Cultural Cohesion, p.39Clive James
Twain’s sympathy for American Indians might not be apparent in an early piece like “The Noble Red Man,” of 1870, which would not please Marlon Brando, but really Twain was just mocking the idea that the Noble Red Man had lived in a civil order that made modern American civilization look barbaric by comparison. Twain didn’t believe that you could set about dealing with the deficiencies of modern America unless you first stopped dreaming of Arcadia. He was as optimistic as one could be about modern life without seeing it through pink glasses.
Twain’s sympathy for women might similarly seem questionable by modern standards—on the whole, he preferred to joke about the issue of women’s suffrage rather than face it—but he was a long way ahead of his time. His work is full of flirtation that now seems like condescension. “There may be prettier women in Europe, but I doubt it,” he writes about the women of Genoa in The Innocents Abroad. “The population of Genoa is 120,000; two-thirds of these are women, I think, and at least two-thirds of the women are beautiful. They are as dressy, and as tasteful and as graceful as they could possibly be without being angels,” etc. Andrea Dworkin probably wouldn’t like that much. Twain suffered from gallantry, chivalry and all the other virtues that we have since been instructed are vices in disguise. But he always spoke against the exploitation of women as servants and married chattels, regretted the conditions that doomed them to do less than they could and never doubted that they could do anything. His article reflecting on Joan of Arc’s trial is a clarion call that could fill an issue of Ms. In private, he was famously tender to his sick daughters and lived in a state of controlled despair about his invalid wife: he was so devoted to her that he was thought saintly by powerful men of his acquaintance, some of whom weren’t saintly at all and had been, by implication, flayed in his regular philippics against the great crime of seduction. (When it turned out that Maxim Gorky, during his tour of America, was sharing his hotel suite with a mistress, Twain ceased to call on him, not because he had broken the law but because he had violated custom.)
In fact, Twain was so blameless that he is likely to make us uncomfortable. Nowadays, the press—the cultural press, which is no less implacable than the doorstep reporters, only a bit slower—would try to get something on him. In his last years, he compensated for the loss of his dearest daughter by cultivating the friendship of preteen young ladies he called “angelfish.” Shades of Lewis Carroll and Ernest Dowson, not to neglect Roman Polanski and the Mia Farrow version of Woody Allen! A promising field of inquiry. On second thoughts, it seems more likely that as he neared the end of his great long life the prospect of new life became incandescent to him. Inviting his young friends to tea, corresponding with them as they grew up, he was passing on his love of the world, which he loved even more than his country, although he could see the world’s faults more clearly than anyone else. But he didn’t despair about correcting them. Having despaired of the human race in the first instance, he was free to cheer any of its achievements, and he thought America among the greatest. His journalism shows, in a more readily detected form than his books, that he cherished and relished America’s entire creativity in a way far beyond the literary—or, at any rate, in a literary way that didn’t leave out the political but brought his country’s every institution and custom under scrutiny, whether to be celebrated or castigated. William Dean Howells was right to call him the Abraham Lincoln of American literature.
Howells was one of the few American men of letters and cultural figures who saw Twain’s literary stature from the beginning. Most of them, even when they revelled in his work, missed the point initially. In a country nominally dedicated to a new start and equal rights, there was still a nervous tendency to keep high art and popular entertainment rigidly separate: the urge to build a first-rate culture came to the aid of snobbery. In the European countries, high culture was self-assured enough to acknowledge the possibility of art up from nowhere. Twain the entertainer won his first celebrity at home, but the first solid admiration for Twain the great artist happened elsewhere. The Jumping Frog made him famous all over America. The Innocents Abroad made him famous all over the world, and, paradoxically, it was in the old countries, to which America was supposed to be the democratic alternative, that the artist found himself at home. His first internationally famous book was a product of his tentative initiation into foreign travel, and after that he was almost always on the move, clocking up thousands of miles like a modern frequent flier, but with one big difference: he was never blasé about it. The thrill of discovery that he transmitted made him irresistible even to those inhabitants of exotic lands who might otherwise have felt patronized by being discovered.
The Innocents Abroad is a weak book by Twain’s later standards. Even his gift for parody, one of the basic weapons in his comic armoury, was a blunt instrument before he learned that if it was to stay sharp it would have to spend most of the time in its scabbard. In Huckleberry Finn, the duke’s all-purpose Hamlet soliloquy is the paradigm case of all bardic spoofs. In The Innocents Abroad, the parodic instant history of Abelard and Héloïse could have been the product of Twain’s first pseudonym, W. Epaminondas Adrastus Perkins: “She lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. I do not know what a canon of a cathedral is, but that is what he was. He was nothing more than a sort of a mountain howitzer, likely, because they had no heavy artillery in those days. Suffice it, then, that Heloise lived with her uncle the howitzer, and was happy.” And so on.
