Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.
The following review appeared 6 November 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2013 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Jerome Loving, the author of the 2010 biography Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens, focuses on a single year in his latest book Confederate Bushwhacker. Loving calls 1885 Samuel Clemens's "annus mirabilis" or "year of wonder." At the height of his success, Clemens's annual income was estimated at $285,000. By comparison, his close friend and confidant William Dean Howells was taking in about $12,000 annually, while the annual wage for the American laborer was only $400. Drawing from an abundance of secondary sources, Loving examines the economic, social, and political culture of America in 1885 with Samuel Clemens at center stage.
By January 1885, Clemens had published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and portions of the novel were being serialized in Century magazine. He was engaged in a speaking tour north of the Mason-Dixon line with George Washington Cable, whose essay "The Freedman's Case in Equity" also appeared in the January 1885 edition of Century. Cable's support of social equality for blacks had gained him unpopular notoriety throughout the post war South. William Dean Howells's novel The Rise of Silas Lapham was also being serialized in Century. Loving discusses the parallels between Howells's character Silas Lapham, a man faced with an economic and moral dilemma, and Samuel Clemens. In 1885 American politics focused on continuing reconciliation between the North and South while social and political civil rights for black people continued to be a controversial back-burner issue. General Ulysses S. Grant, a man of mythic proportions who had saved the Union from dissolution, was dying and Clemens's publishing firm of Webster and Company had secured the lucrative contract to publish his memoirs. In a non-chronological narrative and a series of short chapters, Loving puts together a picture of Samuel Clemens as a man forced to face up to his own role in the Civil War.
Loving's book begins with a prelude flashback to October 7, 1877, when Clemens made his first public statement regarding his two week participation in an informal Missouri state militia of rag-tag civilian soldiers. Clemens's speech was short and flippant and he claimed "We couldn't really tell which side we were on" (p. 2). Loving discusses the divided loyalties and confusion that the citizens of Missouri, including Clemens, experienced. The governor of Missouri favored the South, but the state ultimately remained in the Union, "though it became the scene of guerilla warfare throughout the conflict" (p. 108).
Flashing forward seven years later, in November 1884 Century magazine began a series of memoirs "Battles and Leaders" of the Civil War. The series featured essays from both Union soldiers like General Grant and Confederate officers. Clemens and Cable were two of several authors invited to contribute their own war memoirs to the series.
Loving recounts the mental anguish Clemens likely endured at the thought of publicly confessing in print his behavior at a time when "what you did in the war did matter" (p. 144). He speculates that Clemens was invited to contribute to the series because he had become "part of the inner circle of the great general [Grant], whose legacy many thought nearly beyond comprehension" (p. 85). The invitation to Clemens was issued in the spring of 1885 by Century editor Robert Underwood Johnson. Clemens's attention for completing such an essay was diverted due to the time he was giving to arranging Grant's own memoirs. After Grant's death in July, letters exchanged between Johnson and Clemens that summer indicate that the essay was not completed because Clemens's wife Livy had vetoed it "in its present shape" (p. 107). Clemens looked for a way to avoid the assignment. He suggested it be eliminated from the magazine altogether and be included only in the collected multi volume edition of the Century essays planned for publication in 1887. He wrote Johnson:
If it went only into the book, he would hope that 'its defects might be lost in the smoke and thunder of the big guns all around it . . .; but in the narrower and peacefuller field of the magazine I think myself it will look like mighty poor weak stuff' (p. 139).
In spite of his reluctance, Mark Twain's "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" was published in the December 1885 Century. The essay is filled with humor and almost comical illustrations by Edward Kemble who had illustrated Huckleberry Finn the year before. However, the essay takes a dark gut-wrenching twist when Clemens provides details of his helping to kill an unarmed man in civilian clothes who was mistaken for an enemy soldier. Clemens focuses on the guilt he felt over the man's death and his ultimate decision to drop out of the war. His critics viewed the killing of the stranger as evidence that "Twain had been a bushwhacker in the guerilla warfare that consumed Missouri during the war" (p. 180). The description of Mark Twain as a "Confederate bushwhacker" is still used today as evidenced by the title of Loving's book.
