Tag Archives: Mark Twain

What would Mark Twain think of Donald Trump?

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Twain was an opinionated, prolific commentator on the personalities and political issues of his day. Terry Ballard/flickr, CC BY

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, University of California, Irvine

Thanks to the criticisms they’ve leveled in articles, interviews, tweets and letters to the editor, we know that many contemporary authors, from Philip Roth to J.K. Rowling, have a dim view of Donald J. Trump.

But what would leading writers of the past have made of him?

We can only speculate (well, until someone invents a Rowling-like potion capable of bringing long dead writers back to life). But if I could ask one dead writer what he thinks of Trump, it would be Mark Twain, my favorite American author and someone whose travel articles I’ve written about in the past. While Twain is best-known for his novels, he was also an opinionated, prolific commentator on the personalities and political issues of his day.

I suspect Twain would have found Trump the showman – the pre-2016 version – a fascinating figure. He would have been appalled, however, by much about Trump the president.

A champion of irreverence

I have no doubt about two things that Twain would find objectionable: the way that Trump has lashed out at TV sketches that mock him and his use of the phrase “enemy of the American people” to describe news organizations that criticize him.

Twain felt that no one was too grand to be satirized.

“Irreverence,” he wrote, “is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.”

In America’s press, he admired its tendency to be “irreverent toward pretty much everything.” Even if this led to the newspapers laughing “one good king to death,” it was a small price to pay if they also “laugh a thousand cruel and infamous shams and superstitions into the grave.”

But pondering what, beyond this, Twain would make of Trump is an apt, tricky and timely exercise.

It’s apt because one of Twain’s novels, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” features a man who travels through time.

It’s tricky because Twain’s views on many issues, including race, changed during his lifetime. Hence there are different Twains – as well as different Trumps – to consider.

Finally, imagining how Twain would view Trump is timely because when some have tried to look to history for an equivalent political moment, they’ll sometimes point to two decades – the 1880s and the 1900s – that happened to also be important in Twain’s life and career.

One of these Trumps is not like the other

The Twain of the 1880s would have probably found the Trump of a decade ago – a brash, self-promoting businessman known for his candid comments and penchant for media attention – fascinating. He may have even befriended him.

But the staunchly anti-imperialist Twain of two decades later would have been as disdainful of Trump now as he was of the man he once called “far and away the worst president we have ever had” – the muscular nationalist Teddy Roosevelt.

My basis for the first claim comes from Twain’s friendship with a flashy, boastful Trump-like showman: Buffalo Bill Cody. Among the most successful entertainment impresarios of his day, Cody founded and starred in a traveling Wild West Show, which drew large crowds in America and Europe and was famous for its reenactments of legendary battles.

In 1884, Twain sent a letter to Cody praising his Wild West Show as a realistic, “distinctly American” form of entertainment. In Cody’s spectacle – as in “The Apprentice” – the emcee was a famous man who played up a version of himself, capitalizing on the audience’s awareness that he had done things in real life that he did in the show: firing guns, in one case; firing people, in the other.

An advertisement for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a circus-like show that toured the nation. NPGpics/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

During this period, Twain wrote four of his best-known books. It was also a time of intense nativism in the United States. Many white laborers, especially in western states, became convinced that Chinese laborers, who had crossed the Pacific in large numbers during the Gold Rush, were unfairly depriving them of jobs that rightfully belonged to them.

This prejudice triggered several violent outbursts – such as the 1871 Los Angeles riot, which cost 18 Chinese men their lives – and led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the entry of Chinese workers to the United States.

Twain mocked the hypocrisy of the Exclusion Act: Just as the U.S. government was preventing Chinese from coming here, American traders and missionaries in China were denouncing the Chinese government for hindering their pursuit of profits and converts in the Middle Kingdom.

Some critics of Trump’s executive order on immigration say it “eerily recalls” the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In both cases, we see fear, stereotypes and prejudice fomenting an environment in which some groups are deemed less worthy of rights and protections – indeed, less human – than others.

