Huckleberry Finn, a bit older and flintier, in Army uniform
remorselessly slaughtering Filipino insurgents, and their
hapless families, at the inauspicious turn of the 20th
century. What would nigger Jim think?
A tad earlier, these same villainous Filipinos had been
hailed in the fickle US press as glorious freedom fighters
for helping America to oust their Spanish colonial
Can’t imagine it?? Mark Twain, wisecracker extraordinaire,
easily could. Ignorant American youths, he reckoned, could
do just about anything that their cynical leaders ordered
them to do in the service of profitable conquests. The
cold-blooded extermination techniques applied by our boys in
the Philippines, after all, had been exceedingly well
refined during the long march Westward.
Following murderous orders is what military life is all
about, a life from which a young and conflicted Samuel L.
Clemens in 1861 prudently slipped away to go West and sit
out the Civil War.
Forty years afterward, as the US ambitiously pushed its
frontiers across the Pacific, Mark Twain was probably the
most famous American alive, renowned for dispensing comic
homespun phrases that beautifully punctured human follies,
stupidity and self-deceit. Yet imperialism, especially the
incipient hypocritical American brand, wasn’t exactly the
stuff of back woods burlesque. Twain, despite a lifelong
weakness for get-rich-quick gadgets (and frittering away a
fortune on them),
did not hesitate to risk his highly marketable folksy image
in order to lampoon the underlying avaricious aims of the
“blessings-of-civilization trust,” a robust entente
cordiale of corporate vampires, expansionist ideologues,
and sanctimonious bible-thumpers.
Witness if you please, a corporate cabal gaining political
control in Washington and pressing its exploitative economic
strategy abroad with the full backing of the US arsenal. A
plainly mediocre President (McKinley), who is nestled deep
in their tax-exempt ermine-lined pockets, not only goes
along with seizing distant lands but eventually got off his
knees to suggest that this was a divinely inspired mission.
The news media, thrilled, backs the Godly venture
wholeheartedly. The public customarily is treated like P. T.
Barnum’s congenital suckers, ripe for the picking by
evolutionarily superior con men, known as tycoons. The
natives in the distant land, meanwhile, fight back fiercely
against their counterfeit liberators. Young American
military recruits are turned into torturers and murderers
for the sake of sweet imperial pillaging for a select few.
Ring a bell?
Twain, a passionate man rife with roiling contradictions,
came out on the decent side of his own warring urges. So,
at the start of a gory new century Twain, now in his mid-60s
and emerging from bankruptcy and from his grief over the
death of a daughter, clearly retained his piercing practiced
eye for all-American commercial hokum, feel-good lies, and
government-issued tall tales. After a long European
sojourn, and as Philippines atrocities continued into a
third year, he scribbled “To the Person Sitting in
Darkness,” first published in North American Review in
Here is the legendarily rambunctious Mark Twain who mused on
the difference between a buffalo-hunting earl and an
anaconda (“The earl wantonly destroys what he has no use for
and the anaconda doesn’t.”).
Here is the Mark Twain who, from his grave, chides
purse-lipped historians about the French Revolution that
they so tearfully rue that “there were two Reigns of Terror
in France if we could but remember and consider it; the one
wrought murder in hot passions, the other in heartless cold
blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a
thousand years; the one inflicted death upon a thousand
persons, the other upon a hundred million; but our shudders
are all for the ‘horrors of the minor terror, the momentary
Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift
death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger,
cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak?’ A city cemetery could
contain the coffins filled by that brief terror that we have
all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over;
but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by
that older and real Terror - that unspeakable bitter and
awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its
vastness or pity as it deserves." Take that, Simon Schama.
this neglected essay, well worth a resurrection, Twain
excoriates the worst that is to be found in America at the
same time as he displays, in the course of doing so, what is
best. Does history repeat itself as farce? Not when it was
a brutal farce to begin with.
President William McKinley
wrote: “When next I realized that the Philippines
had dropped into our laps, I confess I did not know
what to do with them. I sought counsel from all
sides-Democrats as well as Republicans-but got
little help. I thought first we would take only
Manila; then Luzon; then other islands, perhaps,
also. I walked the floor of the White House night
after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to
tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees
and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance
more than one night. And one night late it came to
me this way-I don't know how it was, but it came . .
. That there was nothing left for us to do but to
take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and
uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by
God's grace do the very best we could by them, as
our fellow men for whom Christ also died.”
Kurt Jacobsen is the book review editor for Logos
and a research associate at the University of Chicago.