Mark Twain and the Jews
I am looking at a facsimile of The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Essays, dated 1900. The print is large and clear, the margins generous. There is a frontispiece photograph of the author, Mark Twain, captioned “S.L. Clemens.” The copyright, curiously, is not in the name of S.L. Clemens (or of his pseudonym), but in that of Olivia L. Clemens, his wife. (She died in 1904, predeceasing him by six years.)
The fifteen items in the Table of Contents disclose their sources; of periodicals once renowned (Harper’s Magazine, the Century, the Cosmopolitan, the New York World, the Youth’s Companion, the Forum, McClure’s, and the North American Review), only Harper’s recognizably survives. The several illustrations (artist unidentified), with their captions excerpted from the text, are redolent of 19th-century charm—the charm of skilled and evocative drawings—and may make us nostalgic for a practice long in disuse: every tale equipped with its visual interpretation.
But a facsimile volume, as an extraordinary artifact, can offer only this much of “history”: a list of forgotten magazines, a handful of old-fashioned drawings, an imitative binding. The rest of it is the ordinary job of reading.
“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” was written in 1898, in Europe: specifically, Vienna. Mark Twain was still under the shadow of an indelible bereavement; only two years earlier, in 1896, Susy, the oldest and probably the most literarily gifted of the three Clemens daughters, had suddenly been carried off by cerebral meningitis. Restlessness and grief drove Mark Twain and his family—his wife Livy and their two remaining daughters, Clara and Jean—from England to Switzerland to Vienna, where they settled for nearly two years. Clara had come to study piano and voice with distinguished Viennese teachers; Jean was being treated, intermittently and inconclusively, for epilepsy.
But Mark Twain was there, willy-nilly, as Mark Twain abroad—which could only mean Mark Twain celebrated and lionized. Vienna was a brilliant magnet for composers and concert artists, for playwrights and satirists, for vivid promoters of liberal and avant-garde ideas. Mark Twain was courted by Hapsburg aristocrats—countesses and duchesses—and by diplomats and journalists and dramatists. He spoke at pacifist rallies and collaborated in the writing of a pair of plays urging women’s suffrage (they never reached the stage and the manuscripts have not survived). He obliged this or that charity by giving public readings; one of them, in February 1898, was attended by Dr. Sigmund Freud. Set within resplendent architecture and statuary, the intellectual life of the city dazzled.
There was another side to fin-de-siècle Vienna: its underside. Vienna was (then and later) notoriously, stingingly, passionately anti-Semitic. The familiar impulses that jubilantly welcomed Hitler’s Anschluss in 1938, and defiantly elected Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi, as president of Austria in 1986, were acted upon with equal vigor (and venom) in 1898, when the demagogue Karl Lueger held office as Vienna’s popular mayor; and Lueger was a preparatory template for the Nazi politics that burgeoned in Vienna only two-and-a-half decades on. In Mark Twain’s Vienna, the cultural elite included prominent Jewish musicians and writers, among whom he flourished companionably; his daughter Clara married Ossip Gabrilowitsch, a Russian-Jewish composer-pianist and fellow music student. These warm Viennese associations did not escape the noisome anti-Semitic press, which vulgarly denounced Mark Twain either as a Jew-lover or as himself a secret Jew.
In 1898, the European press in general—whether in Paris or Brussels or Berlin or Vienna or even Moscow—was inflamed by an international controversy: the fever of the Dreyfus Affair was erupting well beyond France itself, where Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, had been falsely incriminated on a charge of treason. Polity after polity was split between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards; and in Vienna, Mark Twain boldly stood for Dreyfus’s innocence. In 1898, the French novelist Emile Zola published his great J’Accuse, and escaped arrest by fleeing to England. It was the year of a vast European poisoning, by insidious sloganeering and hideous posters and caricatures; no single country went unsullied.
