Nineteenth-Century Social Protest Literature Outside England Criticism: Overview - Essay

Criticism: Overview

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Graham, Mary. “The Protests of Writers and Thinkers.” In The Rhetoric of Protest and Reform, 1878-1898, edited by Paul H. Boase, pp. 295-319. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Graham characterizes four writers—Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, Edward Bellamy, and Henry George—as spokesmen for social reform in late nineteenth-century America.]

Politicians, literary figures, and reformers thronged to the lecture platform during the decade before and the decade after the American Civil War. Lyceums and library associations provided the audiences—and a supplementary income for many of the great and near-great. When the development of the railroads made it possible by 1858 to visit Chicago from New York without changing trains, almost three hundred lecturers advertised their willingness—even their eagerness—to spread before midwestern audiences their moralistic and cultural interests.

The Civil War brought a halt to such activities. Not long after the end of the war, however, James Redpath organized his Boston Lyceum Bureau in 1869. Lecturing revived and became a big business proposition.

From the many writers who frequented the lecture platform in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, four men were selected for special attention. All are better known for their writing than for their speaking, but it was their speaking—particularly their appearances on the lecture platform—that also commanded attention. The first is the universally known and almost universally admired Samuel L. Clemens, “Mark Twain.” The second is George Washington Cable, a southern writer whose descriptions of Creole life in New Orleans brought him widespread attention in his own day. The third is Edward Bellamy, best remembered for his Utopian novel, Looking Backward. And last comes the prophet of San Francisco, the great single taxer Henry George.

What did these four great writers and speakers have in common? The answer is simple: they were far ahead of their times, and their imaginative thinking gave them widespread appeal. Mark Twain, the satirist, advocated women's rights, spoke against corruption in government, and was bitter in his opposition to imperialism. George Washington Cable had little influence on race relations in his own day, but in our times he is accepted as an early leader in the fight for civil rights. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward is still widely read, and during the 1930s Bellamy Clubs flourished in the West. Urban renewal owes much to Henry George, whose theories of taxation play their part in providing recreation and other centers for blighted areas. One cannot say that the four men were practical men in the usual sense of the word, but it can be argued that men of vision and imagination are the real leaders of reform and change.


In the early autumn of 1869 Samuel L. Clemens (“Mark Twain”) became a hundred-dollar man for the Boston Lyceum Bureau of James Redpath. Former printer, steamboat pilot, soldier, miner, and newspaper reporter, Twain had already achieved a national reputation before he joined Redpath. Letters to the Sacramento Union from the Sandwich Islands, to the New York Tribune from the Quaker City-Holy Land tour, and from Washington to the New York Tribune, Post, and Herald, coupled with stories in Harper's and his famous Jumping Frog (published as a book in 1867), established him as a humorous author. Lecturing in California, New York, and Brooklyn had given him confidence in facing an audience and charming it into submission.1

All that he was to write, except for his return to the Mississippi River of his boyhood, was to be merely an expression and consolidation of his life on the frontier and its culmination in San Francisco. His ability to relate tall tales, his travel reports, his knowledge of human nature, his humor, and his ability to observe and report accurately were shown in his writings in San Francisco and Sacramento.2 By 1866, when he left California for the first time, “the frontier, having completed him, was done with him forever.”3

The same frontier also molded his lecturing activities. His famous speech on the Sandwich Islands, first delivered in San Francisco on October 2, 1866, was to be his basic lecture. In the same period he established his methods of publicizing his lectures, his drawling delivery, his informality on the platform, and his extravagant methods of travel.4

Eager to establish himself in literary circles and anxious to earn money, Twain began his lecturing career after returning to New York from San Francisco in 1866. His final lecture tour was in 1873, when he delivered “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands” and “Roughing It” before enthusiastic English audiences.

Twain's first lecture tour after he deserted California was the tour of 1868-1869. Most of his engagements came by his own efforts or through the booking of the Western Library Association of Dubuque, Iowa. His subject: “The American Vandal Abroad”5 was based on his forthcoming book Innocents Abroad. In this lecture he gentle chided the American traveler who was not elaborately educated, cultivated and refined, and gilded and filigreed with the ineffable graces of the first society.6 He ended with a moral, as he always did if requested. On this occasion he advised Americans to travel because travel liberalized them. Since Innocents Abroad had been published by the end of the season, he never used the lecture again. It had served its purpose.

