Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

Archive for August 2008

Review of "The Real Lincoln" by Thomas J. DiLorenzo

with 2 comments

Every person you meet on the street knows a great deal about Abraham Lincoln.  But most of what these people know is not true.  The American textbooks about Lincoln have perpetuated a mythology, and anyone new to this subject and reading DiLorenzo’s book on Lincoln is in for a shock.  I will leave it to others to explain why the textbooks have omitted the truth about Lincoln.

Some people thinking about this book may be inclined to ask, “Why be concerned about events that  happened a  hundred and fifty years ago?”  One answer is that we should always be interested in serious injustices in history in order to avoid being a party to future injustices of the same kind.  That is a good  reason for reading history.   Another answer to that question is that those past injustices, by being concealed, continue to cause injustices today.

DiLorenzo’s book is not the only book that exposes this cause for national shame.  But it is one of the most damaging  to the Lincoln mythology because it not easily dismissed  by those who are in denial on the subject.   The book contains irrefutable evidence.  And, it is interesting that informed  people who disagree with DiLorenzo, don’t deny the facts he cites. Rather,  they excuse the things that were done simply because these things were done by Lincoln.

DiLorenzo is a professor at Loyola College in Maryland.  He is the author of 11 books and more than 70 articles in academic journals.  The book is extensively researched and well documented.

The Real Lincoln has a Foreword by Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University Professor Walter E. Williams who concurs with the findings of DiLorenzo’s work. Williams’ education in economics is quite relevant because economic issues figure more importantly in the concealed Lincoln story than you might think.

Lincoln did not believe in racial equality.   Many times in his political career, Lincoln makes his position on the matter of race and slavery quite clear.

Discussing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, he said: “[When slave owners] remind us of their constitutional rights [to own slaves], I acknowledge them, not grudgingly but fully and fairly; and I would give them any legislation for the claiming of their fugitives.”
In debate with Douglas in 1858 at Ottawa, Illinois, Lincoln said: “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races.  There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary.”

Lincoln repeated these beliefs in several venues.  In his  First Inaugural Address in 1861 he said he had no “purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery, in the States where it exists.  I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” But he dedicated most of the speech to denying that States could legally secede from the Union. 

In saying he had no inclination to interfere with the institution of slavery, Lincoln was voicing the view of the overwhelming majority of citizens of the day, North and South. (Not one of the four parties which put forward presidential candidates in 1860 was in favor of  the abolition of slavery.)  But Lincoln was opposed to the extension of slavery into the territories, not for moral reasons, but like the new Republican party, he was concerned that slaves would compete with white laborers in the territories.

In Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln said: “Whether slavery shall go into Nebraska, or other new territories, is not a matter of exclusive concern to the people who go there.  The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories.  We want them for the homes of free white people.  This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted with them.  Slave states are the places for poor white people to move from. . . .New free states are the places for poor people to go and better their condition.”

Lincoln’s “solution” for the blacks in the United States was to colonize them back to Africa.  He toyed with several plans to do that, which prompted William Loyd Garrison, the abolitionist,  to denounce him: “President Lincoln may colonize himself if he choose, but it is an impertinent act, on his part, to propose the getting rid of those who are as good as himself.”

The Emancipation Proclamation was confessed by Lincoln himself to be a political move during the war to keep England and other European countries from recognizing the Confederacy as a separate country.   The Proclamation did not apply to states which were loyal to the Union where it would have meant that slaves would actually be freed, but to the states of the Confederacy where Lincoln had no control over the matter.  “Lincoln’s own secretary of state William Seward, mocked the Emancipation Proclamation by saying, ‘We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.'”

Why did Lincoln not try peaceful emancipation?  If freeing the slaves had been Lincoln’s purpose,  he probably could have done so without war.   DiLorenzo points out that everywhere in the civilized world where slavery was eliminated, it was done without war.  Often it was a matter of remunerating slave owners for freeing their slaves.  But the reason that approach was not attempted  in the United States was, first, there was no substantial interest in freeing the slaves in 1861, except by the active but small group of abolitionists.   And second, Lincoln, the Republican Party, and the Northern states needed a war to give them a stronger central government, which would have control over a national currency, control of Southern ports, and power to implement “internal improvements.”