And it was in this atmosphere that Mark Twain sat down to write “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”—a story about a town in which moral poisoning widens and widens, until no single person remains unsullied. No one can claim that the Dreyfus Affair, a conspiracy to entrap the innocent, impinged explicitly on Mark Twain’s tale of a citizenry brought down by revenge and spreading greed. But the notion of a society—even one in microcosm, like Hadleyburg—sliding deeper and deeper (and individual by individual) into ethical perversion and contamination was not far from a portrait of a Europe undergoing the contagion of its great communal lie. The commanding theme of “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” is contagion; and also the smugness that arises out of self-righteousness, however rooted in lie it may be.
Hadleyburg’s lie is its belief in its own honesty; it has, in fact, sheltered itself against the possibility of corruption, teaching “the principles of honest dealing to its babies in the cradle,” and insulating its young people from temptation, “so that their honesty could have every chance to harden and solidify, and become a part of their very bone.” Yet the absence of temptation is commonly no more than the absence of a testing occasion, and when temptation finally does come to Hadleyburg, no citizen, despite stringent prior training, can withstand it. Dishonest money-lust creeps over the town, first infiltrating a respectable old couple, then moving from household to household of nineteen of the town’s most esteemed worthies.
An archetypal narrative, it goes without saying: the devil tempting the seemingly pure, who turn out to be as flawed as the ordinary human article usually is. The Faustian bargain trades innocence for gold.
A first reading of “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”—i.e., a first reading now, nearly a century after its composition—is apt to disappoint through overfamiliarity. It is not that familiarity lessens art; not in the least; more often it intensifies art. The experience of one Hamlet augments a second and a third, and this is as true of Iolanthe as it is of Shakespeare; but surely we do not go to Hamlet or Iolanthe for the plot. In the last several decades Hadleyburg, as the avatar of a corrupted town, has reappeared in short stories by Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”) and LB. Singer (“The Gentleman from Cracow”), and in The Visit, a chilling drama by Friedrich Düirrenmatt.
And not only through such literary means: in the hundred years since Mark Twain invented Hadleyburg, a proliferation of story-appliances (radio, film, television, and video-recorders), spilling out scores of Hadleyburgs, has acquainted us with (and doubtless hardened us against) the stealthy despoliation of an idyllic town by a cunning stranger. Hadleyburg, for us, is largely a cinematic cliché worn down, by now, to a parody of itself; nor do we have any defense against our belatedness (to use a critical term made famous by Harold Bloom).
But all that applies only to a first reading, when what will stand out is, mainly, the lineaments of the narrative itself. Behind the recognizable Faustian frame are two unlikely categories of ingenuity. The first touches on the identity of the tempter. Hadleyburg, we are told, “had the ill luck to offend a passing stranger . . . a bitter man and vengeful.”
All through his wanderings during a whole year he kept his injury in mind, and gave all his leisure moments to trying to invent a compensating satisfaction for it. He contrived many plans, and all of them were good, but none of them was quite sweeping enough; the poorest of them would hurt a great many individuals, but what he wanted was a plan which would comprehend the entire town, and not let so much as one person escape unhurt. At last he had a fortunate idea, and when it fell into his brain it lit up his whole head with an evil joy.
We know no more than this about the injured stranger and never will know more. There is no shred of a hint concerning the nature of the offense, or exactly who committed it. This forcefully suggests the demiurge, who hates the human race simply for its independent existence, especially when that existence is embroidered by moral striving; the devil requires no motive. And as the powerful sovereign of a great and greatly populated kingdom, he has no need of revenge. The demiurge’s first and last urge is gluttony—the lust to fatten his kingdom with more and more souls. Vengeance is clearly a human trait, not the devil’s; so we may conclude that the “passing stranger” is, in truth, no different in kind from any indigenous citizen of Hadleyburg, and that the vengeful outlander and the honest native are, in potential and surely in outcome, identical.
