Mark Twain: Freedom, Imperialism and Selective Tradition
Authors: Dix, H.
Journal: Public Resistance
When I look at critical work on Mark Twain, I am struck by the extent to which it has been invested in establishing Twain as the symptomatic American writer. He is seen as the creator of a new national American literary vernacular idiom, promulgator of quintessentially American values such as frontier spirit, and a champion of free speech and social criticism. These virtues in turn are then distilled as the defining elements of national character.
As a non-American national, I find something troubling in this approach. I do not dispute the validity of the established nationalist reading of Mark Twain per se. But I have found that my interest in the texts and the history with which they are involved is continually frustrated by this other insistence on the national parameters of the texts. I have always thought that I enjoy and value the texts, and yet am also aware that I do not value them for this reason. Is my valuation of the texts then invalid? What in any case is the basis for my valuation of them? The more I have tried to answer this question, the more I have found that the nationalist-symptomatic readings of Twain are enmeshed with a deeply conservative nationalist politics. The nationalist-heroic approach is founded on a selective tradition, keeping the spotlight firmly on those Twain texts which sustain this reading. To question that selection and that reading is to open up an alternative current in the reception of Mark Twain’s work, examining how the texts might be valued without necessarily endorsing an extreme form of cultural nationalism.
In the recent political climate in Britain and America, the figure of Mark Twain has been used as a kind of bridging figure. Twain is seen as a comic genius to whom we can all relate, thus creating a kind of fellow-feeling on both sides of the Atlantic and cementing the ‘special relationship’ between both countries. That this should occur during a period of jointly prosecuted aggressive overseas foreign policy on the two governments has suggestive political implications. In this regard it is interesting that one B.B.C. commentator on the funeral of Ronald Regan compared the up-bringing of President Regan to a Huckleberry Finn style idyll. Britons and Americans were invited to put all differences behind them through this nostalgic appeal to America’s most established literary hero. It did not seem to strike anyone as odd that these invocations of nostalgia and rural idyll were greatly in contrast to the very un-idyllic foreign military pursuits being prosecuted by both nations at that very time.
There is a deep irony here, because this attempt at bridging two cultures masks an earlier and much more complicated bridge – in precisely this area of aggressive overseas expansion. Historically, the moment of British High Imperialism in the nineteenth century also signals the point at which America enters the world stage as a militaristic and pseudo-imperial power. When the US joined the European governments at the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-85, to negotiate commercial and territorial rights in the Congo basin, it had in effect become as much of an imperial power as Britain. Between these two expanding empires there was a good deal of traffic in commerce, culture, and ideas.
In this paper I wish to demonstrate that there is a political unconscious at work in late nineteenth-century American literature. This unconscious takes the form of a complicated negotiation of the relation between American and British political and imperial interests. I am using Twain as a case in point, to highlight this complexity.
The nineteenth century public sphere in America is one of great anti-imperial activity. This gives rise to the social criticism for which Twain is perhaps best known. Yet this criticism feeds into the established nationalist reading of Twain, where Twain and his characters are somehow taken to embody the voice of a nation’s conscience and thus tell the nation all of the best things about itself.
My reading of Twain is more complex. I do not in any way dispute the idea that Twain was an important social critic - there is overwhelming evidence to support this view. But this approach to Twain seems insufficiently historical. There is also evidence to suggest that Twain’s work, like much of late nineteenth century America, was inextricably bound up with the practices and ideologies of imperial Britain, even while the man himself was an outspoken critic of imperialism. I do not wish to score points against Twain personally, but I do wish to stress this important historical limiting factor. The historical congruence of British and American imperialism at this time was such that Twain’s political criticism could not out flank it. Thus I wish to demonstrate how Twain’s work was involved in the structure of American imperial expansion, despite his own egalitarian politics.
Implicitly here I shall be interrogating the concept of freedom – and the uses and abuses to which this word has been recently subject. The established nationalist reading of Twain sets Twain up as the moral mouthpiece of America, endlessly campaigning for freedom and justice. This move implicitly invites us to celebrate the conditions of freedom which enable such public critique in the first place. By highlighting the selective nature of such an appropriation of both freedom and Twain, I hope to bring the analysis up to date with a very urgent contemporary concern. For what Laura Chrisman has called the imperial unconscious binds Britain and America to imperial policies through this ratifying appeal to a notion of freedom. And this imperial unconscious has not yet obsolesced. On the contrary, in Iraq today, it may only just be reaching its zenith.
Preferred by: Hywel Dix