In one of his early works, 1872’s “Roughing It,” Twain was already castigating those who bullied and abused Chinese immigrants as the “scum of the population.” His disdain for xenophobia and prejudice only grew later in life.

He would be a fierce critic of Trump’s nativist rhetoric even if – perhaps especially if – he had previously praised Trump the entertainer.

Twain targets Teddy

By the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. Trump – whom some have compared with Roosevelt – has said that when he speaks of trying to “Make America Great Again,” one period he has in mind is around the turn of the 20th century.

A 1904 New York World cartoon criticizes Teddy Roosevelt’s militaristic and imperialistic impulses.
Wikimedia Commons

Around this time, Twain was not just a celebrated author but a leading figure on the lecture circuit. As both a speaker and an essayist, he was known for his satirical jabs. A key target of his became American expansionists, whom he skewered in, among other works, the 1901 essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” which lambasts Americans for committing violence across the Pacific under the guise of “civilizing” backward peoples.

In 1900, there were two U.S. military campaigns underway in China and the Philippines. In China, U.S. soldiers joined forces with a host of other countries to fight the anti-Christian Boxer militants and the Qing dynasty. In the Philippines, American troops brutally suppressed Filipinos who sought independence.

Teddy Roosevelt was an enthusiastic supporter of these campaigns. The main goal in the Philippines and in China, Roosevelt insisted, was not enrichment but defeating “barbarous” enemies.

Twain disagreed. In his caustic “Salutation Speech from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth,” Twain dismissed the military campaigns as “pirate raids” that “besmirched” Christianity’s reputation.

Where Roosevelt saw the Boxers as just the latest wave of savages to be suppressed, Twain viewed them as patriots defending their threatened homeland, spelling out his position in essays, personal letters and public lectures.

Sticking to his guns

The anti-imperialist Twain would likely have criticized other recent presidents. He wouldn’t have approved of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, nor of the way Barack Obama employed drones.

Nonetheless, the writer would find Trump’s disparaging of Muslims and various other groups on the campaign trail – in addition to the immigration ban – particularly distasteful.

He wasn’t afraid to change his mind, and to admit that he had been wrong (as Trump is loath to do). He briefly supported the Spanish-American War, for example, but then spoke openly about how jingoism had blinded his moral concerns. And as American studies professor John Haddad has detailed, Twain’s previous praise for Cody didn’t stop him from walking out of a Wild West Show performance in early 1901. Cody had performed a reenactment of a 1900 Chinese battle, uniformly depicting the foreign invaders as heroes and the Boxers as barbaric villains. Twain thought his old friend was deeply misguided – and he let him know.

In 1901, Twain wasn’t alone in holding and expressing fervently anti-imperialist views. But he was in a minority. Most Americans felt that allied actions in China and U.S. ones in the Philippines were completely justified. So did many famous writers of the time, from Rudyard Kipling to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” lyricist Julia Ward Howe.

The ConversationThat’s one difference from today: Twain would find himself firmly in the literary mainstream – and would be far from alone in saying that a president who wanted to govern a truly “great” America should not look to the country at the turn of the 20th century for inspiration.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Professor of Chinese and World History, University of California, Irvine

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Things you were taught at school that are wrong

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Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

Do you remember being taught you should never start your sentences with “And” or “But”?

What if I told you that your teachers were wrong and there are lots of other so-called grammar rules that we’ve probably been getting wrong in our English classrooms for years?

How did grammar rules come about?

To understand why we’ve been getting it wrong, we need to know a little about the history of grammar teaching.

Grammar is how we organise our sentences in order to communicate meaning to others.

Those who say there is one correct way to organise a sentence are called prescriptivists. Prescriptivist grammarians prescribe how sentences must be structured.

Prescriptivists had their day in the sun in the 18th century. As books became more accessible to the everyday person, prescriptivists wrote the first grammar books to tell everyone how they must write.

These self-appointed guardians of the language just made up grammar rules for English, and put them in books that they sold. It was a way of ensuring that literacy stayed out of reach of the working classes.

They took their newly concocted rules from Latin. This was, presumably, to keep literate English out of reach of anyone who wasn’t rich or posh enough to attend a grammar school, which was a school where you were taught Latin.