And, indeed, at the end of the day, when Hadleyburg has been fully corrupted, there is nothing to choose between the “evil joy” of the schemer and the greedy dreams of the townsfolk who scheme to enrich themselves through lies. The contest is not between the devil and man, but between man and man. And it is not so much a contest as a confluence. In other words, we may be induced to imagine that all the citizens of Hadleyburg are “passing strangers”: strangers to themselves. They have believed that they are one thing—pure hearts burnished and enameled by honesty—and they learn that they are another thing: corruptible, degraded, profoundly exposed.
Then is the corrupter of Hadleyburg not the devil? And if he is not, is there, after all, no Faustian frame? Is what we have, instead, the textual equivalent of the sort of optical illusion that permits you to perceive, with unqualified clarity, two different pictures, but never at the same instant? Nearly everyone has experienced the elusive vase that suddenly shows itself as a pair of silhouettes, and the maddening human profiles that unaccountably flash out of sight to reveal a vase. Is this the conceptual design of Mark Twain’s narrative? That the outline of the corrupter is inseparable from the outline of the corrupted—that they are one and the same, ineluctably and horribly fused—but that our gaze is barred from absorbing their metaphorical simultaneity? A far more subtle invention than the Faustian scaffold on which this tale has always been said to depend.
On the other hand, Hadleyburg’s tempter (whether or not he is intended to be a Mephistophelian emblem) does have a palpable identity of another kind—one we can easily grasp; and this is Mark Twain’s second category of ingenuity. The stranger is a man who relishes the manipulation of words: certain phrases must be reproduced, and they must be precisely the right phrases, every syllable perfected.
When a sack is deposited at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Richards, an explanatory note is attached. The note is far from brief; it has a plot, a trajectory, a climactic purpose; it promises as much as the opening of a fairy tale. The sack, it claims, “contains gold coin weighing a hundred and sixty pounds four ounces,” and should be given as a reward of gratitude to the unknown Hadleyburg citizen who long ago unwittingly earned it. The sack’s donor was once a gambler who was spurred to reform because a man of the town gave him twenty dollars and spoke a sentence that “saved the remnant of my morals.” That man, the schemer’s note continues—and we have understood from the beginning that all this is a spurious concoction—that man “can be identified by the remark he made to me; I feel persuaded that he will remember it.”
This is a story, then, that hangs on a set of words—fictitious, invented words—and as the narrative flies on with increasing complexity, devising painful joke after painful joke, it soon becomes clear that “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” is less about gold than it is about language. A sentence that is almost “correct” but contains a vagrant “very” is deemed fraudulent; eventually all versions of the elusive remark fall under a cloud of fraudulence, and threaten the town, and expose its infamous heart. And ultimately even hard gold coin is converted into language, in the form of written checks. It is language itself, even language subjected to comedy, that is revealed as the danger, as a conduit to greed, as an entangler in shame and sin and derision.
Which probably does return us to the devil. And why not? Mark Twain, early and late, is always preoccupied with the devil and his precincts: the devil is certainly the hero of The Mysterious Stranger (a work that is also a product of Vienna), where he is a grand imaginer who appears under the name of Dream, though his dreams are human nightmares, and his poetry destroys. In this view (and who will separate it from Mark Twain’s metaphysical laughter?), the devil is a writer, and the corrupter of Hadleyburg a soulless figure who comprehends that words can carry more horror, and spread more evil joy, than any number of coveted treasures in a sack: even in the saving light of ridicule.
And if we are returned to the devil and his precincts, we are also returned to Vienna. Under the purposefully ambiguous title “Stirring Times in Vienna,” Mark Twain published in Harper’s, in the latter part of 1897, four pieces of journalism reporting on sessions of the parliament of the Hapsburg empire, then known as Austria-Hungary—a political amalgam of nineteen national enclaves that endured for 51 years until its dissolution after World War I.
The Austrian parliament, situated in Vienna, and conducted in German (the empire’s official language), is, in Mark Twain’s rendering, a non-homogeneous Hadleyburg corrupted well past mere greed into the contagion of chaos and contumely. The Hadleyburg townsfolk are uniformly named Richards and Burgess and Goodson and Wilson and Billson; and yet their interests conflict as if they held nothing in common. In the Austrian parliament it is certain that nothing is held in common: the native languages of the members are Polish, Czech, Romanian, Hungarian, Italian, German, etc., and the motley names correspond to their speakers’ origins.
