American letters has had more than its share of haters. Henry Adams, T. S. Eliot, H. L. Mencken and Ezra Pound leap immediately to mind; there are countless other examples as well. Though most merely reflect the prevailing attitudes of their time, class, and place, it’s natural for a reader to feel a sense of disappointment when she comes up against their prejudices. We want our literary writers to be, if not necessarily ahead of their times, at least outside of them. Faulkner’s racial politics were disappointingly retrograde and boilerplate when he expressed them in his own voice, but the characters in his novels, black and white alike, were, in Allen Tate’s words, “characters in depth, complex and, like all other people, ultimately mysterious.” Walt Whitman and Mark Twain’s attitudes about Catholics and Jews are at once offensive and well-intended; neither could be described as a hater, though both employed hateful tropes.
Fanny Fern, America’s first female newspaper columnist, was one of the early reviewers of Leaves of Grass. “The world needed a ‘Native American’ of thorough out and out breed,” she wrote in The New York Ledger on May 10, 1856, “Something beside a mere Catholic-hating Know-Nothing.” The Know-Nothings, of course, were members of the explicitly anti-Catholic political movement that arose in the 1840s.
Whitman might have celebrated “the nation of many nations” in his poetry, but what Fanny Fern didn’t know was that as a young newspaperman in the early 1840s, he had been something of a Know-Nothing himself, editorializing in The New York Aurora about the “gang of false and villainous priests whose despicable souls never generate any aspiration beyond their own narrow and horrible and beastly superstition…dregs of foreign filth—refuse of convents.” But as ethnocentric as his rhetoric undoubtedly was, it wasn’t inconsistent with his ethos. Whitman hated the authoritarianism of the Catholic hierarchy, not the Catholic immigrants themselves. Writing in Democratic Vistas in 1871, he envisioned a democracy that would supplant the “old belief in the necessary absoluteness of establish’d dynastic rulership, temporal, ecclesiastical, and scholastic” with the “doctrine or theory that man, properly train’d in sanest, highest freedom, may and must become a law, and series of laws, unto himself.”
“I have no race prejudices,” Mark Twain averred, “and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it. I can stand any society. 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. I have no special regard for Satan; but I can at least claim that I have no prejudice against him. It may even be that I lean a little his way, on account of his not having a fair show.”
Huckleberry Finn critiqued antebellum southern norms from a vantage that was outside the verge of respectability; its racial politics are profoundly subversive—probably more so than its author intended. Though Twain has been rightly celebrated as a philo-Semite (one of his daughters would marry a Jew), he would perpetuate some of the most invidious—and inflammatory—Jewish stereotypes. While living in Vienna in the late 1890s, Twain wrote about the rise of Karl Lueger, who was elected the city’s mayor in 1895, and the anti-Semitic political movement he spearheaded. When an American Jew, responding to the article, asked Twain to speculate on the causes of Jew hatred, he ventured an elaborate, five-part answer. “Concerning the Jews” appeared in Harpers Magazine in 1898. As biographer Justin Kaplan has noted, “in his very attempt to extol the race in question, he ratified the most inflammatory pretext for resentment.”
The Jew “has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him,” Twain wrote. “He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it.” But in Twain’s telling, there is scant mystery as to why Jews have been the objects of such enmity, going all the way back to the beginnings of history. In his decidedly eccentric take on Genesis 41, Joseph cornered the grain market and charged exorbitant prices when famine struck, beggaring the Egyptian nation. The real problem with Jews, Twain goes on, is that they’re too clever by half. If a Jew “entered upon a mechanical trade, the Christian had to retire from it. If he set up as a doctor, he was the best one, and he took the business. If he exploited agriculture, the other farmers had to get at something else. Since there was no way to successfully compete with him in any vocation, the law had to step in and save the Christian from the poor-house.”
Twain’s take on the idea of political Zionism is chilling. “Have you heard of [Dr. Herzl’s] plan?” he wrote. “He wishes to gather the Jews of the world together in Palestine, with a government of their own—under the suzerainty of the Sultan, I suppose . . . I am not the Sultan, and I am not objecting; but if that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world were going to be made in a free country (bar Scotland), I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let the race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride any more.”
As dark as Twain’s view of humanity might have been, Hitler and the Holocaust were beyond his capacity to imagine. “Among the high civilizations,” he wrote, the Jew “seems to be very comfortably situated indeed, and to have more than his proportionate share of the prosperities going. It has that look in Vienna. I suppose the race prejudice cannot be removed; but he can stand that; it is no particular matter.”
For all that, Twain’s admiration for the Jews was genuine; it is to his credit that he wrote and published a postscript in 1904, “The Jew as Soldier,” in which he corrected his animadversions on the Jews’ “unpatriotic disinclination to stand by the flag as a soldier.” Far from avoiding military service, he wrote, the Jews “furnished soldiers and high officers to the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War. In the Civil War he was represented in the armies and navies of both the North and the South by 10 per cent of his numerical strength—the same percentage that was furnished by the Christian populations of the two sections.” The Jewish capacity for “fidelity, and for gallant soldiership in the field is as good as any one's,” he added.
Still, it is a testament to Twain's wrongheadedness in other respects that “Concerning the Jews” sparks lively discussions on white nationalist websites to this day. What they focus on aren’t his suppositions about Jewish intellectual superiority. It is his off the cuff observations like this one: “the Jew is a money-getter. He made it the end and aim of his life. He was at it in Rome. He has been at it ever since. His success has made the whole human race his enemy.”
Also of interest:
- “Mark Twain and the Jews” on Jewish Virtual Library discusses the reaction of contemporary American Jews to “Concerning the Jews”
- In “Walt Whitman & the Irish” on The Walt Whitman Archive Joann Krieg tracks how Whitman’s attitudes toward Catholics and the Irish evolved
- "A Presidential Candidate" by Mark Twain, this week's Story of the Week
- "Mark Twain and William Dean Howells: the friendship that transformed American literature," a previous Reader’s Almanac post