In 1832 Lincoln said, “My politics are short and sweet. . . .I am in favor of a national bank. . . .in favor of the internal improvements system and a high protective tariff.”   To give all these powers to the Federal government, it was necessary to override or ignore the Constitution.  The best way to do that in Lincoln’s view was through war.   And to do that Lincoln wanted South Carolina to fire on Fort Sumter and thereby develop sympathy in the North for making war on the Southern states.  DiLorenzo presents a half dozen contemporary and modern reports and Lincoln’s own words to show it was Lincoln’s plan.  And it worked.  The war produced all the effects that Lincoln wanted although he didn’t live to see them.  The Ninth and Tenth Amendments are still in the Constitution but they have been ignored for a century and a half by Presidents, Congress, and the Supreme Court.

This book also shows that the Union Forces’ invasion of the South was accompanied by rape, pillage, and murder of civilians.  A few quotations will suffice to give some idea of how these war crimes against Southern Civilians were carried out.  DiLorenzo demonstrates that Lincoln had knowledge of and approved of these crimes.

Upon taking command in Memphis, Sherman described his ultimate purpose in the war to his wife: “extermination, not of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble, but the people.”  His loving wife responded by expressing her sincerest wish that the war would be a war “of extermination and that all [Southerners] would be driven like the Swine into the sea.  May we carry fire and sword into their states till not one habitation is left standing.”

“Although it is oddly missing from most histories of Sherman’s march, many eyewitness accounts of rape by Federal soldiers have been recorded.  Many accounts emphasize that black women suffered the most and that many black men, in response, became just as bitterly opposed to the Federal army as any secessionist was.  Civilized people do not publicize the names of rape victims, so we will never know the extent to which Sherman’s army committed acts of rape. But the University of South Carolina library in Columbia. . . contains a large collection of thousands of letters and diaries. . . . This collection contains hundreds of personal accounts of rape at the hands of Sherman’s army.”

“During the century prior to the War between the States, nations agreed that it was a war crime, punishable by imprisonment or death, for armies to (1) attack defenseless cities and towns, (2) plunder and wantonly destroy civilian property, and (3) take from the civilian population more than what was necessary to feed and sustain an occupying army.”  But the Federal army committed all three offenses.  It was a general policy from the earliest days of the Union’s invasion of the South.  “McClellan and several other top Union generals harshly criticized such actions, but Lincoln ignored their criticisms.”

The policies of Lincoln continued after his death.   After the war, the Federals used the same tactics in the West against the Indians that they had used against Southern civilians. Grant gave Sherman the assignment in July 1865 of ethnic genocide against the Plains Indians to make way for the government-subsidized railroads.  Sherman wrote Grant in 1866, “We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress of the railroads.  We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men women and children.”

Among other Union officers who carried out this warfare against the Indians were John Pope, O. O.  Howard, Nelson A. Miles, Alfred H. Terry, E. C. Ord, C. C. Augur, and Edward R. S. Canby. “Among the colonels, George Armstrong Custer and Benjamin Grierson were the most famous.”

“Both the Southern Confederates and the Indians stood in the way of the Whig/Republican dream of a North American economic empire, complete with a subsidized transcontinental railroad, a nationalized banking system, and protectionist tariffs.  Consequently, both groups were conquered and subjugated by the most violent means.”

Federal forces occupied Southern states during the “Reconstruction” period when anyone in the South who had taken part in the War for Independence could not hold office.  Also anyone who purchased bonds from the Confederate government was disenfranchised.  “Even if one did not participate in the war effort, voter registration required one to publicly proclaim that one’s sympathies were with the Federal armies during the war. . . .”

“The ex-slaves were promised many things, including the property of white Southerners, if they registered and voted Republican and, at times, were threatened or intimidated if they dared to register Democrat. All of this was funded with federal tax dollars.”

DiLorenzo also enumerates the many ways that the occupying forces in collusion with the Republican party plundered the economy of the Southern states.

The book is available on Amazon.com.


Worried About WMD?

leave a comment »

A nuclear exchange would be a worldwide disaster.
Practically all nations with nuclear weapons have leaders
who know that and will work to avoid it—with one exception.

Jihadists love death and have said so. Their main
tactic against infidels IS suicide. The only reason
that a jihadist would not use a nuclear weapon is if
it were perceived as not being helpful to jihad.

But it’s very likely that islamic leaders will never directly
confront the rest of the world with a military force. They don’t
have to. They are growing in numbers and influence daily.
They have a foothold in every corner of the globe.

Their greatest obstacle is a belief contrary to their own,
but belief in the west is dying. Look at cathedrals in Europe,
which have become museums for artifacts of a dying culture.

In the United States we have, so far, failed to recognize who our
real enemy is. More than that, in the U. S., a
Christian is condemned more quickly than the member of
any other religious group. And not for murder or any other
illegal activity, but for just expressing a belief.