What is at issue, in December of 1897, is a language dispute. The Bohemians are demanding that Czech replace German as Bohemia’s official language; the government (i.e., the majority party) has acceded. But the German-speaking Austrians, who comprise only one-fourth of the empire’s entire population, are enraged, and are determined to prevent the government from pursuing all other business—including the ratification of the indispensable Ausgleich, the renewable treaty of confederation linking Austria and Hungary—unless and until German is restored in Bohemia.
The analogy with Hadleyburg is not gratuitous. Here again the crux is language. In Hadleyburg there are nineteen worthies complicit in the turmoil of communal shame; in the Austrian parliament there are nineteen states. And just as the nineteen leading citizens of Hadleyburg furiously compete, so, as Mark Twain reports it in Harper’s, do the Austrian parliamentarians: “Broadly speaking, all the nations in the empire hate the government—but they all hate each other too, and with devoted and enthusiastic bitterness; no two of them can combine; the nation that rises must rise alone.” And if we can recognize in Hadleyburg the dissolving Austria-Hungary of the 1890’s, we can surely also recognize the disintegrated components of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. Hadleyburg may be emblematic of the imperial parliament in Vienna seventeen years before the outbreak of war in Sarajevo in 1914; even more inescapably, it presages the fin-de-siècle Sarajevo of our own moment.
Yet there is a difference—of reportage—between Mark Twain’s Vienna and contemporary Bosnia that turns out to be not quite what we would expect. In a century-old photograph showing the exterior of the parliament, the buildings appear to stretch over three or four city blocks, with all the majesty of a row of imperial palaces. Another photograph, of the interior—“its paneled sweep relieved by fluted columns of distinguished grace and dignity, which glow softly and frostily in the electric light”—offers a mob of unruly screamers, a good number of them clubbing their desks with wooden planks. The photographs are necessarily static and silent; and we might be induced to feel technologically superior in a news-gathering way to a generation that perforce had to do without CNN or Court TV. Vienna in 1897 had only Mark Twain; yet imagination confirms which medium overpowers (or, as we are wont to put it, “outperforms”) which. What TV anchor, accompanied by what “brilliant camerawork,” can match this introspective portrait of the parliament’s Polish president?
He is a gray-haired, long, slender man, with a colorless long face, which, in repose, suggests a death-mask; but when not in repose is tossed and rippled by a turbulent smile which washes this way and that, and is not easy to keep up with—a pious smile, a beseeching and supplicating smile; and when it is at work the large mouth opens, and the flexible lips crumple, and unfold, and crumple again, and move around in a genial and persuasive and angelic way, and expose large glimpses of teeth; and that interrupts the sacredness of the smile and gives it momentarily a mixed worldly and political and satanic cast.
As for the rest of the assembly, they are “religious men, they are earnest, sincere, devoted, and they hate the Jews.”
Mark Twain’s dispatches reached New York without tampering. The imperial press was subject to a heavy and capricious censorship; so it is possible that the readers of Harper’s were more intimately informed of the degradation of an allegedly democratic parliament than the citizens of Austria or of its eighteen co-equal provinces.
The tactics of the opposition—i.e., of the Germans who refuse to allow the Czechs their own tongue—begin reasonably enough, in parliamentary fashion, with a heroic one-man Filibuster lasting twelve hours. At the speaker’s first words, however, decorum instantly and repeatedly gives way to yells, the beating of desks with long boards, and the clamor of threats and name-calling astonishingly gutter-bred. (The members of the assembly include princes, counts, barons, priests, lawyers, judges, physicians, professors, merchants, bankers—and also “that distinguished religious expert, Dr. Lueger, Bürgermeister of Vienna.”)
