Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCVIII

Mark Twain and the Wars

English troubles in South Africa came to a head that autumn. On the day when England’s ultimatum to the Boers expired Clemens wrote:

LONDON, 3.07 P.m., Wednesday, October 11, 1899. The time is up! Without a doubt the first shot in the war is being fired to-day in South Africa at this moment. Some man had to be the first to fall; he has fallen. Whose heart is broken by this murder? For, be he Boer or be he Briton, it is murder, & England committed it by the hand of Chamberlain & the Cabinet, the lackeys of Cecil Rhodes & his Forty Thieves, the South Africa Company.

Mark Twain would naturally sympathize with the Boer — the weaker side, the man defending his home. He knew that for the sake of human progress England must conquer and must be upheld, but his heart was all the other way. In January, 1900, he wrote a characteristic letter to Twichell, which conveys pretty conclusively his sentiments concerning the two wars then in progress.

DEAR JOE — Apparently we are not proposing to set the Filipinos free & give their islands to them; & apparently we are not proposing to hang the priests & confiscate their property. If these things are so the war out there has no interest for me.

I have just been examining Chapter LXX of Following the Equator to see if the Boer’s old military effectiveness is holding out. It reads curiously as if it had been written about the present war.

I believe that in the next chapter my notion of the Boer was rightly conceived. He is popularly called uncivilized; I do not know why. Happiness, food, shelter, clothing, wholesome labor, modest & rational ambitions, honesty, kindliness, hospitality, love of freedom & limitless courage to fight for it, composure & fortitude in time of disaster, patience in time of hardship & privation, absence of noise & brag in time of victory, contentment with humble & peaceful life void of insane excitements — if there is a higher & better form of civilization than this I am not aware of it & do not know where to look for it. I suppose that we have the habit of imagining that a lot of artistic & intellectual & other artificialities must be added or it isn’t complete. We & the English have these latter; but as we lack the great bulk of those others I think the Boer civilization is the best of the two. My idea of our civilization is that it is a shoddy, poor thing & full of cruelties, vanities, arrogancies, meannesses, & hypocrisies.

Provided we could get something better in the place of it. But that is not possible perhaps. Poor as it is, it is better than real savagery, therefore we must stand by it, extend it, & (in public) praise it. And so we must not utter any hurtful word about England in these days, nor fail to hope that she will win in this war, for her defeat & fall would be an irremediable disaster for the mangy human race. Naturally, then, I am for England; but she is profoundly in the wrong, Joe, & no (instructed) Englishman doubts it. At least that is my belief.

Writing to Howells somewhat later, he calls the conflict in South Africa, a “sordid and criminal war,” and says that every day he is writing (in his head) bitter magazine articles against it.

But I have to stop with that. Even if wrong —& she is wrong England must be upheld. He is an enemy of the human race who shall speak against her now. Why was the human race created? Or at least why wasn’t something creditable created in place of it? . . . I talk the war with both sides — always waiting until the other man introduces the topic. Then I say, “My head is with the Briton, but my heart & such rags of morals as I have are with the Boer — now we will talk, unembarrassed and without prejudice.” And so we discuss & have no trouble.

I notice that God is on both sides in this war; thus history repeats itself. But I am the only person who has noticed this; everybody here thinks He is playing the game for this side, & for this side only.

Clemens wrote one article for anonymous publication in the Times. But when the manuscript was ready to mail in an envelope stamped and addressed to Moberly Bell — he reconsidered and withheld it. It still lies in the envelope with the accompanying letter, which says:

Don’t give me away, whether you print it or not. But I think you ought to print it and get up a squabble, for the weather is just suitable.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00