Mark Twain, Traitor

I really enjoyed an article I found by chance today about Twain’s attempts to narrate and justify his conduct during the US Civil War. From the closing paragraph:

My title, “Mark Twain, Traitor,” hails the Mark Twain who appears as such in his major work, whose text is constantly involved with the question of betrayal, of confused loyalties, not edifying us, giving us resolutions, just describing betrayal’s performance, its reasoning soliloquy. Huck guiltily betrays Uncle Jake in Tom Sawyer. and he desperately strives to betray Jim in Huckleberry Finn. “Mark Twain” is, of course, the key phrase in any letter of denunciation written for some police authority. Someone is not who he or she says he or she is. I report a Mark Twain whose post–Civil War nationalist identification is questionable, a Mark Twain at play with his progressive Unionist/Republican identification, at play with his reactionary Southern patrician identification, a Mark Twain who might be a double agent, or worse, a “free” agent, outside the rules of either comity, outside the several codes of honor, a marker, not the twain, not Southern, not Northern. I report a Mark Twain loose in his loyalties, Northern in his detestation of Southern moral turpitude, Southern in his contempt for the moral rectitude of the hypocritical Northeast, always an unreliable narrator, and for that reason always somewhere in rebellion, defying the positivities of both (particular) Confederacy and (universal) Union, their different disciplines. Mark that fellow. The name itself is a denunciation. How indeed did this transsectional Civil War rogue, migrant in all the sections of the country, never at home, always moving, become the principal icon of post–Civil War patriotic nationality? Mark Twain’s humor, William Dean Howells writes in My Mark Twain (1910), “is as simple in form and direct as the statesmanship of Lincoln or the generalship of Grant” (118). I have no idea what this means. Mark Twain’s humor is never simple and direct. In 1901, telling his Civil War story at Lincoln Birthday Dinner, amid the patriotic pieties, Mark Twain would again directly address the question: why did you desert the Civil War? Why did he not fight for Abraham Lincoln’s noble cause? Great humorist that he is, he tells the truth. It was the weather, Mark Twain says in 1901. You never saw such weather (Mark Twain Speaking 382).1

  1. Neil Schmitz “Mark Twain, Traitor” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 63.4 (2007) 34-35 []