And Never the Twain Shall Meet
Even though he’s become an icon of that vague national religion known as Americanism, Mark Twain and patriotism were sworn enemies.
By John D. Spalding
I once took a trip down Mark Twain’s beloved Mississippi River. It was The Mark Twain Vacation, the Delta Queen Steamboat Company’s most popular “Steamboatin’ Theme Vacation” and a salute to what is widely considered Twain’s greatest legacy: his evocation of a simpler world of youth and innocence, of corncob pipes and Aunt Polly’s jam, of pirate games and hidden treasure, of river rafts and, of course, steamboats.
The Delta Queen’s 49-page brochure featured a photo of Twain, draped in Old Glory, on the cover. The brochure explained just why our most famous humorist was their star attraction:
“As in bygone days, when steamboats were the preferred mode of travel, you will see America from a distinctively patriotic and nostalgic perspective…. Within and without you will be transported back to turn-of-the-century elegance—to an era that, as with a vintage wine, only gets better with the passage of time… It’s a celebration of all that makes America great…an experience that will linger in your heart and memory for a lifetime!”
Appropriately, or so it appeared, the cruise was scheduled to coincide with July 4th. After all, who could be a better companion on the greatest American holiday than Mark Twain?
* * *
When the lights faded in the Grand Saloon, an emcee in a black tuxedo announced there was a stowaway on board. “The captain has been interviewing him,” the emcee said, “and it seems that this gentleman has been a writer, a publisher, an inventor, a riverboat captain. I don’t know if he’s gifted, or if he just has trouble holding down a job. But I must say that the news of his death has been greatly exaggerated. This gentleman would like to talk with y’all, so here is… Mr. Mark Twain!”
And out he stepped, amid great applause—the trademark white suit, the mass of white hair, the bushy mustache. He shuffled to center stage, cleared his throat, and slowly lowered himself into a chair beside a small table.
“I’m gettin’ old,” the Twain impersonator croaked, wincing as he crossed his legs. “I recognize it, though I do not realize it. Old age—it’s all wrong somehow to have to get old. I don’t know what the creator had in mind when he devised a plan such as old age. It’s obvious to me that he did not have to go through it. I think it would have been a far better plan if we could have been born old. Gone the other way. At least we’d have something to look forward to!”
This was a mellow Mark Twain, a little worse for wear at 73, two years from death. The performer was Lewis Hankins, a former Kentucky policeman who’d honed his act to a fine art in the 20 years since he retired from the force. His routine revealed few traces of the cynicism that marked Twain’s later writings, such as “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” which concludes with the slaughter of more than 25,000 people; “The Day We Celebrate,” a speech ridiculing the Fourth of July; and “As Regards Patriotism,” an essay arguing that “love of country, worship of country, devotion to the country’s flag and honor” had become an official religion in America.
For the reality is that if there was one holiday Mark Twain despised, it was the Fourth of July. An avid pacifist and opponent of patriotism, which he equated with mindless idol worship, Twain’s criticism of America’s two favorite pastimes was so unrepentantly scathing that “As Regards Patriotism,” which was written around 1900, was withheld from publication until 1923, 13 years after his death. Had it been published during his lifetime, he probably would have been stoned to death by his flag-wavin', God-fearin' countrymen. Even today, it is so incendiary that were he alive, Twain would surely be on the FBI’s hit list. He was a triple threat: an intellectual, a pacifist, and a satirist. If people like him took over the country, there’d be no telling how far we’d fall into the abyss of political integrity, compassion, and forethought.
“It is agreed, in this country,” Twain wrote, “that if a man can arrange his religion so that it perfectly satisfies his conscience, it is not incumbent upon him to care whether the arrangement is satisfactory to anyone else or not…Patriotism is merely a religion…It is a shop-worn product procured at second hand. The patriot does not know just how or when or where he got his opinions, neither does he care, so long as he is with what seems the majority, which is the main thing, the safe thing, the comfortable thing. Does the reader believe he knows three men who have actual reasons for their pattern of Patriotism—and can furnish them? Let him not examine, unless he wants to be disappointed. He will be likely to find that his men got their Patriotism at the public trough…”
As for Independence Day, Twain treated the American Society in London at their Fourth of July dinner in 1899 to the brash observation that “the business aspect of the Fourth of July is not perfect as it stands. See what it costs us every year with loss of life, the crippling of thousands with its fireworks, and the burning down of property. It is not only sacred to patriotism and universal freedom but to the surgeon, the undertaker, and insurance offices, who are working it for all it is worth.” And at the same July 4th dinner eight years later, Twain embellished upon his irreverence with a surreal tall tale. On Independence Day, he said, an uncle living in Chicago had “opened his mouth to hurrah when a rocket went down his throat…It blew up and scattered him all over the forty-five states and—really, now, this is true, I know about it myself—twenty-four hours after that it was raining buttons, recognizable as his, on the Atlantic seaboard.”
