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What Would Twain Say?

Upcoming Exhibit Offers Some Answers

Dunne, Susan

September 11, 2013

"All war must be just the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it."

Mark Twain wrote that in "The Private History of the Campaign that Failed," an 1885 chronicle of his two weeks as a member of the Marion Rangers, a militia in Civil War-era Missouri.

That wasn't the first or last time Twain wrote about war. It was a frequent subject. In an 1881 speech, he joked that war was "a wanton waste of projectiles." In 1916, in the posthumously published "The Mysterious Stranger," he wrote "There has never been a just [war], never an honorable one -- on the part of the instigator of the war."

What would Twain think of President Obama's proposal to launch a military strike against Syria and the ongoing national debate over the possibility of doing so and entering another military conflict? That's anybody's guess. But an upcoming exhibit at Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford couldn't be more timely. "An Inglorious Peace or a Dishonorable War," named after a quote in "Glances at History" from 1906, showcases Twain's feelings about war in general and specifically wars waged during his lifetime (1835-1910).

Would he have chided Congress before a proposed vote on the strike with "Before I had chance in another war, the desire to kill people to whom I had not been introduced had passed away," as he wrote in his autobiography? Or would he have said, as he wrote in "Glances at History," "To be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying 'Our country, right or wrong,' and urge on the little war. Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation"?

Patti Philippon, the Twain House's chief curator, said Twain often agreed with the motivation and goals of a war, such as abolishing slavery. He tended to be against wars waged by big countries against little ones, but he rooted for underdogs fighting imperialism.

"He favored the weak over the strong," Philippon said, "the oppressed over the oppressor."

In his fiction, sometimes he made fun of war and weapons, as in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," in which the hero, Hank, an employee of Colt, goes back in time to the middle ages and modernizes their weaponry.

However, Twain's most famous statement about war, "The War Prayer," came out against any type of armed conflict. A dramatic reading of that short story -- which was such a hot potato that it was not published until six years after Twain's death -- will take place at the exhibit's opening reception on Thursday, Oct. 3.

In it, Twain wrote that rooting for victory for one side is the same as praying for misery for the other, with the commentator ironically praying:

"O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst."

Twain wrote "The War Prayer" as a result of the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), when he was active in the American Anti-Imperialist League. "Originally, he was in support of the Philippine-American War, and then he realized that the U.S. was not interested in freeing Filipinos but instead in subsuming them into American culture," Philippon said. "That turned his thinking around. It was not necessarily the popular opinion."

Since its publication, "The War Prayer" is invoked whenever wars are on the horizon. "When the U.S. first got involved in Iraq, you couldn't turn around without somebody quoting 'The War Prayer'," Philippon said.

The Philippine-American War is one of the focuses of the Twain House exhibit, as well as the Civil War, the Boer Wars (1880-1881 and 1899-1902), the Boxer Rebellion (1897-1901) and King Leopold of Belgium's oppression of the natives of what was then called the Belgian Congo, which inspired Twain to join the Congo Reform Association.

"These conflicts were so important at the time, but now people don't think about them much," Philippon said.

Twain's "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," featured in the exhibit, criticizes imperialist countries for believing that non-Western peoples needed to be civilized in the Western manner. "King Leopold's Soliloquy" was inspired by the Congo situation, and took the form of a confession by that monarch of all the atrocities he committed.

In addition to the stationary exhibits, one wall of the gallery will show short films inspired by 'The War Prayer'." The exhibit also will focus on the human cost of war, with artifacts about friends of the Twains who died in wars.

Lining one wall will be a list of names of the 5,000-plus men from Connecticut who died or went missing in the Civil War, out of the 53,000-plus who fought. "It's amazing, really, how one little state would have so many people involved," Philippon said. "The sheer number of people who were soldiers and sailors, and the impact on all their families, is staggering."


Kerry Driscoll, the chairwoman of the English Department at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford and a Twain scholar, said the slow evolution of Twain's views on war can be seen in a few select writings.

It can be seen first in "A Presidential Candidate" from 1879, a humorous piece in which a candidate confesses all his skeletons, including fleeing the Battle of Gettysburg. "Admittedly, it's in the context of a humorous, satirical editorial, but it is extolling the common sense of cowardice," she said. "Why are you sacrificing your life? It's insane. The smart thing to do is get over the fence and go home as quickly as you can."

The second stage can be seen, Driscoll said, in 'The Private History of the Campaign that Failed," written in 1885, long after the Civil War ended. "He comes across as a pacifist and conscientious objector, but I think there's a lot of conflictedness and ambivalence," she said. "He was on the wrong side. He was volunteering for the confederacy. ... By the time he wrote this, he was publishing Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs and he was friends with [Gens.] Sherman and Sheridan.

"It was published in a series of essays called 'Heroes and Generals of the Civil War.' Obviously he's neither," she said. "There's an ignominious quality to his actions."

The third step in Twain's evolution, Driscoll said, can be seen in "Following the Equator," an 1897 travel book about his yearlong trip to many far-flung outposts of the British Empire, in which a growing disgust for imperialism can be seen.

"When he looked back at this trip, he tells an interviewer, 'I left these shores a red-hot imperialist'," Driscoll said. "That trip was transformational for him. I think it's a misstatement and an exaggeration to call this an anti-imperialist book, but the ground is shifting under his feet."

"The War Prayer," the full flowering of Twain's views on war, is powerful because it's a parable, set in no particular place at no particular time, she said.

"It could be any country. It could take place in any Christian church. It could be any war. That's the best thing about it," Driscoll said. "The withering irony is at the end. when the congregation denounces the messenger as a lunatic after he has spoken such unbelievable profound truths. This is because he possesses a breadth of vision, that they don't that transcends Patriotism and partisanship."

"AN INGLORIOUS PEACE OR A DISHONORABLE WAR: MARK TWAIN'S VIEWS ON CONFLICT" will be at Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Ave. in Hartford, from Thursday, Oct. 3, with a reception at 5:30 p.m., until Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. Details: http://www.marktwainhouse.org.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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