In 1889 Mark Twain wrote William Dean Howells that he regretted completing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court because of all the social opinions he had to leave out: “They burn in me; and they keep multiplying; but now they can’t ever be said. And besides, they would require a library—and a pen warmed up in hell.”
When Twain returned to America seven years later, following his 1895-6 world tour, he reheated his pen, and he kept it hot throughout the last decade of his life, commenting on a wide range of national and international issues. With his speeches, essays and barbs appearing or discussed almost daily in print, the “Gospel of Saint Mark” itself became targeted — the cartoon shown here is of Twain as the Lion of St. Mark; another depicted Twain as Huck with a gun. But many agreed with the editorialist of the New York Evening Mail who was so “glad that we have a public commentator like Mark Twain always at hand” that he granted him Athenian status:
[He] seems to be advancing rapidly to a position which makes him a kind of joint Aristides, Solon, and Themistocles of the American metropolis — an Aristides for justness and boldness as well as incessancy of opinion, a Solon for wisdom and cogency, and a Themistocles for the democracy of his views and the popularity of his person.
At the decade and century ended, Twain was a long way from done. “I have been reading the morning paper,” he wrote to Howells in 1899, “well knowing that I shall find it in the usual depravities and baseness and hypocrisies and cruelties that make up civilization, and cause me to put in the rest of the day pleading for the damnation of the human race.” In this spirit, and as a vigorous spokesman of the Anti-Imperialist League, he penned “A Greeting from the 19th Century to the 20th Century,” published on Dec. 30, 1900, in the New York Herald:
I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her the soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass.
As the smoke settled from the “Greeting,” Twain fired again with “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” perhaps his most provocative and widely-reprinted statement against Imperialism. This sarcastically wondered if the new century would feature the same old colonial habit, “conferring our Civilization upon peoples that sit in darkness” by way of “Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim guns and Hymn Books, and Trade-Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment.”
Steve King contributes Daybook to the Barnes & Noble Review and teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at http://www.todayinliterature.com.