Multiculturalism and political correctness are the manure that
has caused a flourishing of islam in the west. Multiculturalism
and PC are not belief—they are the absence of belief.
That’s all that jihad needs. It won’t be sudden like a war,
but one day our descendants (anywhere in the world) will
be living with an islamic majority calling all the shots.

After attacking Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto was asked by
a fellow officer, “What have we achieved by the attack?”
The admiral answered, “I think we have only succeeded in waking
a sleeping giant and filling him with a terrible resolve.”

I can’t imagine any event that could fill our nation with resolve
today because resolve is predicated on belief.  On the other hand,
the islamic world has both.

Written by polemicscat

August 24, 2008 at 10:53 am

What Is Women’s Literature?

with 3 comments

When I retired more than a decade ago, courses like “Modern Literature by Women” were common in college curricula. At a glance, the addition of such courses seems harmless enough. One may think that they somehow compensate for past injustices against women. “Why not?” one may ask, “Don’t women deserve it like equal pay for equal work?” But when considered more carefully, this kind of division of literature into categories based on the sex of the author has troubling aspects.   Does it have a pedagogic purpose or just a socio-political intent? 

It seems that the two possible reasons for having courses dedicated to the study of literature exclusively by women are (1) to somehow “get even” for past injustices or (2) to deny the possibility of empathy between men and women.

In his essay “What is Art?” Tolstoy explains the reason for creating art: “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling–this is the activity of art.”

The study of art, such as a college course on literature, is a means to help the artist transmit that feeling. In short, we study literature to gain insight into the lives of people whose outward and inward experiences are different from our own.

On the face of it, the motive of “getting even” does nothing to promote that purpose. I heard on public radio a recorded musical performance by a group calling itself the “Gay Men’s Chorus,” and I wondered how the sound of a gay men’s chorus could differ from the sound of an ordinary men’s chorus. Of course, there was no difference. The reason for giving the chorus that name had little to do with music; its purpose was to promote a social-political agenda. In the same way, a course in literature by women writers for the purpose of “getting even” exists primarily to make a political point, not to improve understanding.

The other possible justification is more disturbing because it postulates a hormone-induced gulf that forever denies significant communication between men and women. If that kind of barrier does exist, communication through art of the kind Tolstoy describes is impossible. But those who believe in that barrier between men and women, typically express it this way: “How could you possibly understand since you are not a woman?” If the theory is correct, women cannot understand men either.

One consequence of the theory of the gulf is that it suggests that men are better suited for certain roles in society and women are better suited for others–an idea that has become repugnant to many people in recent years. There is a contradiction in arguing that women should be allowed to hold what were traditionally men’s jobs (like soldiering) and, at the same time, arguing that women writers and men writers are fundamentally different in their sensibilities.  

Do we really want to exaggerate and celebrate all the real and imagined differences between men and women?  Another troubling consequence of the theory of the gulf arises in a consideration of the teaching of the literature itself. If women’s literature is essentially different in this way, (1) a male teacher cannot adequately teach poetry by Emily Dickinson. Nor can a female instructor teach Shakespeare. In such a case, (2) a male student cannot hope to grasp the full significance of a text written by a female author, and his taking the course is an act of futility. In such a case, (3) a male author’s creation of a female character in his fiction is necessarily a distortion, and so is a female author’s creation of a male character.

It is important to remember that fiction and poetry and drama always include elements that are not directly experienced by the author. On the face of it, the idea that authors must have direct knowledge of the things they write about is false. If it were true, Dostoevsky could not have written Crime and Punishment without being himself a murderer since the story is narrated by a murderer. And nobody but a Moor who had married a Caucasian woman and who had killed her under the influence of jealousy could have written Othello.

Clearly, if literature is worthy of study as a college course, the creators of that art must be assumed to have empathy that allows them to provide insights that are not strictly personal. If literature has value, it is the universal meaning which is accessible to readers who are not merely clones of the author. In acknowledging that women were historically deprived of opportunities to participate in the development of all facets of our culture, why should we now compound past error by putting women–as writers–in a league of their own?

Written by polemicscat

August 18, 2008 at 9:17 pm

On the Trail of Lewis and Clark: The Missouri

leave a comment »


A river is a restless thing. The Missouri is constantly gnawing at its banks as it twists and turns along its route. You can see evidence of it in places like Cross Ranch State Park near Washburn, North Dakota. There large cottonwood trees lie in the water at the foot of ten-foot-high banks. More of these trees stand precariously on the edge of the bank, waiting for the current to undercut them too.

