Mark Twain, The Unfunny Underside

Mark Twain, American Nihilist

by Gwydion M. Williams

A ‘humour’ was originally an emotion, not necessarily anything funny. Many comic writers use comedy to express bitterness at a world they don’t approve of but don’t have any coherent ideas for changing. Mark Twain is maybe the best example.

His own life was almost a joke. He was born in Missouri, the state whose emergence as a slave-owning society in 1820 alarmed the North, which had been assuming that slavery was an old evil that would gradually fade. The objection was as much as anything racists: the West was assumed to be ‘white man’s territory’ and blacks were not wanted on any basis, free or slave. But Missouri remained mixed in its outlook. When the Confederacy was established, pro-slavery and anti-slavery elements within Missouri engaging in their own miniature civil war. It was settled by Federal forces moving in to secure the strategic state, a vital link to the West and a starting-point for the conquest of the whole length of the Mississippi.

Twain himself fought briefly on the Confederate side and then went West, avoiding the rest of the fighting. He joined his brother, who was working for the governor of what was then the Nevada Territory, putting him implicitly on the Northern side. He later wrote this up in a comic essay called The Private History of a Campaign That Failed. [A] His most improbable claim – that he just missed encountering Ulysses S. Grant when the man was a little-known Union colonel – does seem to be true.

I’ve read the famous Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and wasn’t impressed. Huckleberry Finn is a pretty worthless character and he isn’t going anywhere. I was more interested in a lesser work, Pudd’nhead Wilson. Though it is intentionally comic, it is also about the actual society of Missouri, not drifters on the fringes of it. I see Twain as using humour to slip round moral questions he didn’t want to handle directly. He definitely shows nostalgia for the older South, the product of the Missouri Compromise. He is a little uneasy about slavery but does not reject it. White supremacy is taken for granted. And it’s recognised that raising slaves and selling them to the cotton-growing states is an essential part of the economy.

In 1974 there was a book published called Time On The Cross that questioned a lot of existing beliefs about US slavery. It includes a chapter called The Myth of Slave-Breeding, rejecting the idea that the older slave states and border slave states made a lot of money selling slaves to regions where agricultural production was more profitable. The authors do not mention Mark Twain or Pudd’nhead Wilson, but it’s absurd to think they had never read the book that’s the probable source of the well-known phrase ‘sold down the river’. Twain gives a clear description of a process of selling surplus slaves from a border state to the Deep South. ‘down the river’ if you were in Missouri. Maybe not many slave-owners intentionally ran a business breedingg slaves for sale, but they all knew that slaves were assets that could be sold at need. Also that the price could go up or down, which was probably as much a concern as local house-prices are to modern house-owners.

Time On The Cross is on stronger ground when it argues that slavery was not fading and might have continued indefinitely. Slave-owners were also keen to expand and demanded that Kansas be established as a new slave state west of Missouri: that was their price for electing northern Presidents within the Democrat Party. A deal was made that should have delivered them Kansas, but it was also left to ‘popular sovereignty’, let the people decide. This in practice meant competitive settlement and then a small civil war in that state which the anti-slavery forces won. The failure to deliver Kansas as fresh land for slave agriculture offended the South, it helped split the Democrats between Northern and Southern factions. So Lincoln in 1860 was able to win for the newly established Republican Party.

Lincoln was elected on a promise to limit slavery. He said many times that he had no right to abolish it in states that were part of the Union. He accepted that existing states had clear rights to run a lot of their own affairs within the limits of a Constitution where slavery had been accepted. He could however keep slavery out of the Territories, new lands still ruled directly by the Federal Government. But he was up against the operation of market forces – the slave population was expanding fast, so a ‘glut’ of slaves was very possible. Purchases from Border States for the Deep South kept up the price. It also gave slave-owners in milder slave-states a powerful means of coercion, as Twain also neatly describes in Pudd’nhead Wilson. Being sold and ‘sold down the river’ were two very different things.

There was also a widespread belief in the Deep South that their society was unstable and had to keep expanding to new lands or else lose control of its slaves. Whether this idea was right or wrong was never tested. It was a factor in politics because it was believed and could not easily be disproved.

That was the background to secession. It wasn’t particularly about ‘States Rights’, which Lincoln anyway had no opportunity to touch before secession started. The USA at that time let several months pass after the election with the old President still in power and the President-Elect unable to do anything in his own right. That was the period in which the Deep South seceeded and then formed its own unified political system.

