Saturday, December 29, 2007

Mark Twain and the Civil War

I'm about a third of the way through Ron Powers's Mark Twain (2005), which has given me my first real acquaintance with Samuel Clemens's early years. Previously, all I'd known of his life was his riveting account of his brief career as a river pilot in Life on the Mississippi (1883) and bits and pieces of his later years, when he was famous and palling around with people like William Dean Howells and Ulysses S. Grant. It's been fun to get to know Clemens as an ambitious young man, fired with the joy that comes from transforming the heterogeneous stuff of the world into words.

What has struck me most forcefully so far, however, has been learning that Clemens pretty much sat out the Civil War. I assume that's commonly known, but I somehow hadn't realized it before. Clemens was twenty-five when the war began, and, despite (or perhaps because of?) growing up in Missouri, an area of sharply divided loyalties and great strategic importance, he seems not just to have avoided service, but to have as much as possible avoided even taking a position on the conflict.

To the extent that his loyalties can be reconstructed, they seem to have lain with the South, which I suppose makes some sense: though Lincoln was able through a combination of deft management and brute force to keep Missouri in the Union, it was a slave state that was culturally more Southern than Northern. It's also easy to imagine the high-toned moralizing of the abolitionist movement causing someone with Clemens's temperament to get his back up a bit; add in the casual racism that shows up in his youthful writings (and which he would spend a lifetime attempting to outgrow and overcome), and Clemens as a Confederate sympathizer is fairly easy to picture.

His only military service in the war was brief and essentially comic. Here's Powers's description of the homegrown, anti-Union militia that Clemens volunteered for in 1861:
The Green Berets, they were not. No two dressed alike. Weapons ranged from hunting knives to shotguns to squirrel rifles. . . . [Clemens's friend Absalom] Grimes recalls that Sam showed up for war on a four-foot-high yellow mule, clutching a valise, a homemade quilt, a frying pan, a squirrel rifle, twenty yards of seagrass rope, and an umbrella. . . . The outfit called itself the Ralls County Rangers. Sam was elected second lieutenant, and gave a speech standing on a log. Then they all went haring around the country, cadging meals at farmhouses, sleeping in the rain, and laughing at nay passing officer who dared give them an order.
The closest the unit came to combat was a late-night scare sparked by imaginary Union pickets and another false alarm that led to one of the men accidentally shooting his own horse. Clemens quickly fled the unit, and the war entirely, decamping to the Nevada territory, where he began writing the Western sketches that would first make his name. Even out there, though he got into a few arguments over the question, his occasional pro-secession remarks appear to have been at least as much the product of a needling contrarianism as of deeply held beliefs.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what I would have had him do differently. While I'd obviously rather he had seen the evils of slavery and the rightness of the Union cause, given his background that's difficult to imagine. And after all, it's not as if even all northerners were jumping at the chance to serve; the draft riots and the practice of paying for substitutes testify otherwise. Similarly, I'm not willing to take him to task for perceived cowardice: five minutes of reading about the carnage at Cold Harbor or the Battle of the Wilderness is enough to make anyone understand why a person would hope to avoid serving. Clemens wasn't yet a public figure, so it's not as if he had even an implied responsibility to be or do something larger than himself. Would I have been on the right side of the issue had I been in his shoes? I'd sure as hell like to think so, but it's impossible to know.

I guess I'm just surprised that when it came to the defining question of his age--an age for which he himself would end up as a defining figure--it appears that Clemens didn't even give it much thought. In a time when the fate of the nation was at stake in a war that with each passing year was being more clearly defined as an essential moral struggle, Clemens blithely stayed away. Am I wrong to expect more? Does it even matter? It doesn't seem to have mattered to his public as he rocketed to fame in the postwar years. (One wonders whether, like John Wayne, who also became a symbol of his nation despite avoiding service, Clemens in later years ever found himself in fights with those who had served. Did the question occur, for example, to Grant?)

But given that Clemens the writer still matters these days largely because of his ability to perceive and convey, however fitfully, the humanity of an escaping slave named Jim, his absence on the larger question of the fate of Jim and his brethren in the years before Huckleberry Finn does seem important. It's yet another inescapable complicating factor in our attempts to understand the man, his work, and his times.

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