Mark Twain's Tabooed Talk: Mark Twain Directed His Heirs Not to Release for 100 Years Some of His Manuscripts That Contained His Unvarnished Opinion about Touchy Topics - the Time's Up
Kenny, Jack, The New American
It is sometimes said regretfully that many Americans today get their "slant" on the news from TV's late-night comedians. But today's "baby boomers" and Generation X-ers and Y-ers are not among the first Americans to find their politics strained through the filter of humor. More than a century before Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert began coming into people's living rooms via broadcast and cable television, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to readers around the world as Mark Twain, was infiltrating the same sanctuary via newspapers, magazines, and books. In a 2008 article for Time magazine, humorist Roy Blount, Jr. showed just how topical, yet timeless, Twain's humor was and is.
In King Leopold's Soliloquy, Twain's scathing 1905 satire on the Belgian occupation of the Congo, Blount found the kind of criticism that might have been aimed a few short years ago at a U.S. government embarrassed by the photographs of abuse at the American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Twain imagined the frustration the Belgian King must have felt when photographers discovered natives of the Congo whose hands had been cut off by their Belgian captors. (In the days before the coming of the camera, the King could avail himself of what became known in our Watergate era as "plausible deniability.")
'Then all of a sudden came the crash!" Twain's Leopold laments. "That is to say, the incorruptible Kodak--and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn't bribe." At least King Leopold didn't have to worry about a WikiLeaks exposing his skullduggery on the Internet.
"Whether Twain was talking about racism at home, the foreign misadventures of the Western powers or the excesses of the era of greed he initially flourished in after the Civil War," Blount wrote, "his target was always human folly and hypocrisy, which turn out to be perennial topics for further study."
On the centenary of the author's 1910 death, the University of California Press late last year released the first of three volumes of Twain's expanded biography, including material the author himself decreed should not be published until he had been dead for 100 years.
"From the first, second, third and fourth editions all sound and sane expressions of opinion must be left out," Twain instructed his heirs and editors in 1906. "There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now. There is no hurry. Wait and see."
Some of those opinions might still be regarded in some quarters as something other than "sound and sane." Twain referred to American soldiers in the Philippines as "our uniformed assassins," though his invective was more often and more appropriately aimed at the government that sent them there. Still, it is not hard to imagine the outrage that description would provoke were it uttered today about our troops in Afghanistan or Iraq. Bill O'Reilly would likely have Mark Twain hauled off his set at Fox News, perhaps in one piece, if Twain dared to enter the "No Spin Zone." And there would be a predictable and understandable uproar if Twain's version of the Thanksgiving holiday were taught in our public schools:
Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for--annually, not oftener--if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently on the Lord's side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.
Killing, Twain wrote in his short story The Chronicle of Young Satan, is "the chiefest ambition of the human race and the earliest incident in its history. …