The Confederate Constitution is not hugely different from the Constitution of 1787. [C] The biggest difference is substituting a single seven-year Presidential term for the existing four-year terms. No President before Franklin Roosevelt served more than two terms, but this was customary rather than statutory before Roosevelt, and only made obligatory after his death. The Confederate Constitution was drawn up by experienced politicians and they did fix that weakness, but nothing much else. They did have a cause preventing public works on a national as distinct from state-by-state basis. But overall they were not significantly less federal, their own words confirm that negros and slave-ownership was the main issue. They affirmed slavery as an entrenched institution, but also prohibited the importation of slaves from outside of the states of the new Confederacy.[D] At the time this constitution was drawn up, only the Deep South had seceded, and it was far from certain that other slave states would join them, in particular Virginia. The Confederate Constitution was probably designed with them in mind, and to that degree it worked. States like Virginia and Missouri could be assured that they would not be undercut by a resumption of the slave trade from Africa, which had been seriously proposed in freedom-loving Texas. In the rather unlikely event of a Confederacy limited to the Deep South staying separate and surviving, slave states outside of this new Confederacy would no longer have had a profitable market for their slaves, there would have been a glut and all slave-owners outside of the new Confederacy would have seen their audited wealth diminish.

That was grim reality that led to the Civil War. That’s the man’s background, the matter he always avoided. Instead he ranged over many other topics. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court [B] he tries – rather ignorantly – to make sense of an unfamiliar society.

I’d seen one of the film versions, A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, released in 1949 with Bing Crosby as the Yankee hero. There, the whole story was rather mild and comic, I had no reason to think that the book was much different. But it’s actually much darker and more violent, and shows a deep resentment of the notion of a feudal ruling class, whites superior to other whites in a way that was only allowed over blacks in the USA. Of course if you could really go back in time and also managed to master the language, the knights would probably have been the least alien in their thinking. One should not project back the situation as it existed in the 19th century, when the gentry and aristocracy went downhill as it lost its social function. Earlier in the 18th century the British aristocracy and gentry had been ‘something new under the sun’, a very radical ruling class, pretty much unique. Marx says this somewhere, I’ll have to deal with this in another article because it needs to be understood to make sense of the history of the last few centuries.

Twain knew very little of the real history. In as far as Arthur was real, he was probably a Romano-British war leader trying to turn back the invading Angles and Saxons, ancestors of the English. The various English kingdoms became Christian and were then unified by Alfred the Great: at that time Arthur was a hero just to the Welsh and Bretons. The Norman conquerors of England found his legend useful, but then somehow he became an English hero, an absurd reversal and one that Twain isn’t aware of. He does however have a lot to say about aristocrats and Roman Catholics, common targets of hate for the USA’s ‘WASP’ majority.

“I had no pedigree, no inherited title; so in the king’s and nobles’ eyes I was mere dirt; the people regarded me with wonder and awe, but there was no reverence mixed with it; through the force of inherited ideas they were not able to conceive of anything being entitled to that except pedigree and lordship. There you see the hand of that awful power, the Roman Catholic Church. In two or three little centuries it had converted a nation of men to a nation of worms. Before the day of the Church’s supremacy in the world, men were men, and held their heads up, and had a man’s pride and spirit and independence; and what of greatness and position a person got, he got mainly by achievement, not by birth. But then the Church came to the front, with an axe to grind; and she was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat–or a nation; she invented ‘divine right of kings,’ and propped it all around, brick by brick, with the Beatitudes –wrenching them from their good purpose to make them fortify an evil one; she preached (to the commoner) humility, obedience to superiors, the beauty of self-sacrifice; she preached (to the commoner) meekness under insult; preached (still to the commoner, always to the commoner) patience, meanness of spirit, non-resistance under oppression; and she introduced heritable ranks and aristocracies, and taught all the Christian populations of the earth to bow down to them and worship them.”

That’s ludicrously inaccurate. Both Celtic and Germanic societies were highly aristocratic and both had quasi-sacred kings. The Latin-Christian church adapted to what existed, but it also sometimes defended the poor. Very importantly, it maintained a tradition of elections for bishops, abbots and abbesses right up until the Reformation. Elections were abolished during the Counter-Reformation, when what we think of as Roman Catholicism was crafted out of older Latin-Christian traditions. Only then did it become a definite supporter of monarchies, especially after the French Revolution.

