The “Conscience of America” is Born
Mark Twain’s Hawaiian Epiphanies
© 2011 by C.W. Henderson
(Independent Mark Twain Scholar & Founder, TwainScholar.com)
Sometime in my mid-30’s, my career as a journalist reached a plateau, and I decided to write a book. My search for the perfect story coincided with my first visit to Hawaii, after which I experienced a change in my worldview, a shift in my perspectives, and a much clearer understanding of the human condition. I can’t say exactly when the change occurred, but I can say that reading Mark Twain and studying the details of his life had a lot to do with it. He once said, “All that I care to know is that a man is a human being… and that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.” Like him, my notion that we humans would eventually “get it right” had begun to evaporate, and it seemed that Twain had answers as to why in his writings. I began to study his life and work and talk about him a lot. I learned that soon after he embarked on his writing career, he too had experienced a major shift, most noticeably in his political views about America’s role in the world. And it happened after he visited Hawaii.
MARK TWAIN BEFORE HAWAII
I think it’s safe to say that Mark Twain was a better writer because of his colorful life experiences, and the similarities to my own experiences are pronounced. When he was 14, he worked as a printer’s apprentice at the Hannibal Journal, and when I was 14, I got a job in the printing department at the Tifton Gazette, in rural South Georgia. Mark Twain never finished school, having ended his formal education at the age of 11 after his father died of pneumonia, leaving his family in dire straits financially. He secured a job delivering newspapers and running errands for the Hannibal Courier, before being promoted to printer’s apprentice a year later. Thankfully, I never had to drop out of school, but similar to Twain, my parents divorced when I was eleven and my father left us. In dire financial straits, I delivered newspapers for the Tifton Gazette when I was about the same age.
When he was still in his teens, Mark Twain lived in a boarding house in Manhattan, New York and worked for a printer on Cliff Street. In his twenties, he moved to Missouri and worked on a riverboat, perfecting his skills and eventually becoming a captain. After the outbreak of the Civil War, in 1861, he served two miserable weeks in a Confederate militia group. He quickly abandoned that and moved out West, to California, where he briefly searched for gold before becoming a journalist.
In November of 1865, he received a burst of notoriety after publication of his short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” in the New York Saturday Press. A few months later, in March of 1866, he accepted an assignment from The Sacramento Union to board the steamer, Ajax, on its maiden voyage to Hawaii, spend a little time there and write about the trip.
THE VISIT TO HAWAII
Early on in my research about Mark Twain, I learned that he arrived in Hawaii in April of 1866, exactly one year after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox to end the Civil War. Twain was well aware of Hawaii’s history of brutal wars. In his book, Roughing It, Twain introduced me to King Kamehameha, who he referred to as “King Kamehameha the Conqueror.” In his own words and sometimes drawing on those of native Hawaiian historians, he recounted major events in Kamehameha’s life including his famous battles, his preeminence in Hawaiian history and his death.
But when Twain visited there, war was a thing of the past, and the Hawaiian monarchy was faring just fine as a unified nation, even if control of the government and the economy had fallen mostly into the hands of wealthy Americans and Europeans. Twain was also aware of the influence of the Yale missionaries in determining the character of the Hawaiian people. An excerpt from his book, Roughing It, written soon after his time in Hawaii and describing one of the former temples serves as a good example of how Twain could make a poignant point while he also made the reader smile.
“Nearby is an interesting ruin – the meager remains of an ancient temple – a place where human sacrifices were offered up in those old bygone days... long, long before the missionaries braved a thousand privations to come and make [the natives] permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and how blissful a place heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there…”
-- Roughing It, 1872
During my exhaustive research on Mark Twain in Hawaii, I plowed through stacks of documents that referenced him, looking particularly at his Hawaiian connections. I read every detail of Twain’s four-month visit to the Islands in 1866 and traced his ramblings from Honolulu to the Big Island, some of which he accomplished on horseback. He was just 31 years old when he visited Hawaii as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union, and as yet a largely undiscovered talent, but he had already demonstrated the clever wit and folksy writing style that characterized his later writings. His first order of business after he arrived was to get his hands on everything written about Hawaii, including a number of histories. His favorite was J.J. Jarves’ History of the Hawaiian Islands, and Twain used it enough in his newspaper stories that it bordered on plagiarism. The truth will never be known, but there is at least one account that says he liked the Jarves history so much he stole it from the library at Father Damon’s Mission. When he went back to Sacramento at the end of his trip, he just tucked it away and took it with him.