The winter of 1869-70 found Twain on the lyceum circuit once more, but under the Redpath management. His lecture was his old favorite: “The Sandwich Islands,” now usually called “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands.”7 Originally the lecture had grown out of his travel letters to the Sacramento Union. First delivered in San Francisco, it was sometimes savage and coarse in its humor. Revised for this tour, its satirical tone was less savage, particularly in its treatment of missionaries.8 The season was most successful, but Twain wanted no more of the confining and lonely life of the lecture circuit. He wrote to Redpath, saying that he was out of the field permanently.

He kept his vow for one year. In late July, 1871, dissatisfied with his connections on the Buffalo Express and needing money for his move to Hartford, he agreed with Redpath that he would lecture during the winter of 1871-72. The season was to prove to be his “most detestable campaign.” He attempted to write two lectures, one of which: “Artemus Ward,”9 he used for about six weeks. In sheer desperation he wrote “Roughing It,”10 a synopsis of his soon-to-be published book by the same name. It was a natural choice, for he was reading proof at the time. Certainly the lecture was successful. And it enabled him to advertise his book quite openly. In Grand Rapids, he “informed his audience that he had a book in press, a book of six hundred pages, the style the same as in Innocents Abroad, splendidly illustrated, and costing only … but he wasn't canvassing for the book. No, only if they wished it, he could read from forty fifty pages of it from memory, or indeed the whole 600 pages.”11

Although Redpath pleaded with him to lecture during the winter of 1872-73, Twain had other plans. He left the United States for England on August 31, hoping to gather material for a book similar to Innocents Abroad and to secure a copyright for Roughing It. Amid the social activity he arranged with George Dolby, the English impresario, for a brief series of lectures. In October he gave his old favorite: “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands.” On December 9 he changed to his new lecture: “Roughing It On The Silver Frontier.” Both were rewritten for the English audience, particularly the second, as he realized that the English knew little, if anything, about Nevada.12 Reviews and comments were laudatory, praising the vast amount of information as well as the delivery and humor.13

Upon his return from England, Twain informed Redpath that he would under no circumstances ever return to the lecture circuit. In reality he had decided while on tour with “An American Vandal Abroad” “that the platform would do as an occasional money-maker in an emergency, but he didn't want it for his lifework.”14 He disliked the traveling, the hotels, and, most of all, the loneliness. Such a resolution did not mean that he never spoke in public again, for Twain was a compulsive talker. From this time on, however, he chose the occasion, the time, and the audience. His books and his reputation as a humorous speaker gave him all the occasions he desired.

Twain did go on two more tours, but not as a lecturer; as a reader of his own works. The establishment of his own publishing house and the forthcoming publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn prompted him to arrange a joint tour with George Washington Cable under the auspices of J. B. Pond for the winter of 1884-85. The plan was that Twain would read from Huckleberry Finn, to be published in February, 1885, and Cable would relate selections from his Creole stories and novels. They performed more than a hundred times in eighty different cities during the four-month season. Twain's share of the profits was approximately $15,000.15

Ten years elapsed before he was compelled to go once more on tour. Bankruptcy of his publishing house in 1894 and the financial disaster with the Paige typesetter before that had forced him to live in Europe after 1890. With complete disaster facing him Twain planned a world tour, which took him to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and England. He again chose readings from his books, although he wove the readings together and called it “The Morals Lecture.” By this time he had memorized and perfected more than seventy-five stories with which to vary his programs. The tour and the book, Following the Equator, which followed, enabled him to pay his debts, and he was a free man once more. Twain never lectured for payment again.

Although some, including J. G. Holland,16 criticized Twain's lectures as being only humorous and not worthy of presentation on lyceum programs, an examination of the lectures shows that if one should eliminate the stories and other humorous lines, much information would remain. Descriptions of lands visited are certainly more definite and more beautiful than the moralistic travelogues of Ike Marvel, George William Curtis, and Bayard Taylor, so popular in the 1850s.

Nor was Twain's humor on the platform so barbed and pointed as in his books. Realizing that many of his lectures were given in churches or were sponsored by Y.M.C.A.s, he had no wish to offend his sponsors or his audiences.

One of Twain's great contributions to the reform of the lecture circuit was his recognition that the platform demanded a different style from that of the written word. As a result he always wrote his speeches, then memorized them. Adapting them to the audience, he constantly reworked his materials.17

Writing to his wife after attending a Chicago dinner in honor of Ulysses S. Grant, Twain said, “I heard four speeches which carried away all my wits and made me drunk with enthusiasm. When I look at them in print they didn't seem the same—their still sentences seem rather the prize dead forms of a ghost—Lord, there's nothing like the human organ to make words live and throb, and lift the hearer to the full attitudes of their meaning.”18

The drawling voice, the dead-pan expression, the ambling walk, the self-introductions, all added to Twain's popularity. Those who have seen the performances of Hal Holbrook can testify to their power. Most important of all, nevertheless, was Twain's use of the pause, to him the most delicate and important part of telling a story.19 As he used it and perfected his presentation, his audiences “simmered,” not only at the manner, but also at the “throw-away” lines criticizing some event or issue of his times.20 It is difficult at some points to be certain whether he is serious or not. And many of his criticisms, of course, varied from audience to audience and from time to time.