But if Twain’s comic fantasy had a long way to go before it would be infallibly funny, his gusto for the reality in front of him was fully developed right from the start. He saw everything, relished everything, and without playing the yokel as much as you might think. Re-reading the book now, you can see what he had that all of us have lost. He was first in on the new mobility—the first great writer to be a traveller without having had to be an explorer. He is discovering the world as a world citizen: a true Weltbürger is speaking to the people he is travelling among just as much as to those at home—to them and for them.
They loved him for it. In the twentieth century, foreign nations that have been defeated by American power—or, even harder to forgive, saved by it—have comforted themselves with the reassuring caricature of the know-nothing American traveller, who might as well not have left home. In the nineteenth century, Twain was the know-everything traveller, who made his homeland seem doubly attractive by so engagingly representing its energy and creativity. His natural ear for the melody of his own language applied to other languages, too. He could read French well enough to make a good job of pretending to misunderstand it. Late in his life, spending a lot of time in Italy, he acquired enough of its language to write a wildly inventive piece concerning a story in an Italian newspaper about some fatal imbroglio. His German was good enough to enable him to read easily.
He was no scholar in any language but an easily nourished dabbler in anything he took up. The mistake is to mark him low for being unsystematic. He was, but genius often is. His opinions on literature were pragmatic, not to say erratic. He could praise Cervantes’s romanticism and not say a word for Jane Austen’s realism, although her keen appreciation of the power of money in human affairs lies far closer to his cast of mind than any amount of tilting at windmills. But really Twain was not interested in literature as such. He was interested in it as a part of everything else. When pointing out what he didn’t know about art, one is always wise to remember what he did know about, say, science. His was a wide-ranging mind. He was American global expansionism before the fact.
In England, he was lionized by royalty, the literary establishment, the whole flattering system. Oxford gave him an honorary degree. (Saint-Saëns and Rodin got their degrees at the same ceremony as Twain: cue music and fade up the sound of chisel on marble.) Shaw was only one of the big names who called him a great master of the English language. More remarkably, his magic survived translation—indirect proof that it was his point of view that drove his sty
At home, he became accustomed to a high standard of living: even during his recurrent periods of financial embarrassment, there was usually a millionaire friend to provide a private railroad car or a trip on a yacht. But that was nothing to how he lived it up in less democratic lands. The grand hotels of the European spas routinely offered him a reduced tariff, or no tariff at all, just to have his fame on the premises. In Tuscany, he lived in a villa, like Bernard Berenson. He could make himself at home no matter how high the ceiling and exalted the company. Countesses plumed like birds of paradise ate out of his hand. Yet he was never corrupted. The Innocent Abroad stayed innocent. How was that?
Surely the main reason was America itself. He had a pride in his country all the more robust for his loathing of patriotism, which he thought the enemy of common brotherhood. It follows that he thought America was its friend—a contention he could propound without sounding naive, because he never blinked his country’s follies while praising its virtues. The Henry James option—to go abroad and set up shop where artists were more coddled—had no appeal for Twain. For one thing, he was much loved in his homeland, even when he wasn’t fully understood. For another, and more important, he would have regarded exile as patronizing, a betrayal of the enterprise that was his burgeoning nation, a flight from adventure into safety, and a craven endorsement of those who looked down from what they imagined were the heights of civilization on a land that he refused to believe was anything less than history’s great opportunity for human fulfilment.
This explains the touch of anger that creeps in when he dismantles Matthew Arnold’s snooty observations on Grant’s use of the English language. There is no evidence that Twain disliked Arnold personally. When they met they seem to have got on like two sets of facial hair on fire. But in print Twain took obvious glee, masquerading as regret, in picking Arnold’s prose style apart to show that it wasn’t as classical, or even as grammatical, as its perpetrator thought. Arnold, according to Twain, had no call to speak de haut en bas: the haut just wasn’t all that high. As a corollary, and without having to say so, Twain demonstrated that the bas wasn’t all that low: his homespun demotic was more economical than Arnold’s solemn rodomontade, and in prose the economical is the classical.
Twain’s celebrated demolition of James Fenimore Cooper is based on the conviction that American English is a classical style that has to be protected against the impurities of posturing humbug. Twain traced Cooper’s exfoliating verbiage to its roots in the besetting sin of inaccurate observation. “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” and “Fenimore Cooper’s Further Literary Offenses,” both collected here, are killingly funny—funnier, even, than Macaulay’s pitiless inspection of the poetry of Robert Montgomery. Poor Montgomery was celebrated at the time, but obviously, to anyone with literary taste, doomed to oblivion, a destination to which Macaulay could only help him along. Cooper is still with us, but Twain did his best to make sure that Cooper’s mystery-mongering flimflam wouldn’t be allowed to pass itself off as a model of American prose style. By implication, his own prose style got the job.