A number of these shouted declarations vibrate with a dread familiarity, as if a recording of the sounds of the Vienna of 1938 are somehow being hurled back into that earlier time, 40 years before: “The Germans of Austria will neither surrender nor die!” “It’s a pity that such a man [one willing to grant language rights to the Czechs] should be a leader of the Germans; he disgraces the German name!” “And these shameless creatures are the leaders of the German People’s party!” “You Jew, you!” “I would rather take my hat off to a Jew!” “Jew flunky! Here we have been fighting the Jews for ten years and now you are helping them to power again. How much do you get for it?” “You Judas!” “Schmeel Leeb Kohn! Schmeel Leeb Kohn!”
But let us not misrepresent by overselection. Tainting their opponents with “Jew” may be the most scurrilous offense these princes, counts, barons, priests, judges, etc., can settle on, but it is not the most imaginative. There are also the following: “Brothel-knight!” “East German offal-tub!” “Infamous louse-brat!” “Cowardly blatherskite!”—along with such lesser epithets as “Polish dog,” “miserable cur,” and “Die Gross-mutter auf dem Misthaufen erzeugt worden” (which Mark Twain declines to translate from the original).
In short: a parliamentary riot that is soon to turn into street riots. The fourth and last dispatch records the arrival of the militia:
And now we see what history will be talking of five centuries hence: a uniformed and helmeted battalion of bronzed and stalwart men marching in double file down the floor of the House—a free parliament profaned by an invasion of brute force! . . . They ascended the steps of the tribune, laid their hands upon the inviolable persons of the representatives of a nation, and dragged and tugged and hauled them down the steps and out at the door.
“The memory of it,” Mark Twain concludes—and by now all satire is drained away—“will outlast all the thrones that exist today. In the whole history of free parliaments the like of it had been seen but three times before. It takes its imposing place among the world’s unforgettable things.”
He is both wrong and right. Wrong, because the December 1897 parliamentary upheaval in Vienna is of course entirely forgotten, except by historian-specialists and readers of Mark Twain’s least-known prose. And right, because it is an indelible precursor that not merely portends the profoundly unforgettable Viennese mob events of 1938, but thrusts them into our teeth with all their bitter 20th-century flavor. Here is no dèjà vu, but its prophesying opposite. Or, to say it otherwise: a twenty-year-old rioter enjoying Mark Twain’s Vienna easily becomes a sixty-year-old Nazi enjoying Anschluss Vienna.
In the immediate wake of the introduction of the militia into the parliament, the government
came down with a crash; there was a popular outbreak or two in Vienna; there were three or four days of furious rioting in Prague, followed by the establishing there of martial law; the Jews [who were by and large German-speaking] and Germans were harried and plundered, and their houses destroyed; in other Bohemian towns there was rioting—in some cases the Germans being the rioters, in others the Czechs—and in all cases the Jew had to roast, no matter which side he was on.
All this was in progress while Europe continued to boil over Dreyfus. Living on top of the fire, so to speak, Mark Twain could hardly overlook the roasting Jews. Consequently, a few months after his parliamentary reports, he published in Harper’s, in March 1898, a kind of sequel to “Stirring Times in Vienna”—a meditation entitled “Concerning the Jews.” Part polemic, part reprimand, part self-contradictory panegyric, the essay was honorably motivated but ultimately obtuse and harmful. The London Jewish Chronicle, for example, commented at the time: “Of all such advocates, we can but say ‘Heaven save us from our friends.’” (In the United States in the 1930’s, pro-Nazi groups and other anti-Semites seized on portions of the essay to suggest an ail-American signature for the promulgation of hate.)
Mark Twain was not unaware that Sholem Aleichem, the classic Yiddish writer, was affectionately called “the Jewish Mark Twain.” This was because Sholem Aleichem, like his American counterpart, was a bittersweet humorist and a transcendent humanist; and also because he reflected his village Jews, sunk in deepest poverty, as intimately and faithfully as Mark Twain recorded the homespun villages of his American South. Both men were better known by their pen names than by their actual names; both stood for liberty of the oppressed; both were eagerly read by the plain people—the “folk”; and both were nearly unprecedented as popular literary heroes.
