Mark Twain’s Relevance Today
Gary Scharnhorst (University of New Mexico)
From the earliest stage of his writing career, Mark Twain was more than a literary comedian. From the first, his humor had a satirical and sometimes even a bitter edge, and throughout his life he repeatedly ridiculed the foolishness and foibles of the “damned human race.” His humor was in fact the basis of his appeal across classes, races, and nationalities. His social satire is the basis of his relevance today. The secret of his success as a humorist, he insisted, was that everything he wrote “had a serious philosophy or truth as its basis. I would not write a humorous work merely to be funny.” If Twain was an American icon, he was also an iconoclast.
Nowhere is his iconoclasm more apparent than in his indictment of religious hypocrisy, especially in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As the novel opens, for example, pious old Miss Watson tries to teach Huck his catechism even while planning to sell the slave Jim down the river. Later, after Huck is adopted by the Grangerfords, he attends church with the family. The Grangerfords have been feuding with their neighbors the Shepherdsons for years—so long no one in either family remembers what started the quarrel. But they continue to attend the same church. On the Sunday Huck is present, all of the men in both families lean their rifles against the wall while they listen to a sermon on brotherly love. Still later, the scoundrel who impersonates the King of France delivers a revival sermon to an audience of gullible believers and collects some eighty-seven dollars, which he claims he will use to travel to the South Pacific to convert the pirates there. As Huck explains, the king “said it warn't no use talking, heathens don't amount to shucks alongside of pirates to work a camp-meeting with.” Twain elsewhere criticized prominent American ministers who refused to permit people from the working class to attend their fashionable churches because they supposedly smelled or who refused to conduct funerals for actors because they were supposedly immoral. His essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” links his indictment of religious hypocrisy with his condemnation of military and cultural imperialism. In his short sketch “The War Prayer,” written in 1905 but not published until 1923, he again satirized the hypocrisy of Christians who ask God to protect their sons, husbands, and brothers, failing to understand that by their prayers they also expressed the wish that others’ sons, husbands, and brothers would die.
Twain was no less an iconoclast on the subject of political opportunism or civic corruption. As the San Francisco correspondent of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, he was a self-appointed vigilante, waging a one-man crusade against police corruption. In retaliation, he was once jailed overnight on a charge of public drunkenness.As early as 1865, in “The Story of a Bad Little Boy,” he recounted the tale of a misbehaving child who grew up, murdered his family with an axe,got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and is universally respected, and belongs to the legislature.” Years later, he joked that there was no permanent criminal class in the U.S. except Congress. He endorsed civil service reform in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889—the idea that civil servants should be hired on the basis of merit, not appointed to office by corrupt politicians who win elections. He was outspoken in his criticism of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine in New York City, and he routinely campaigned for reform candidates after his return to the U.S. in 1900. “I’ll vote for anything that opposes Tammany Hall,” he insisted. He even went so far as to sue a taxi driver who charged his maid a dollar and a half rather than half a dollar for a trip from Grand Central Station in New York to his home a couple of miles away. “Every good citizen is an unclassified...
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