The river has changed significantly since 1804-6 when Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery traveled up the Missouri and back. As the river meanders along, it creates large bends that eventually double back on themselves and leave oxbow lakes along its valley. At the Lewis and Clark State Park near Onawa, Iowa, what was the river bed two hundred years ago is now a lake.

The town of Washburn, North Dakota, is not far from the site of the Mandan Indian villages where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-5. The prairie at the Knife River Historical Site still bears evidence of Mandan huts, which were made of wooden poles covered with sod. These huts were part of a Mandan village beside the Knife River and were visited two hundred years ago by Lewis and Clark and their men. But nearby, the bank of the Missouri on which the white explorers built their winter quarters has long since been undercut and fallen into the river.

Erosion along the river is a constant process. In his journal entry for September 21, 1804, Captain Clark reports how a falling bank of the Missouri almost swamped the boats in which the men were sleeping: “the motion of the boat awakened me; I got up & by the light of the moon observed that the Sand had given away both above and below our camp & was falling in fast. . . we had pushed off [only] a few minits before the bank under which the Boat [keelboat] & perogues lay give way.”

Of course, not all the changes in the river are natural. At Great Falls, Montana, the waterfall that Captain Lewis described in such glowing terms no longer offers a spectacular view, thanks to a dam built just upstream from the rocky drop in the river bed. And at Fort Peck, Montana, the world’s largest earthen dam was built in the 1930’s; it now holds back the waters of the Missouri for more than a hundred miles.

But the most remarkable story of the Missouri’s naturally restless ways involves the river steamboat Arabia which sank in the river in the year 1856. It was headed upstream, loaded with all sorts of merchandise for frontier people who lived in Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Montana. The water was not very deep, but salvage of valuables from her cargo was too difficult and expensive to attempt at the time. Gradually sand came to replace the water and the steamboat was forgotten–until the 1990’s when some enterprising men began to look for the wreck.

Using old maps, they found the Arabia about twenty feet under a cornfield beside the river. And the things they have recovered from her are various and numerous–and in pristine condition. I was in Hannibal, Missouri, a few years ago and visited a museum there which was displaying a portion of the recovered cargo. Those objects are thought to constitute the best collection of pre-Civil War artifacts ever found in one place. Among the items are shoes, glassware, household goods, tools and implements of all sorts, and–amazingly–a barrel full of Wedgewood china with not one broken piece in the set.

Yes, the Missouri has changed in many ways. Still, there are places that must be very much as Lewis and Clark saw them. One of these places is Three Forks, Montana. There at the headwaters the Missouri is created by the joining of the three small rivers which supply cold water from the Rocky Mountains: the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin. Lewis and Clark named these rivers for the President and two members of his cabinet.

At the junction, a tourist can see where the Corps of Discovery camped while trying to decide which river to follow. Also, one can see a ridge where Captain Lewis climbed to survey the surrounding country. I camped one night a few years ago near the junction, and the next morning I walked along the Madison which in that place is not much deeper than the South Toe (a little river in western North Carolina). But the section of the Missouri which must be most like the river that Lewis and Clark knew begins at Fort Benton, Montana. Downstream from the town, a hundred and fifty miles of the Missouri has been preserved as a wild and scenic river.









My bride and I paddled a canoe for six miles on the Missouri at Fort Benton. Our outfitter offered to take a picture of us after we took the canoe out into the current. That went well enough. Next, we had to paddle back close enough to shore to get our camera from him. It involved paddling against the current. In that effort I gained new respect for Lewis and Clark and their party who had paddled upstream more than a thousand miles to reach the headwaters of that mighty river.

Written by polemicscat

August 16, 2008 at 9:39 am

Hate-crime Laws and the Principle of Equality

leave a comment »

From time to time, some member of Congress pushes to have a certain crime labeled a “hate crime” and to make the offense punishable by more rigorous penalties. At first, that may seem like a good idea.

On the other hand, prosecutors have always had leeway when indicting perpetrators of personal assault. That’s what the distinctions of first degree murder, second degree murder, and manslaughter are all about. And, based on the circumstances of a particular case, a judge is able to adjust the penalty (within the limits of law) when sentencing a criminal. So one would think that laws already on the books could be used to deal with any crime of personal assault. Not so, according to the advocates for new hate- crime laws.