Sholem Aleichem certainly read Mark Twain (possibly in German translation), but it is hardly likely that Mark Twain read Sholem Aleichem. Even the smallest inkling of Sholem Aleichem’s social content would have stood in the way of the central canard of “Concerning the Jews.” And to contradict that canard, and to determine the real and typical condition of the shtetl-bound mass of European Jews, Mark Twain had only to look over his shoulder at those Jewish populations nearest to hand in Austro-Hungarian Galicia. Instead, he looked to the old hostile myths.
To be sure, “Concerning the Jews” is remembered (perhaps mainly by those who have never read it) as charmingly philo-Semitic. A single witty—and famous—sentence supports that view: “All that I care to know is that a man is a human being—that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.” And we can believe Mark Twain—we do believe him—when he avers that he makes “no uncourteous reference” to Jews in his books “because the disposition is lacking.”
Up to a point the disposition is lacking; there is plenty of evidence for that. A curious science-fiction sketch called “From the ‘London Times’ of 1904”—written about the same time as “Concerning the Jews,” and striking for its “invention” of the “telectrophonoscope,” or television—turns out to be a lampoon of “French justice” as exemplified in the punishment of the innocent Dreyfus; and if a savage satire can be felt to be delectable, this one is.
The disposition is lacking in other, less political, directions as well. Jewish charitableness, Jewish generosity, Jewish responsibility are all acknowledged—for the moment. The facts, Mark Twain declares,
are all on the credit side of the proposition that the Jew is a good and orderly citizen. Summed up, they certify that he is quiet, peaceable, industrious, unaddicted to high crime and brutal dispositions; that his family life is commendable; that he is not a burden upon public charities; that he is not a beggar; that in benevolence he is above the reach of competition. These are the very quintessentials of good citizenship.
And all this is followed by another accolade: the Jew is honest. The proof of it is that the “basis of successful business is honesty; a business cannot thrive where the parties to it cannot trust each other.” Who will not affirm this generality? Now add to the assertion of Jewish honesty this quip about the “Jewish brain” from a letter to an American friend, written from Vienna in 1897: “The difference between the brain of the average Christian and that of the average Jew . . . is about the difference between a tadpole’s and an Archbishop’s.”
We may laugh at this, but let liberal laughter be on its guard: the Jew, the essay continues,
has a reputation for various small forms of cheating . . . and for arranging cunning contracts which leave him an exit but lock the other man in, and for smart evasions which find him safe and comfortable just within the strict letter of the law, when court and jury know very well that he has violated the spirit of it.
From none of this does Mark Twain dissent. So much for his honest Jewish businessman. And so much for praise of the “Jewish brain,” which takes us straightway to “cunning contracts” and “smart evasions” and the old, old supersessionist proposition that Judaism attends to the “letter” and not to the “spirit.”
Still, the overriding engine of this essay is situated in a much larger proposition. “In all countries,” Mark Twain tells us, “from the dawn of history, the Jew has been persistently and implacably hated, and with frequency persecuted.” From the dawn of history? And if so, why? Not because the Jew has been millennially blamed for the crucifixion; “the reasons for it are older than that event,” and reside entirely in the Jew’s putative economic prowess; theology does not apply; at least the Gospels and Pauline and Augustinian traditions do not apply. Skip the crucifixion, then; penetrate even more deeply behind the veil, into those still earlier mists of prehistory, and let the fault land on Joseph in Egypt—Joseph the provider, “who took a nation’s money all away, to the last penny.”
There is your model for “the Jew”! “I am convinced,” Mark Twain insists, “that the persecution of the Jew is not due in any large degree to religious prejudice.” And here is his judgment of the root of the matter:
No, the Jew is a money-getter; and in getting his money he is a very serious obstruction to less capable neighbors who are on the same quest. . . . In estimating worldly values the Jew is not shallow, but deep. With precocious wisdom he found out in the morning of time that some men worship rank, some worship heroes, some worship power, some worship God, and that over these ideals they dispute and cannot unite—but that they all worship money; so he made it the end and aim of his life to get it. He was at it in Egypt 36 centuries ago; he was at it in Rome . . . ; he has been at it ever since. The cost to him has been heavy; his success has made the whole human race his enemy—but it has paid, for it has brought him envy, and that is the only thing which men will sell both soul and body for.