It’s no revelation, of course, that the original meanings of holidays both national and religious tend to get forgotten amid the frenzy of materialism they have promoted. Memorial Day and Independence Day, theoretically somber tributes to those who gave their lives for our freedom, are meaningful to the average American only in terms of flag-raising, barbecues, and fireworks. Thanksgiving, which should also be a day of reflection and genuine thanks for our freedom and any abundance God might have thrown our way, is reduced to a day of mind-boggling gluttony. The martyrdom of Christ and St. Valentine take a back seat to rapacious displays of gift-giving and receiving. But to Twain, the fact that most of us have no appreciation whatsoever of the deeper meaning of July 4th is not the issue. It is the fact that we are celebrating it at all. At heart, Twain, whom William Dean Howells crowned “the Lincoln of our literature,” was an atheist and a cynic, to whom any public display of nationalistic fervor was a danger, not a boon, to a society all too ready to trade individualism in for conformity, critical thinking for platitude, reason for emotion.
And perhaps the ultimate irony is what Twain himself would have thought of the Delta Queen Steamboatin’ vacay in his name. The brochure described my boat, the Mississippi Queen, as “the very fulfillment of Mark Twain’s dreams.” “Someone… some day… will build the biggest steamboat the world has ever known,” the brochure quoted Twain as saying, “and that one shall be the Queen of the Mississippi.” This incarnation of Twain’s imagination is “an opulent reminder of the 19th-century floating palaces,” full of brass railings, beveled mirrors, chandeliers, rocking chairs, authentic steam engines, and an enormous red paddlewheel. Completed in 1976, the Mississippi Queen includes many amenities Twain may not have divined: air-conditioning, elevators, a fitness room, movie theater, beauty parlor, gift shop, and pool, although he undoubtedly would have felt at home in the “Calliope Bar,” “Golden Antlers Bar,” “Paddlewheel Lounge,” and “Grand Saloon.”
The Mark Twain Vacation lacked only one thing: any resemblance to the truth. In 1867, a discriminating “Committee on Applications” granted Twain, despite his sorry lack of references, passage on the steamship Quaker City. No ordinary cruise, this was the first package tour—a whirlwind five-month excursion, complete with “every necessary comfort, including library and musical instruments,” that visited dozens of cities from Paris and Rome to Gibraltar and Athens; Constantinople and Yalta to Jerusalem and Egypt.
And what did Twain make of this dream vacation? He heckled the crew and tour guides. He snorted when other passengers—most of whom were elderly, God-fearing Christians—got seasick, calling them “Methuselahs,” “parrots,” and “reptiles.” He managed to find tackiness and fraudulence everywhere—in souvenirs, art, holy relics, and historic sites, including the grotto in Nazareth where, his guide insisted, the Annunciation happened. He whined about travel writing that idealized the past and inflated Old World culture and sophistication. He even stole grapes in Greece—and bragged about it.
In other words, Twain turned the whole trip into one big joke, “a picnic on a gigantic scale.” Then he wrote it up in “The Innocents Abroad,” a book that made him rich and famous and remained his bestselling work throughout his life.
Thanks to Delta Queen, however, and our insatiable craving for heroes, no matter how mythological, the real Mark Twain will never spoil a cruise, or crash a July 4th picnic, or shatter our political and moral illusions. No, he lives on, in a form that would have horrified him, a kitsch caricature of his true self, robed in the flag and presiding over the kind of excursion package that would have terrified him to the marrow of his bones. If he'd seen us as we de-boarded to visit his boyhood home and museum in Hannibal, Missouri, took the Twainland Express tour of the town, went to the Tom Sawyer “fence paint-off” and met the winners of the “Tom and Becky Look-alike Contest,” I bet he’d have reached for the Pepto Bismol. Or his pen. Or both.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Maxim's 100th Issue.
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