George Orwell’s America

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In Life on the Mississippi there is a queer little illustration of the central weakness of Mark Twain’s character. In the earlier part of this mainly autobiographical book the dates have been altered. Mark Twain describes his adventures as a Mississippi pilot as though he had been a boy of about seventeen at the time, whereas in fact he was a young man of nearly thirty. There is a reason for this. The same part of the book describes his exploits in the civil war, which were distinctly inglorious. Moreover, Mark Twain started by fighting, if he can be said to have fought, on the Southern side, and then changed his allegiance before the war was over. This kind of behaviour is more excusable in a boy than in a man, whence the adjustment of the dates. It is also clear enough, however, that he changed sides because he saw that the North was going to win; and this tendency to side with the stronger whenever possible, to believe that might must be right, is apparent throughout his career. In Roughing It there is an interesting account of a bandit named Slade, who, among countless other outrages, had committed 28 murders. It is perfectly clear that Mark Twain admires this disgusting scoundrel. Slade was successful; therefore he was admirable. This outlook, no less common today, is summed up in the significant American expression “to make good.”

In the money-grubbing period that followed the civil war it was hard for anyone of Mark Twain’s temperament to refuse to be a success. The old, simple, stump-whittling, tobacco-chewing democracy which Abraham Lincoln typified was perishing: it was now the age of cheap immigrant labour and the growth of Big Business. Mark Twain mildly satirised his contemporaries in The Gilded Age, but he also gave himself up to the prevailing fever, and made and lost vast sums of money. He even for a period of years deserted writing for business; and he squandered his time on buffooneries, not merely lecture tours and public banquets, but, for instance, the writing of a book like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which is a deliberate flattery of all that is worst and most vulgar in American life. The man who might have been a kind of rustic Voltaire became the world’s leading afterdinner speaker, charming alike for his anecdotes and his power to make businessmen feel themselves public benefactors.

It is usual to blame Mark Twain’s wife for his failure to write the books he ought to have written, and it is evident that she did tyrannise over him pretty thoroughly. Each morning, Mark Twain would show her what he had written the day before, and Mrs Clemens … would go over it with the blue pencil, cutting out everything that she thought unsuitable. She seems to have been a drastic blue-penciller even by nineteenth-century standards. There is an account in W. D. Howells’s book My Mark Twain of the fuss that occurred over a terrible expletive that had crept into [Tom Sawyer]. Mark Twain appealed to Howells, who admitted that it was “just what Huck would have said,” but agreed with Mrs. Clemens that the word could not possibly be printed. The word was “hell”. Nevertheless, no writer is really the intellectual slave of his wife. Mrs Clemens could not have stopped Mark Twain writing any book he really wanted to write. She may have made his surrender to society easier, but the surrender happened because of that flaw in his own nature, his inability to despise success.

Several of Mark Twain’s books are bound to survive, because they contain invaluable social history. His life covered the great period of American expansion. When he was a child it was a normal day’s outing to go with a picnic lunch and watch the hanging of an Abolitionist, and when he died the aeroplane was ceasing to be a novelty. This period in America produced relatively little literature, and but for Mark Twain our picture of a Mississippi paddle-steamer, or a stage-coach crossing the plains, would be much dimmer than it is. But most people who have studied his work have come away with a feeling that he might have done something more. He gives all the while a strange impression of being about to say something and then funking it, so that Life on the Mississippi and the rest of them seem to be haunted by the ghost of a greater and much more coherent book…

—November 1943

American Words