The essay never appeared in the Century collected edition of 1887. Loving speculates, "more serious heads wisely found it lacking the dignity of the other essays" (p. 139). However, Loving establishes the essay as "possibly the very first antiwar statement in the annals of American literature, preceding Crane's The Red Badge of Courage by ten years" (p. 148). Emphasizing the influence of Mark Twain's essay on Stephen Crane, Loving points out:
Young Stephen Crane, on his way to writing The Red Badge of Courage, read many of the essays in the Century series (which had doubled the magazine's circulation.) He was looking not simply for facts but the human element that Grant and his compatriots carefully left out. The Century authors, Crane complained, never wrote of "how they felt in those scraps. They spout enough of what they did, but they're emotionless as rocks." "The thought shot through me," Twain had written in his essay on the killing of the stranger, "that I was a murderer." Twain's "The Private History" may have been the one essay in "Battles and Leaders" that revealed the emotion Crane sought for his novel (p. 186).
While Mark Twain's essay may have been the inspiration for Stephen Crane, other notable American writers published antiwar poems and essays which predate "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed." James Russell Lowell's The Bigelow Papers was published in 1848 and Henry David Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" first appeared in 1849. Both were responses to the Mexican-American War. Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Chiefly About War Matters" in Atlantic Monthly in July 1862 may also be categorized as an antiwar statement. Which writers may have influenced Clemens in 1885 as he struggled to write a Civil War essay--one that his wife Livy would approve--is a topic for further study and one that Loving does not examine.
Toward the end of 1885 Clemens's attention shifted from black slavery issues to labor issues and controversies surrounding Native Americans. Loving's final chapter steps out of 1885 and into 1886 when Clemens was writing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a book heavily influenced by the events of 1885. According to Loving, "there were three victims of the American Dream to worry about in the 1880s--the freedmen, the wage slaves, and the Indians..." (p. 206). Loving finds that by 1886 "Mark Twain had already given up the optimism of his greatest book [Huckleberry Finn] and fallen into the pessimism of A Connecticut Yankee (p. 215).
It is always dangerous for an author to issue broad statements of absolute facts and Loving does miscalculate with his statement "Every other work of fiction he published after Huckleberry Finn ...concludes in a dark web of determinism" (p. 19). However, in 1899 Clemens did write a story with a miraculous happy ending titled "The Death Disk." Published in Harper's Magazine in December 1901, the story was made into a silent film in 1909.
Establishing the truth of Samuel Clemens's activities in the Civil War as revealed in "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" has bedeviled scholars for decades. Fred Lorch published a study on the topic in 1940 in American Literature. John Gerber published his study in 1955 in Civil War History. James M. Cox in Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (1966) devoted a chapter to the essay and Loving's current book is dedicated to Cox. In The Short Works of Mark Twain: A Critical Study (2001) Peter Messent features a chapter on the essay incorporating many of the viewpoints of the earlier studies.
Loving's book is the third book published since 2007 that has a strong focus on "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed." Mark Twain's Civil War (2007) by David Rachels features complete reprints of Mark Twain's Civil War related speeches and essays as well as a biographical account by Absalom Grimes titled "Campaigning with Mark Twain." Loving reprints only two complete texts: Clemens's 1877 speech in which he made his first public reference to his participation in the Civil War and "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed." However, Rachel's book features Kemble's illustrations that accompanied the Century publication. Loving's book contains no illustrations or photographs. The lack of illustrations is a hindrance when Loving discusses their utilization.
The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate Bushwhacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature (2010) by Joe Fulton devotes one chapter to "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed." However, Loving and Fulton differ in their initial reaction to the truthfulness of the story. Loving immediately dismisses the majority of the essay as a work of fiction. He relies on biographer Albert Bigelow Paine's 1912 assertion that the killing of an unarmed soldier "was invented, of course, to present the real horror of war" (Loving, p. 222). Paine's 1912 account of Mark Twain's Civil War activity was based on the Absalom Grimes memoir that was written and published after Clemens's death. Some scholars have questioned Grimes's memory and version of events. Fulton is not so quick to dismiss Mark Twain's version as entirely fiction. Fulton writes:
One cannot know for certain what Sam's experiences were during his brief service to the Confederacy, or what he might have become had he not deserted. Still, it is profoundly naive to dismiss the Missouri Militias that formed around Hannibal as enjoying 'a little camping-out expedition and a good time,' as Albert B. Paine, Clemens's biographer, once did (Fulton, p. 33).
The veracity of "The Private History of a Campaign That
Failed" and how its composition reflected or changed Samuel Clemens's
outlook on life as expressed through his subsequent literature will continue
to be debated among scholars. Loving's study focuses on the broader picture
of America in the shadow of the Civil War and how Samuel Clemens stepped out
of it to deliver his own story. Whether all the details of Clemens's story
are true or not may never be known.