Hate-crime legislation is difficult concept to put into rational language.   The application of hate-crime law depends on courts being able to say that an assault occurred because of a particular state of mind of the perpetrator, a much more difficult thing to assess than the outward, verifiable facts of the case.  One might expect that hate crimes are those committed with the greatest cruelty and malevolence.

No, not necessarily—and here is where the concept of hate crime gets into serious trouble—it depends on who the victim is. If the victim is a member of a certain group named in the law, it might be.  It might be a hate crime if the murderer is not also a member of the group protected by the hate-crime law. And it might be a hate crime if we can be sure the motive for the murder is somehow related to the fact that the victim is a member of one of the privileged groups named in the law.

In Anglo-American legal tradition, equality before the law is a fundamental principle of justice. That’s why a satirical passage in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm is so effective. In this fable, the animals revolt and take the farm away from the human owners. Next, the animals establish Seven Commandments of equality. But then the pigs take power from the other animals and reduce the Seven Commandments to one: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

Below the frieze on the facade of the United States Supreme Court Building are engraved the words, Equal Justice Under Law. And on many courthouses around the nation, justice is personified in the statue of a woman wearing a blindfold and holding the scales of equality. The blindfold symbolizes the fact that, if justice is to be equal, it must be blind to the particularities that make one citizen different from another.

The making of hate-crime laws, written exclusively for the benefit of a special group of citizens, violates the impartiality suggested by the blindfold. Instead of looking solely at WHAT offense has been committed in order to determine the appropriate punishment, such laws look first at WHO is offended in order to determine the appropriate punishment.

Laws to protect privileged groups are already on the books. With the passage of hate-crime laws, the United States is well on its way toward making certain citizens more equal than others.

Written by polemicscat

August 14, 2008 at 11:20 am

About Having Perfect Pitch

leave a comment »

Just as most people recognize the colors red and blue, a person with perfect pitch looks at a page of sheet music and immediately knows the pitches of the notes written there. I’ve been fortunate enough to know a few people with that ability. When I was in college, I was a member of a church choir whose director, Carol, had perfect pitch. We learned that about her one evening when she confessed that she was having trouble reading the sheet music of a hymn we were starting to rehearse. We were going to sing the song in a different key from the key in which it was printed. It was not more than a semitone or a tone different, and that didn’t bother the rest of us at all.

Later, I got to know Bill who was a music professor at a little college in Tennessee  at the time. He is a composer and spends most of his waking hours writing music—wherever he happens to be. A piano is unnecessary; he hears all the notes in his head. In recent years he has visited us several times at our home. Late one night, during one of his visits, we heard him downstairs moving around and discovered him sitting at the kitchen table, writing out some music that had come to him as he lay in bed.

The next day we took him and his wife on a drive to the top of Mount Mitchell. It was fall and the leaves were at their peak of color. All of us except Bill remarked about the particularly beautiful colors on one tree or another as we rode along the parkway. Bill, quite naturally, was busy scribbling musical notes on a piece of manuscript paper on his lap. He never looked up. But, to be sociable, he echoed our exclamations about the beautiful leaves on this or that maple tree without ever taking his eyes off the paper in front of him.

Perfect pitch is a wonderful talent, but it is not as unusual as one might suppose. In any choir of fifty or so singers there is likely to be one or two with the ability to hum an A (or whatever pitch is required) for the director when the group is about to sing a work a capella.

I understand that certain Oriental languages require a speaker to voice pitches precisely in speaking. I am told that in societies where these languages are spoken, more people have what we would call perfect pitch. Perhaps the demand for pitch consciousness in speaking in these cultures produces a keener ear and, ultimately, a genetic ability in members of that society to differentiate pitches.

Most people can become more proficient at determining pitches just by working at it. Usually musical training gives a singer what is referred to as “relative pitch.” In that case, the singer is able to produce other notes in the scale of a key once the tonic note is sounded.

Other innate abilities go into the making of a genius like Wolfgang Mozart. Admiring fans around the world remembered him with special tributes in January of 2006, the 250th anniversary of his birth. Wolfgang was fortunate in that his father, Leopold, was a musician himself who recognized the extraordinary musical ability of his son. Leopold played the violin and composed music and was able to give the young boy a good grounding in music theory. Wolfgang was a child prodigy and began touring Europe by the age of six with his sister Nannerl, 11, who was also a precocious keyboard player. They were in London when Wolfgang wrote his first symphony. He was 8 and had already written several dozen keyboard works and had published in Paris and London sonatas for keyboard and violin.

