Washington, D.C. in 1867.
At the end of chapter four, Bliss introduces the first of his highlighted summaries showing the parallels between politics in Twain's day and today. The parallels between the wasteful junkets, rampant self-dealing, bloated bureaucracies, "message votes," and lobbyist influence of Twain's day and today are striking. In the next two chapters Twain conducts interviews with politicians who evade answering his questions, takes part in the debates on Reconstruction, correctly predicts the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson (contrary to the prevailing wisdom of his fellow journalists), notices that different Congressmen often gave identical speeches written for them by a single lobbyist, acts as a lobbyist himself on behalf of Langdon family interests at the same time his contact with this family causes him to return to his childhood instincts of sympathy for African Americans, and meets Elisha Bliss, the author's great grandfather who became Twain's publisher.
In chapter eight Bliss turns his attention to The Gilded Age, where Twain puts to use his literary skills satirizing the political landscape he has witnessed as both observer and participant. Because this novel focuses on politics more than any of Twain's other fictional writings, Bliss examines this story in depth for four chapters and frames the rest of his book around this work which serves as a point of reference. Although this novel has been the focus of lengthy studies, Bliss gives us the most concise and politically informed explication of this novel to date. Unraveling and understanding the events that underpin so much of the action and satire in this novel is no easy task, but Bliss lays out the Credit Mobilier scandal, the Whiskey Ring, the Salary Grab, the Belknap Affair, the Indian Ring, and other events in a readable way. The work of lobbyists is a central focus of the story-line, and the character Laura Hawkins's allure as a successful "lobbyess" is better understood when Bliss explains how it was common knowledge that female lobbyists in Twain's day were often prostitutes. Perhaps Twain could not make this explicitly clear with Livy looking over his shoulder, but a contemporary reader would have understood the context even if Laura seems to accomplish her ends by other means (extortion). Another character, Senator Dilworthy, flagrantly mixes private gain with the public good, using the latter to justify the former, and Bliss connects this common practice with political events in Twain's day and today. The greed and the twisted behaviors of politicians, then and now, can be explained by Twain's comment that "morals consist of political morals, commercial morals, ecclesiastical morals, and morals." (p. 208). Thus, members of Congress who would never steal their neighbor's money wouldn't think twice about misappropriating taxpayer dollars to buy votes or for other illicit purposes. Hence, Twain could at once admire Carnegie, Langdon, Edison, Tesla, Bell, and Henry Rogers, and despise Jay Gould, Fisk, and Vanderbilt. Likewise, despite the fact that Grant's second term as President ended in scandals, a stock market collapse, real wages falling 25%, a doubling of bankruptcies, and the failure of 43,000 businesses during the financial panic that followed, he could still be admired for his personal integrity, his progressive policies on race and civil rights, his conservation initiatives (the founding of Yellowstone Park), his support of international arbitration for peace, and the creation of the Department of Justice to enforce new civil rights laws.
Before moving on to his chapters on imperialism, Bliss provides good summaries of the underlying political philosophies expressed in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. He also summarizes Twain's evolving views on race and female suffrage, and discusses the political aspects of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Is Shakespeare Dead?, Following the Equator, The American Claimant, Pudd'nhead Wilson, and several shorter pieces like "A True Story," "Only a Nigger," and "The Curious Republic of Gondour."
In chapters 13-15 Bliss demonstrates that it is a fool's errand to attempt to pin Twain down as a conservative or a liberal, as he examines Twain's political views and writings on upward mobility, censorship, copyright, wealth and plutocracies, crime and punishment, Native Americans, women, health care, insanity pleas, the size of government, welfare, the importance of infrastructure, government waste, government pensions, labor unions, the widening gap between rich and poor, free trade, protectionism, and taxes (the government can tax everything except patience and prayer said Twain). Bliss covers a lot of ground and only twice comes near breaking the promise made in his preface: He twice speculates how Twain would have reacted to modern events: applauding the civil rights movement (p. 343) and chuckling at a Supreme Court ruling (p. 372). It is a trivial infraction--never mind that most readers will tend to agree with his speculations.
The next three chapters discuss Twain's numerous writings on imperialism, his love-hate relationship with Teddy Roosevelt, and connect Twain's attitudes about America's misguided foreign policy to his experiences in Hawaii in the 1860s. Those who have read Susan Harris's God's Arbiters, Philip McFarland's Mark Twain and the Colonel, or Jim Zwick's Confronting Imperialism will correctly anticipate treading on familiar ground, but with Donald Bliss as your guide this time around you may notice things you missed before.
Bliss concludes his work after presenting Twain as a man whose political views were shaped by his "empathy for the low life and his aspiration for the high life, his disdain for imperfect democracy and his contempt for despotic autocracy, and his ear for the vernacular and his yearning to be accepted by literary society." Over time Twain's views on race, female suffrage, tariffs, the death penalty, and other issues often changed 180 degrees, and even at the end his mature views were often in ironic conflict: he condemned greed even as he chased wealth through get-rich-quick-schemes, he satirized lobbyists but acted as a lobbyist himself when his own self-interests were at stake, he gave voice to the common man but cherished acceptance by high society, wrote against war but made money publishing the memoirs of military leaders and advocated the violent overthrow of czarist Russia, opposed bigotry but made American Indians, the Irish and Mormons the butts of his jokes, and while singing praises to democracy he also argued that the country should be ruled by an educated elite whose votes would count more heavily than the votes of those less educated. After covering so much ground and so many themes, issues, and personalities, the major flaw of this book becomes obvious--it lacks an index. For a book of such broad scope that is destined to become a major source for anyone researching Twain's political views and writings, this flaw is nearly fatal, and should be remedied. Although the book is well organized and footnoted (it may be the first work about Twain to cite a book by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff) nothing can substitute for the practical utility of a complete index. A book packed with nearly six-hundred pages of people, places, events, and topics begs for easy access to its rich contents.
Twain, like the Bible, has been quoted by people of every political
stripe to support every side of any argument, but in this book Twain speaks
for himself. "Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand"
declared Twain. Fortunately, Twain's literary progeny have repeatedly proven
the wisdom of his observation, and Bliss names a few of them: H. L. Menken,
Will Rogers, Christopher Buckley, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher,
et al. The tradition of political satire is alive and well, and it is no wonder
that Twain retains his relevance today. Bliss the barrister proves his case
beyond a reasonable doubt that politics is just as wicked and human an enterprise
now as it was in Twain's day, rendering Twain's political observations timeless.