Prologue to Mark Twain's "To The Person Sitting in Darkness."

Kurt Jacobsen



icture 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?[1] 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 overlords.

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.[2]  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),[3] 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.[4] 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, usually 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 February 1901. 

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.”).[5] 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." [6] Take that, Simon Schama. 

In 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.


[1] Well, actually, he might have served in a suitably segregated way beside Huck.  Regiments of ‘buffalo soldiers” were dispatched to do the dirty work too.  See Stuart C. Miller, “Benevolent Assimilation”: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982); Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines  (New York: Random House, 1989); and Russell Roth, Muddy Glory: America’s ‘Indian Wars” in the Philippines (West Hanover, Mass: Christopher Publishing, 1981).

[2] See Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1980). 

[3] Andrew Hoffmann, Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens  (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997). pp. 281, 434-447.

[4] 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.”

[5] Mark Twain, Letters From the Earth  (New York: Fawcett, 1967), p. 177.

[6] Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969) p. 40.


Kurt Jacobsen is the book review editor for Logos and a research associate at the University of Chicago.