Thursday, June 30, 2011


With Independence Day upon us, Mark Twain House & Museum Director of Communications Jacques Lamarre questions whether or not Mark Twain was “the American.”

The quote “I am not an American; I am the American” has been popularly misattributed to Mark Twain. It even trips up the most astute Twainiacs. Ken Burns uses the quote in the superlative documentary that we show in our museum center and on the cover of the soundtrack and DVD of his full Twain miniseries. Twain did write the phrase in a notebook that he took with him on his European travels in 1897, but he was, in fact, quoting his friend Frank Fuller. Over time, the quote has become more and more synonymous with Twain, and that is not really surprising. For many of us, Mark Twain is the quintessential American. A bigger question might be: how American was he? By a lot of modern measures of patriotism, Twain could be called downright un-American.

  • When afforded the opportunity to provide military service for his country, Twain helped to form the Marion Rangers, a group of Confederate irregulars. After two weeks of “service,” he decamped and went westward away from the Civil War fighting that was consuming the nation.
  • He was unreserved in his contempt for politicians. He wasn’t afraid to let fly with snappish quotes like “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can” (What is Man?) and “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself” (Mark Twain, A Biography)
  • He didn’t hold back in his criticism of President Theodore Roosevelt: “We are insane, each in our own way, and with insanity goes irresponsibility. Theodore the man is sane; in fairness we ought to keep in mind that Theodore, as statesman and politician, is insane and irresponsible.” (letter to Joseph Hopkins Twichell)
  • Many Americans equate patriotism with God-fearing Christianity, but Twain openly questioned God and Man’s ability to relate to the deity: “To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master.” (Mark Twain, A Biography). “I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man's reasoning powers are not above the monkey's.” (Mark Twain in Eruption)
  • He could not maintain allegiance to one political party and openly questioned the two-party system: “Look at the tyranny of party -- at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty -- a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes -- and which turns voters into chattles, slaves, rabbits, and all the while their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.” (“The Character of Man”)
  • He questioned American foreign policy, particularly our Imperialistic forays into the Philippines: “There were the Filipinos fighting like blazes for their liberty. Spain would not hear to it. The United States stepped in, and after they had licked the enemy to a standstill, instead of freeing the Filipinos they paid that enormous amount for an island which is of no earthly account to us; just wanted to be like the aristocratic countries of Europe which have possessions in foreign waters.” (Interview with The Baltimore Sun).

With all this stacked against him, how could Twain be considered “the American?” Precisely because he enjoyed the freedoms that America provides. He used our freedom of speech to question our leaders, mock hypocrisy and praise those he deemed worthy of praise. He used the freedom of the press to tell the truth, stretch the truth and create his own truth. He created the embodiment of American childhood with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He exposed our institutionalized racism that denied rights to African Americans in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. He was a Capitalist who started his own businesses and earned his own wealth. Twain also, like many Americans, faced debt and imminent foreclosure. He voted his conscience and used his freedom of religion to pursue his own path toward understanding and challenging the Immortal. He embraced the American ability to invent yourself. How else would a Samuel Clemens become a Mark Twain? Of course, he was born in America, but he also represented America across the globe.  In turn, he brought the world back to American shores through his travel writing, helping us become global citizens. He became an internationally-renowned celebrity, something American culture craves.  And finally, his books engendered all of the liberties that we hold dear – books that are widely read in countries where those freedoms are denied. As such, maybe Mark Twain is “the American.” Even if he didn’t say so.


Laurel L. Russwurm said...

Although I've read many of his books, I really don't know much about the man. Your site has proven very educational, and inspired me to keep my eyes open for Mark Twain biographies.

I first saw this fabulous photograph I'd not seen before when it appeared on Tumblr. This led me here in my effort to determine its provenance. I always try to apply proper accreditation even to public domain works, so I would appreciate it if you can tell me the name of the photographer if its known?

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