How Mark Twain’s Politics are Obscured in His Hometown Museum
By Amitabh Pal, April 5, 2013
During spring break recently, I ventured with my wife and daughters to Mark Twain’s childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri. The trip was great, and we all had a good time. There was one thing that rankled me, however: Twain’s political stances were scarcely visible in the place.
Twain was much more than the author of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.” He was markedly progressive on the issues of his day. As he grew older, he became disillusioned with his government and turned more radical in his views. Partly as a result of this, said the owner of the bed and breakfast where we stayed, he wasn’t financially stable even in his final years.
None of this is reflected in the telling of his life at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum complex. The approach taken is highlighted by a central item in the display: The picket fence made famous in “Tom Sawyer.” There is little mention of his outspokenness. Sure, there is some talk of slavery in relation to “Huckleberry Finn,” a safe subject to bring up in this day and age. But that’s pretty much about it.
In actuality, Twain was a staunch critic of American militarism and imperialism. His most scathing attack on these recurrent features of U.S. foreign policy may be “The War Prayer” (a copy of which we bought from a local curio shop).
The prayer has an anger that is incredible in its intensity:
“O Lord, our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst…”
Not surprisingly, Twain wasn’t able to get the work published in his lifetime.
What had worked Twain up to this level of fury was the American conquest of the Philippines, a brutal and racist venture that claimed the lives of innumerable Filipinos. He was so outraged by the war that he suggested that the American flag be redesigned, “with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones.”
You wouldn’t know it at the Twain museum but he was vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. Twain was not hesitant to voice his opposition to the Philippines colonial enterprise (and to others such as the Belgian genocide in the Congo, which he denounced in “King Leopold’s Soliloquy”).
“While the United States followed up on its victory in the Spanish-American War by slaughtering thousands of Filipino people, Twain spoke at anti-war rallies,” writes commentator Norman Solomon. “He also flooded newspapers with letters and wrote brilliant, unrelenting articles.”
None of this is at display at Hannibal.
Nor is his criticism of the venality of the rich and mighty of his era. In fact, the very term “Gilded Age” comes from Twain himself, since it is the title of a lesser-known book he co-authored that was a scathing critique of the political corruption of his times.
Twain was also a fervent advocate of social justice, talking in terms few celebrities would dare to today.
“Who are the oppressors?” Twain asked. “The few: the king, the capitalist and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat.”
The uncensored version of Twain’s autobiography that was released in 2010 reveals how thoroughly political he was—and how he so compellingly speaks to our times.
“Whether anguishing over American military interventions abroad or delivering jabs at Wall Street tycoons, this Twain is strikingly contemporary,” wrote Larry Rohter in the New York Times. “Though the autobiography also contains its share of homespun tales, some of its observations about American life are so acerbic—at one point Twain refers to American soldiers as ‘uniformed assassins’—that his heirs and editors, as well as the writer himself, feared they would damage his reputation if not withheld.”
But there is no valid reason to shield us from his acerbic observations today—only the distressing impulse to sanitize our history, the very impulse Twain ridiculed.