And yes, that is the origin of today’s grammar schools.

The other camp of grammarians are the descriptivists. They write grammar guides that describe how English is used by different people, and for different purposes. They recognise that language isn’t static, and it isn’t one-size-fits-all.

1. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction

Let’s start with the grammatical sin I have already committed in this article. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

Obviously you can, because I did. And I expect I will do it again before the end of this article. There, I knew I would!

Those who say it is always incorrect to start a sentence with a conjunction, like “and” or “but”, sit in the prescriptivist camp.

However, according to the descriptivists, at this point in our linguistic history,
it is fine to start a sentence with a conjunction in an op-ed article like this, or in a novel or a poem.

It is less acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction in an academic journal article, or in an essay for my son’s high school economics teacher, as it turns out. But times are changing.

2. You can’t end a sentence with a preposition

Well, in Latin you can’t. In English you can, and we do all the time.

Admittedly a lot of the younger generation don’t even know what a preposition is, so this rule is already obsolete. But let’s have a look at it anyway, for old time’s sake.

According to this rule, it is wrong to say “Who did you go to the movies with?”

Instead, the prescriptivists would have me say “With whom did you go to the movies?”

I’m saving that structure for when I’m making polite chat with the Queen on my next visit to the palace.

That’s not a sarcastic comment, just a fanciful one. I’m glad I know how to structure my sentences for different audiences. It is a powerful tool. It means I usually feel comfortable in whatever social circumstances I find myself in, and I can change my writing style according to purpose and audience.

That is why we should teach grammar in schools. We need to give our children a full repertoire of language so that they can make grammatical choices that will allow them to speak and write for a wide range of audiences.

3. Put a comma when you need to take a breath

It’s a novel idea, synchronising your writing with your breathing, but the two have nothing to do with one another and if this is the instruction we give our children, it is little wonder commas are so poorly used.

Punctuation is a minefield and I don’t want to risk blowing up the internet. So here is a basic description of what commas do, and read this for a more comprehensive guide.

Commas provide demarcation between like grammatical structures. When adjectives, nouns, phrases or clauses are butting up against each other in a sentence, we separate them with a comma. That’s why I put commas between the three nouns and the two clauses in that last sentence.

Commas also provide demarcation for words, phrases or clauses that are embedded in a sentence for effect. The sentence would still be a sentence even if we took those words away. See, for example, the use of commas in this sentence.

4. To make your writing more descriptive, use more adjectives

American writer Mark Twain had it right.

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.”

If you want your writing to be more descriptive, play with your sentence structure.

Consider this sentence from Liz Lofthouse’s beautiful children’s book Ziba came on a boat. It comes at a key turning point in the book, the story of a refugee’s escape.

“Clutching her mother’s hand, Ziba ran on and on, through the night, far away from the madness until there was only darkness and quiet.”

A beautifully descriptive sentence, and not an adjective in sight.

5. Adverbs are the words that end in ‘ly’

Lots of adverbs end in “ly”, but lots don’t.

Adverbs give more information about verbs. They tell us when, where, how and why the verb happened. So that means words like “tomorrow”, “there” and “deep” can be adverbs.

I say they can be adverbs because, actually, a word is just a word. It becomes an adverb, or a noun, or an adjective, or a verb when it is doing that job in a sentence.

Deep into the night, and the word deep is an adverb. Down a deep, dark hole and it is an adjective. When I dive into the deep, it is doing the work of a noun.

Time to take those word lists of adjectives, verbs and nouns off the classroom walls.

Time, also, to ditch those old Englishmen who wrote a grammar for their times, not ours.

If you want to understand what our language can do and how to use it well, read widely, think deeply and listen carefully. And remember, neither time nor language stands still – for any of us.

The ConversationMisty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Mark Twain on fooling people

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Mark Twain on public opinion

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835 – 1910), better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist. He wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the latter often called “The Great American Novel”.

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Mark Twain on individualism

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Mark Twain on education

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Mark Twain on adventurism

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