Reading this, who can help thinking that all of it could go down quite nicely in the Austrian parliament of late 1897, not to mention the Viennese street? There is enough irony here to make even the devil weep. The truth is that Mark Twain was writing of Jews as “money-getters” at a time when the mass emigration of poor Jews by the hundreds of thousands had already begun to cram the steerage compartments of transoceanic ships—Jews in flight from economic hopelessness; and when the meanest penury was the lot of most Jews; and when Jewish letters and Jewish lore and Jewish wit took “poor” to be synonymous with “Jew.” And here comes Mark Twain, announcing that the Jew’s “commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.”
He might have taken in the anguished testimony of Sholem Aleichem’s Jews; or the deprivations of Galician Jews down the road, so to speak, from Vienna; or the travail of Russian Jews penned into the Pale of Settlement. Or, in his native land, he might have taken in the real status of all those small storekeepers whose names he notes on their shop signs (Edelstein, Blumenthal, Rosenzweig), while observing that “commercial importance” means railroads, banks, mining, insurance, steel, shipping, real estate, etc., etc.—industries where he would have been hard put to find a single Jew.
As it happens, he took in almost none of it; and, though eschewing theology, let himself be taken in by an ancient theological canard: the legacy, via the Judas legend, of the Jew’s affinity for money—the myth of the Rich Jew, the Jew Usurer. The very use of the generic phrase “the Jew” suggests stigma. Mythology, it develops, is the heart and muscle of Mark Twain’s reputedly “philo-Semitic” essay—the old myths trotted out for an airing in the American idiom.
He said he lacked the disposition for slander. It would be wrong to dismiss this statement; but perhaps it would be fairer to suppose that he lacked the disposition for disciplined caution. He knew nothing of Jewish literary or jurisprudential civilization, or of the oceanic intellectual traditions of Jewish biblical COMMENTARY; he approached the Joseph tale with the crudity of a belligerent village atheist, and employed it to defame on economic grounds exactly as the charge of deicide defamed on theological grounds.
Yet he was surely capable of renouncing a canard when someone helped him to prise out the truth. The Jew, he had written, “is charged with an unpatriotic disinclination to stand by the flag as a soldier.” “You feed on a country,” he accused, “but you don’t like to fight for it.” Nevertheless there is appended, at the end of this essay, a remarkable Postscript: “The Jew as Soldier,” wherein instance after historical instance of Jewish “fidelity” and “gallant soldiership” is cited—in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and especially the Civil War. It is not the admission of canard that is remarkable, but rather the principle drawn from it: “It is not allowable to endorse wandering maxims upon supposition.”
That, overall, and despite its contrary motivation, is a precise characterization of “Concerning the Jews”—the endorsement of wandering maxims upon supposition. Only compare George Eliot’s “The Modern Hep Hep”—a chapter in her Impressions of Theophrastus Such, published just twenty years before Mark Twain’s wandering maxims—to see what a generalized essay concerning the Jews, engaging Mark Twain’s own questions, might attain to.
Mark Twain’s twenty months of residence in Vienna were among his most prolific. The fifteen short works collected in the 1900 edition of The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Essays are a fraction of his output during this period; but they reflect the entire arsenal of his art: the occasionally reckless polemic, the derisive irony, the intelligent laughter, the verbal stilettos, the blunt country humor, the fervent despair, the hidden jeer, the relishing of palaver and tall tale, the impatient worldliness, the brilliant forays of language—sometimes for purposes of search-and-destroy, sometimes for a show of pure amazement, sometimes for plain delight in the glory of human oddness, most often for storytelling’s fragile might. Nothing is too trivial, nothing too weighty.