Twain, interestingly, comes across as a lukewarm supporter of the French Revolution, including its most violent aspects. His hero, after correcting an injustice, comments:

“It was a curious situation; yet it is not on that account that I have made room for it here, but on account of a thing which seemed to me still more curious. To wit, that this dreadful matter brought from these downtrodden people no outburst of rage against these oppressors. They had been heritors and subjects of cruelty and outrage so long that nothing could have startled them but a kindness. Yes, here was a curious revelation, indeed, of the depth to which this people had been sunk in slavery. Their entire being was reduced to a monotonous dead level of patience, resignation, dumb uncomplaining acceptance of whatever might befall them in this life. Their very imagination was dead. When you can say that of a man, he has struck bottom, I reckon; there is no lower deep for him.

“I rather wished I had gone some other road. This was not the sort of experience for a statesman to encounter who was planning out a peaceful revolution in his mind. For it could not help bringing up the unget-aroundable fact that, all gentle cant and philosophizing to the contrary notwithstanding, no people in the world ever did achieve their freedom by goody-goody talk and moral suasion: it being immutable law that all revolutions that will succeed must begin in blood, whatever may answer afterward. If history teaches anything, it teaches that. What this folk needed, then, was a Reign of Terror and a guillotine, and I was the wrong man for them.”

Twain’s character does however become effective ruler, shunting aside the king, who becomes a figurehead. He takes no formal title but is glad to be hailed as ‘The Boss’. It then all falls apart when the king dies: he tries to impose a republic but fails. The tale ends with the ‘hero’ organising a ghastly mechanised slaughter of the knights, after which the tale breaks down into incoherence. Twain had no answers and at one level he knew it.

Another remarkably dark comedy by Twain is The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut. In this, a man is confronted by his own conscience, which turns out to be a malicious prankster without any belief in the principles it holds him to. He manages to destroy it and then becomes what we’d now call a ‘serial killer’, murdering anyone who annoys him, however casually.

Just a joke? I think not. Maybe Twain would never have actually killed anyone, but he helped create the mental atmosphere in which killing can become casual. And he has a bad case of a very common Anglo assumption: greed is the prime reality, other feelings are impositions.

Twain also takes the standard approach of clever people in the USA: be dishonest in an effort to evade the unwanted demands of Christianity in its North American Protestant form. This creed claims to be derived directly from the Bible, but this was visibly not so to an inquiring mind. (Jesus in the Gospels says a lot in favour of drinking alcohol. Protestant Christianity applies Jewish rules for the Sabbath to the pagan ‘Day of the Unconquered Sun’: Orthodox Jews continue to correctly apply these rules to Saturday, and also count Saturday as beginning on what the rest of us view as Friday evening.)

Some people in the USA have taken on the Protestant version of Christianity and also the Catholic version: many more have evaded the matter. Twain was an evader, in part because the creed he’d been raised in still had a strong grip on his mind, though no longer as a religion that anyone could enjoy or take comfort from.

The bleakness of his vision comes out most clearly in an unfinished work called The Mysterious Stranger. It is nominally set in Austria in 1590, though in most respects it is based on the USA as Twain would have known it. The ‘Mysterious Stranger’ is called Satan, a good angel who’s a nephew of the evil Satan, or that’s his story. It’s a half-humorous story, but a lot happens that is not really funny. The tidied-up version published after Twain’s death uses what seems to be his intended ending, which is as follows:

“‘Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane–like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short…

“‘You perceive, now, that these things are all impossible except in a dream. You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks–in a word, that they are a dream, and you the maker of it. The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier.” [E]

This is actually a very old idea, the world as just a dream – based on what? I prefer to believe in a material world that exists regardless of us, and which can be surprising in a way that dreams never are. Dreams are fashioned out of things we already know, though usually mixed to incoherence. The real world can teach you much more, if you’ll have the patience and modesty to learn from it. But Twain goes to the opposite extreme in this final unfinished novel, which is not however that much out of tune with his other writing:

“‘It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream–a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought–a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!’

“He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.” [F]

And that’s the surprising core-vision the most native and original of all US writers, the man who gets closest to the heart of the nation’s identity. The heart is hollow.



[A] You can read it at []

[B] Connecticut Yankee can be downloaded from Project Guttenberg, []

[C] You can find a detailed comparison at []

[D] The relevant clauses are:

Article I, Sec. 9. (I) The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same…

“(4) No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed…

“ARTICLE IV, Sec. 3. (I) Other States may be admitted into this Confederacy by a vote of two-thirds of the whole House of Representatives and two-thirds of the Senate…

“(3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several Sates; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.” []

[E] The full text of Carnival of Crime is at []

[F] The full text of The Mysterious Stranger is at []


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2010

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