When Twain came to Maui, he stayed at the Wailuku Plantation House, located not that far from my part-time residence on the island. He visited many of the same locations that became regular spots for me. He visited Maui’s volcano, Haleakala, and rode up the very same road that I often took when I made my way “up country.”
Of course, when Twain visited Maui, it was still a frontier environment, and only a few decades removed from what he called a “savage” society. He wrote with fascination – and some degree of disgust – about the ritual sacrifices. He referred to the former temples as slaughterhouses.
“Those were savage times when this old slaughter-house was in its prime,” he wrote in the Sacramento Daily Union. “The king and the chiefs ruled the common herd with a rod of iron; made them gather all the provisions the masters needed; build all the houses and temples; stand all the expenses, of whatever kind; take kicks and cuffs for thanks; drag out lives well flavored with misery, and then suffer death for trifling offenses or yield up their lives on the sacrificial alters to purchase favors from the gods for their hard rulers.”
But Twain didn’t dwell on all that; like me on my first visit to Hawaii, he was taken in by its beauty and grandeur. I give him a lot of credit for the heavy influx of celebrities to the Hawaiian Islands. He was one of the first journalists to raise awareness among Americans, especially Californians who read his newspaper articles or heard his humorous lectures. His glowing descriptions of the Islands undoubtedly influenced many people – particularly the wealthy who could afford it – to visit Hawaii and see it themselves.
In Roughing It, Twain wrote that “When the sun sunk down… it was tranced luxury to sit in the perfumed air and forget that there was any world but these enchanted islands.” In an 1881 letter to his good friend, W.D. Howells, he wrote that Hawaii “is the only supremely delightful place on earth.” In Mark Twain in Hawaii, he described Hawaii as “the most magnificent, balmy atmosphere in the world – ought to take dead men out of the grave.” And in 1889, Twain’s celebrated “Prose Poem on Hawaii” appeared in the New York Sun:
A Prose Poem On Hawaii
No alien land in all the world has any deep, strong charm for me but that one; no other land could so longingly and beseechingly haunt me sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done.
Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore; its remote summits floating like islands above the cloudrack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitude; I can hear the path of its brooks.
In my nostrils still lives the breath of a flower that perished twenty years ago.
~ Mark Twain ~
MARK TWAIN AFTER HAWAII
Very shortly after his travels to Hawaii, Twain became hugely popular on the speaking circuit, followed by his string of successful books. In 1887, Twain published a book, Legends and Myths of Hawaii, with King Kalakaua as the author. A year later, he published it again with Rollin Mallory Daggett as the author. Daggett worked for the United States government at the time as an ambassador of sorts in Hawaii, and may have been the actual author, but I’m sure he collaborated with Twain on its content and publication, since they were best friends. They had met many years earlier, before Twain went to Hawaii, when they both worked on staff at the Territorial Enterprise. Daggett went on to become a U.S. congressman.
I believe it was Mark Twain’s time in Hawaii that triggered a redirection in his personal view of the world. His political stances changed dramatically after Hawaii. By the late 1890s, the national debate in America had shifted from slavery and the aftermath of the Civil War to the pros and cons of expansionism. Prior to his travels to Hawaii, Twain wrote and spoke glowingly about annexation as being both economically favorable and an inevitable consequence of the times. However, not long after his visit to Hawaii he reversed course and became outspoken against American aggression; so much so that years later, when asked to serve as vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League, he accepted with enthusiasm. Twain had seen firsthand that America was poised to steal the Hawaiian Monarchy from the Hawaiians, and he didn’t like it. He believed it to be thievery, plain and simple, and there was no justification for it.