What he did to Cooper was only a closer-to-home version of the treatment he habitually handed out to foreign critics of the Arnoldian stamp. The guardian of clear speech at home, Twain didn’t have to bend the knee when pundits abroad curled their lip. Arnold’s idea of a high culture increasingly and necessarily out of reach of a brutalized populace—an idea destined to generate a whole library of its own in the age to come—got its most penetrating answer from an American. Arnold should have stayed on his own turf, where pity for the emerging proletariat was a more plausible attitude. “Wragg is in custody,” a four-word sentence in a newspaper, inspired Arnold to a long lament on the predestined cultural impoverishment of the workers—a feat of prescience based mainly on Arnold’s confident assumption that Wragg was inherently a more wretched surname than, say, Arnold. Such sensitivity, however commendable, entailed presuppositions about civilization which Twain, speaking as an American, wasn’t inclined to buy. He just didn’t think that civilization had been all that civilized. “Hard,” he called it, “and glittering, and bloodless, and unattainable.”
Twain provided the same enlightening information for the French pundit Paul Bourget, and for any other Old World panjandrum who tried to high-hat the new nation. He went at them as if they were imperialists, which, in a way, they were: cultural imperialists. What he couldn’t guess was that he was himself one of the pioneers of a cultural imperialism fated to have a large share in determining the history of the twentieth century.
He couldn’t guess it because he was a nineteenth-century figure—the hardest thing to remember when you are caught up in reading him. He seems so close in time that you wouldn’t be surprised to look up from the book and see him talking to Larry King on television. But he can seem so familiar only because the America we like best sounds like him, not because he sounds like it. He was there first. Even his personal weaknesses presaged the America we have come to know and like from its infinitely exportable popular culture. Twain had a weakness for profitable schemes. The first of them did make a profit: when Twain personally published Grant’s memoirs, the deal worked out so well that he thought he had revolutionized the publishing industry. “The prosperity of the venture,” as Howells pointed out, “was the beginning of Clemens’ adversity, for it led to excesses of enterprise which were forms of dissipation.” Twain’s further ventures into private enterprise oscillated between a waste of time and a waste of money, not always his own. The typesetting machine he thought would revolutionize printing eventually did so, but not his version of it. He went broke in a big way. Like Sir Walter Scott, he heroically wrote himself out of debt, but as soon as enough money accumulated he was back into another scheme. For years, he maintained his faith in a much-publicized energy food, which in his time performed the same function as the vitamin pills that the British bodice-ripper author Barbara Cartland so enthusiastically favours now—that of helping naturally energetic people convince themselves that they are medically savvy beyond the ken of doctors.
Yet Twain, for all his susceptibility to plausible wheezes, was no crank. He was crazy about know-how. He was a can-do merchant, a prototype for Gyro Gearloose and all those nutty inventors who go on building weird machines in the backyard sheds of American popular culture, even in the space age. And after all, some of the machines work. Twain’s typesetting machine almost did. Twain was in tune with the mechanical efflorescence of the new nation. For him, there was no separation between machinery and poetry. You couldn’t even call him a proto-Futurist, because for him art and machinery had never grown apart to the point of needing to be reunited. He had been brought up to the practical. The printing house was his high school and the river-boat his university. He could make things work. It was one of the qualities that the women of Paris loved about the liberating American troops of 1944—all those Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns who rode six to a jeep. It wasn’t just that they could get you chocolate and sheer stockings: when they had finished kissing you, they could fix your bicycle.
. . .
If that sounds like sentimentality now, it is only because of the devastating effect on America’s image, and especially its self-image, wrought by the Vietnam War. Since th
Vietnam was only part of a post-war pattern in which the United States, whether by accident or design, propped up the kind of authoritarian regimes whose sinister luminaries wore dark glasses indoors. All too often, especially in Latin America, it was by design. Realpolitik was held to be mandatory. But the real trouble with realpolitik was that it wasn’t real. In foreign policy, ruthlessness undid the best thing America had going for it: benevolence. In the Western countries, it handed the Marxist intellectuals an opportunity—ultimately fatal to them, since it encouraged them to stay Marxist long after their opposite numbers in the East had given up—to misinterpret twentieth-century history. It became temptingly easy to argue that the machinations of American foreign policy were what had stopped the Western European countries from going fully socialist after the Second World War. But American Machiavellianism wasn’t what did that. What did it was American generosity: the Marshall Plan. The same applied to the occupation of Japan. The Japanese economic superstate that we are now all so concerned about was made possible by America. If that was Machiavellianism, it was of a strangely self-defeating kind.
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