And frequently the trivial and the weighty are enmeshed, as in Hadleyburg, when the recitation of a handful of words touches on depths of deceit. Or as in a lightly turned sketch in the same collection—“My Boyhood Dreams”—that teases such eminences as William Dean Howells and John Hay (U.S. Secretary of State in 1898) for their failure to fulfill their respective childhood ambitions—steamboat mate and auctioneer; never mind that these “ambitions” are wholly of Mark Twain’s antic invention. But even so playful an oddment as this begins with a bitter reference to the humiliated Dreyfus.
In fact, aboard Mark Twain’s prose you cannot very long rely on the “lightly turned”—whatever sets out with an elfin twitch of the nostrils or a Mona Lisa half-smile is likely to end in prophetic thunder. “My First Lie, and How I Got Out of It” starts off with a diaper pin and a twinkle, but its real theme is indifference to injustice—“the silent assertion that there wasn’t anything going on in which humane and intelligent people were interested.” From slaveholding to Dreyfus is but a paragraph’s leap: “From the beginning of the Dreyfus case to the end of it all France . . . lay under the smother of the silent-assertion lie that no wrong was being done to a persecuted and unoffending man.” And from Dreyfus how far is it to the “silent National Lie,” “whole races and peoples conspir [ing] to propagate gigantic mute lies in the interest of tyrannies and sham”? Beware Mark Twain when his subject looks most severely simple or mild-manneredly innocent: you may speedily find yourself aflame in a fiery furnace of moral indignation.
Sketches, fables, diatribes. Eight months before his death in 1910 he wrote, “I am full of malice, saturated with malignity.” More than two decades earlier, he had exclaimed to Howells that his was “a pen warmed up in hell.” Yet—with relative benignity—the remainder of this volume treats of artists who are ignored while alive and valued only posthumously (“Is He Living or Is He Dead?”); of a train companion determined to set right every minor annoyance (“Traveling with a Reformer”); and of a celebrated inventor ordered by the Austrian government to teach grade school (“The Austrian Edison Keeping School Again”).
But that is scarcely the finish of it—there are other exuberances. “The Private History of the ‘Jumping Frog’ Story” not only supplies an ancient Greek version of the joke, but bursts into a spoof of word-for-word translation from the French. “How to Tell a Story” is reminiscent of nighttime ghost-scares at summer camp, while “The Esquimau Maiden’s Romance”—an unrestrained comic lecture on the relative nature of wealth—would hardly pass muster in a contemporary multiculturalist classroom. “About Play-Acting” compares a serious drama in Vienna with the frivolous offerings cut from the New York theater advertisements of Saturday, May 7, 1898; Broadway at this hour (despite spectacular technical advances) is not a whit more substantive or sophisticated. “At the Appetite Cure,” with its praise of starvation as the key to health, reflects Mark Twain’s own belief in the curative virtues of abstinence from food—a crank piece; but here the jokes are crude and cruel, with a Teutonic edge of near-sadism.
All the same, the most stirring—the most startling—real-life narrative in this volume, “My Debut as a Literary Person,” concerns starvation: in extremis, at sea, in a small boat, after a shipwreck. Mark Twain defines it in a minor way as a journalistic scoop, but for power, passion, character, and suspense, it belongs among his masterworks.
All these romances—some as slight as skits, and one as rich and urgent as a novel—were set down in Mark Twain’s Vienna: a cosmopolis driven by early modernism, saturated in music and theater, populated by gargantuan cultural figures whose influence still shakes the world (Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl, to mention only these), ruled by rogues (two of Hitler’s idols among them), on occasion ruled by mobs; a society gaudily brilliant, acutely civilized, triumphantly flourishing, and also shameless, brutal. Part heaven, part the devil’s precinct. An odd backdrop for a writer reared in Hannibal, Missouri. But in Vienna Mark Twain was close to the peak of what he called his “malignity,” and Vienna served him.
Along with Dreyfus in Paris, it gave him a pen warmed up in the local hell.