To the anti-imperialist, annexation was simply a euphemism for aggressive occupation of another country. In Hawaii’s case, the country was in fact a constitutional monarchy, not just a primitive land with no government. In his travels and through his political connections, and especially in Hawaii, Mark Twain saw firsthand that, “No tribe, however insignificant, and no nation, howsoever mighty, occupies a foot of land that was not stolen.” By 1897, when he penned those words, Twain had already settled in Connecticut, where he mixed and mingled with the New England elite including many of America’s movers and shakers at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. So much a part of Yale’s academic community was Twain that he eventually received honorary Masters and Doctorate degrees there.
In 1898, just a year after publication of Twain’s Following the Equator, and after much political wrangling in Washington, a Republican, pro-expansionist President William McKinley approved the annexation of Hawaii, while tens of thousands of Hawaiians protested and Queen Liliuokalani pleaded with Congress to give Hawaiians their country back. That never happened. Hawaii became the first country to succumb to an American takeover. In a later essay that appears in A Pen Warmed Up In Hell, Twain wrote that he was an anti-imperialist and added, “I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
TWAIN ON PATRIOTISM
There are many lingering questions about what really happened in Hawaii in the late 1800s, questions that became more and more fascinating as I poured myself into both Hawaiian and early American history again. How could the new America, itself the product of a rebellion against foreign domination, rationalize the takeover of an existing, constitutional government? Twain’s answer to the question had to do with the average American’s twisted notion of patriotism. “Patriotism is merely a religion,” he wrote in his essay, As Regards Patriotism, which appeared in the book, A Pen Warmed-up in Hell, “…it is furnished, cut and dried, to the citizen (of America) by the politician and the newspaper.” Twain goes on to explain how the average citizen, “trained” to believe what he’s spoon-fed by politicians and the media, will know in his gut that it’s wrong to take over another country but is unwilling to risk being branded as unpatriotic and a traitor.
In that same essay, Twain refers to the American takeover of Hawaii as the work of newspapers and politicians who convinced the average American to “tuck his tail between his legs and shiver” instead of speaking out against an obvious international injustice. “We all know,” Twain wrote in 1900, “the reader knows it quite well – that two or three years ago, nine-tenths of the human tails in… America performed just that act. Which is to say, nine-tenths of the patriots… turned traitor to keep from being called a traitor.”
In his later writings, Twain had little regard for patriotism and used scathing language to explain why. In his essay, “The Lowest Animal”, Twain writes that, “Man is the only patriot. He sets himself apart in his own country, under his own flag, and sneers at the other nations, and keeps multitudinous uniformed assassins on hand at heavy expense to grab slices of other people's countries, and keep them from grabbing slices of his. And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood of his hands and works for ‘the universal brotherhood of man – with his mouth.” Clearly, Twain believed that the American version of patriotism had distorted our understanding of right and wrong, a distortion that I say continues to this day.
TWAIN ON EDUCATION
By 1901, Mark Twain had become a familiar face among the Yale intellectual elite, and that same year the famous university bestowed on him a Doctor of Letters. Founded in 1701, Yale University celebrated its bicentennial in high fashion in 1901, bestowing honorary degrees on 61 people including Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Decorations for the celebration were designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, who had also designed the interior of Twain’s home in Hartford. Among the events that took place during the spectacular celebration, a parade in downtown New Haven featured students dressed as Pequot Indians, Puritans, Revolutionary War soldiers and Rough Riders.
Twain had high regard for educators, proclaiming in a 1906 speech that “It is noble to teach oneself, but still nobler to teach others – and less trouble.” When it came to educational institutions, however, he was less effusive, writing in his notebook in 1908 that “All schools, all colleges, have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal, valuable knowledge. The theological knowledge which they conceal cannot justly be regarded as less valuable than that which they reveal. That is, when a man is buying a basket of strawberries it can profit him to know that the bottom half of it is rotten.”