Mozart undoubtedly had perfect pitch, but he also had an astonishing ability to remember a complex musical passage and to write it down perfectly. The Italian composer Gregorio Allegri had composed, for the Roman Catholic Church, a Miserere in nine voice parts. The piece was so revered by Church authorities that they did not allow any written copies to go out of the church. Mozart heard the Miserere once in a service he attended and was able to go out and write it down from memory. This ability to retain mentally a complex piece of music is revealed in Mozart’s composing as well. It is said that he conceptualized a work entirely before he began to write it down. Consequently, he didn’t have to make revisions or corrections as he wrote.

As a rule, I am not in favor of cloning human beings, but I think I would make an exception in Mozart’s case.

Written by polemicscat

August 11, 2008 at 8:28 pm

Our Best Writer: Mark Twain

leave a comment »

The literary reputation of Mark Twain survived the political-correctness hysteria that swept college campuses during the last decades of the twentieth century. In some places there was agitation to have Twain’s books removed from libraries. For a while he was attacked for using words which now are considered racist. But those words were often used in Twain’s lifetime without any feeling of bigotry. That’s certainly true of their use in Twain’s works.

Anyway, the good news is that Twain’s writing is currently enjoying the enthusiasm it deserves. The Oxford University Press recently published his complete works in a facsimile edition, made from copies of first editions with the original illustrations. A scholar is currently working on a definitive  edition of Twain’s writing. And Ken Burns has done a film biography that appeared on PBS.

People who know Twain only through the reading of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should get better acquainted by looking at some of the travel books, especially Roughing It. There are several versions of his autobiography. Twain had an unusual idea about what order his remembrances should come in the book. He dictated some of it, putting things in as they occurred to him.  The Albert Bigelow Paine edition (1924) is probably as Twain wanted it.  But I recommend the version edited by Charles Neider which is in a more chronological order.

When you are in Missouri, you should visit Florida, the place of Twain’s birth, and Hannibal on the banks of the Mississippi, where he grew up. The little town of Florida has almost disappeared but has a fine Twain museum which includes the actual house in which the writer was born. As a boy living in Hannibal, Twain made visits to his uncle’s farm near Florida, Missouri. He lovingly describes that place in his autobiography. He also uses the memory of his uncle’s farm in Huckleberry Finn to describe the setting in which Huck and Jim are reunited with Tom Sawyer and Aunt Polly.

Hannibal is a charming place to spend the day. It has several good museums; one is the house in which the Clemens family lived. And if you are not claustrophobic you may enjoy going into the cave that inspired the one in Tom Sawyer. Tom takes Becky there and the two of them become lost in a maze of passageways. The cave in Hannibal is exactly like a maze.

Twain is often characterized as a humorist. It is interesting to examine the different ways he uses language to create humor. Notice in the examples below how Twain uses certain devices to make himself the butt of the joke. The examples come from the autobiography edited by Neider:

1. Unnecessary explanation [About his parents moving to Missouri] “I do not remember just when, for I was not born then and cared nothing for such things.”
[About Florida, Missouri] “The village contained a hundred people and I increased the population by one percent. It is more than many of the best men in history could have done for a town. It may not be modest in me to refer to this but it is true. There is no record of a person doing as much–not even Shakespeare.”

2. Recognition of his own failing, indirectly expressed [Upon seeing a photograph of the house in which he was born ] “Heretofore I have always stated that it was a palace but I shall be more guarded now.”

3. Use of an unexpected object for a demonstration [About the cracks in the church floor] “if you dropped anything smaller than a peach it was likely to go through.”

4. Pretense that an annoying thing is valuable “In summer there were fleas enough for all.”

Toward the end of his life Twain experienced some difficult times.  His pessimism about human vanities and self-deceit is reflected in his Letters from the Earth.  That book was intentionally not published until after his death.  One of the most moving things he ever wrote is on the death of his daughter Jean who died the year before he did.   

The importance of Mark Twain as an American writer has been affirmed by other American authors as different as Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot. Hemingway said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Eliot said he learned from Twain to use American colloquial speech as a literary language.

Equally important is the intellectual tone Twain sets for everybody. His writing reveals strength of character and intellectual honesty. He consistently satirizes pretentiousness. And his humor undermines human vanity and meanness.

If Twain had a serious fault of character, it was that he could never cast off the dream of becoming fabulously wealthy.  He was wealthy at the time he was building his home in Connecticut. Then he lost his money on schemes to get even more. 

But I like Twain’s writing so much that I’m not even going to mention that weakness in his character.

Written by polemicscat

August 8, 2008 at 10:38 pm