TWAIN ON LINCOLN AND WAR
Twain’s writings about Lincoln reveal the high regard he had for him, as well as the reason perhaps that I have always felt connected to America’s revered 16th President:
“If the Union was to be saved… it needed a man of the border, where civil war meant the grapple of brother and brother and disunion a raw and gaping wound. It needed one who knew slavery not from books only, but as a living thing, knew the good that was mixed with its evil, and knew the evil not merely as it affected the negroes, but in its hardly less baneful influence upon the poor whites… And this man, sprung from Southern poor whites, born on a Kentucky farm and transplanted to an Illinois village, this man, in whose heart knowledge and charity had left no room for malice, was marked by Providence as the one to ‘bind up the Nation's wounds.’"
- Mark Twain in the New York Times, January 13, 1907
Twain once wrote a short story, “The War-Prayer,” that was inspired by three sentences in Lincoln’s second inaugural address in which the newly re-elected President pointed out that people from both sides in the Civil War had prayed to the same God. Twain took that notion a step forward in his short story by pointing out that praying for victory also means we are imploring God to “help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst..”
TWAIN ON LYNCHINGS AND RACISM
Mark Twain wrote about lynchings, and much of it appeared in the book, A Pen Warmed Up in Hell, published in 1972 and edited by Frederick Anderson. Mostly a collection of Twain’s essays and excerpts, the book included a chapter from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn called “A River Village and a Lynch Mob,” and it also included a provocative essay titled “The United States of Lyncherdom.” In the essay, Twain mourned the fact that in his home state of Missouri, in a “region of churches and schools,” an angry mob “lynched three negroes – two of them very aged ones – burned out five negro households, and drove thirty negro families into the woods.” Twain seemed to be searching for an explanation, asking why lynching, “with various barbaric accompaniments,” had become so widespread. He included his own graphic account of a lynching in Texas in which “The negro was taken to a tree and swung in the air. Wood and fodder were piled beneath his body and a hot fire was made. Then it was suggested that the man ought not to die too quickly, and he was let down to the ground while a party went to Dexter, about two miles distant, to procure coal oil. This was thrown on the flames and the work completed.”
More than anyone else in his time, Mark Twain became the conscience of America over the issue of racism. He was the Lincoln of literature, especially in his story about Huckleberry Finn, which in my opinion is still the best book about race in America. He also changed America’s views on slavery. And of course, at the time, he was even more popular than the President. I have always marveled at the way Twain used storytelling to reach deep into America’s conscience and change their collective minds about racism, religion and America’s foreign aggression. After my own Hawaiian experience, I have felt compelled to write stories that would incorporate the essence of Twain, which I always considered to be the perfect blend of humor and depth. Huck and Jim made us laugh, but we also felt their pain.
MARK TWAIN THE PHILOSOPHER
Mark Twain wrote in 1906 that “our Heavenly Father invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey.” He went on to write that “the human being is another disappointment, and is no considerable improvement upon the monkey.” Twain had a way of poking fun at the human condition through his writing that made the reader laugh while being mocked. But in the end, I have to agree with him. Not that much has changed about human behavior since his day. Maybe it’s even worse. Maybe things have become so bad in the world that there’s nothing left to do but – like Twain – poke fun at it through our tears.
He never lost his sense of humor, but in his later works Twain did seem to inject more intensity and urgency about the issues of the day. Perhaps more than a writer, lecturer or humorist, he had become by the end of his career a philosopher, America’s wise sage. For sure, his influence on American public opinion was profound, and as it turns out, timeless. His perspectives and insights are as true today as they were then, and maybe more relevant than ever. I suppose it’s no wonder, then, that he still graces the covers of national magazines or that his recently released autobiography is a bestseller. A century after his death, the “Conscience of America” still speaks to us from the grave. And we would all do well to listen.