And so Twain became one of the most popular lecturers of his own “Gilded Age.” Before the Civil War lecturers frequently spoke of morals or travel abroad or criticized English literature. During the Civil War reformers became popular. Now, with Redpath showing the way, the lyceum became more varied. Even musical events were included. Twain played his role in this reform of the lecture system by making humor popular and respectable. No longer was it necessary to feel that laughter was not useful.

Twain rarely spoke for payment after the British tour of 1872-73. But he did not cease to be interested in politics and social criticism. Elected to membership in the Monday Evening Club of Hartford in 1871, he read papers criticizing many aspects of American life, often expressing views not shared by its members. In addition he became extremely popular as an after-dinner speaker. And his interest in politics and government made him active in Republican politics. Government always was a serious business with Mark Twain.

From 1873 to 1885 Twain made few speeches, for these years were the period of his greatest artistic productivity. In addition he struggled to become a successful businessman, eager to make money for his expensive household. Most Americans shared this desire. His own publishing house, the Paige typesetter fiasco, and his consuming interest in all mechanical innovations led to his financial downfall. Convinced that he could live more cheaply abroad, he moved his family to Europe in 1877, remaining there until 1901.

Yet he was conscious throughout this period that his world was not going well, as The Gilded Age and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court demonstrate. Fully aware that his main skill was writing, Twain spoke mainly on after-dinner occasions. His long absence from America also prevented him from stating his positions on the public platform, although his writings made him well-known as a critic of the evils of his age. As a matter of fact, he disliked professional reformers, saying that they often confused reform with force, calling it diplomacy.21 He continued, however, to speak and write concerning the evils of his “Gilded Age” more than any other author of his time.22

The popularization of humor on the lecture platform was only one of Twain's innovations. He did not look to Europe for inspiration, as did many American authors who considered Europe to be the prime center of culture and cultivation. His speeches on the lyceum circuit were about America and Americans. On his reading tours he used stories from the South, West, and North.

Twain likewise cherished his pride as an American. Speaking in 1889 on “Foreign Critics” in an after-dinner speech, he declared that the American Revolution had planted the seed that brought on the French Revolution and improved freedom and liberty in England.23 Appearing at the Lotos Club on November 12, 1893, he praised the Americans traveling in Europe, finding “that nearly all preserved their Americanism.”24 And he meant America and not any one section. Addressing the first annual dinner of the New England Society in Philadelphia on December 20, 1881, in one of his typically humorous toasts he mocked the pride of those descended from the Puritans, insisting that the Puritans were a hard lot and that most Americans came from mixed stock. He ended by emphasizing that New England virtues could not be improved upon “except having them born in America.”25 He never deviated from this belief.

Devotion to American interests led Twain to join those authors who were advocating reform of copyright laws. Soon after the publication of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, he went to Washington and lobbied for a revision of the copyright law in behalf of American writers.26 He returned to the task in 1906, appearing before a congressional committee and presenting a well-organized case.27

On the whole few events in American life escaped Mark Twain's attention. As early as 1881, in a paper before the Hartford Monday Evening Club, he delivered a paper, including these remarks:

All that we require of a voter is that he shall be forked, wear pantaloons instead of petticoats, and bear a more or less humorous resemblance to the reported image of God … We brag of our universal, unrestricted suffrage; but we are shams after all, for we restrict when we come to the women.28

He repeated this viewpoint in 1901 before the annual meeting of the Hebrew Technical School for Girls.29

Improvement in the conditions of the southern freedman did not claim much of Twain's attention at this time. In all probability he acquiesced in the assumption that the lot of the Negro would improve with the times. To individual needs, however, he responded with his customary generosity. At Hartford he once gave a lecture composed of readings from his works before the African Methodist Church, permitting only Negroes to attend. On two other occasions he organized readings for the benefit of Father Hawley who labored with Negroes in Hartford.30 On his return from his long stay abroad he spoke on “Taxes and Morals” on behalf of Tuskegee Institute, implying therein his approval of Booker T. Washington's views concerning the education of the Negro.31

In fact Twain was not much interested in the South as a region. He assumed that the nation was a unity. Not until February 11, 1900, did he mention the Civil War except in a humorous way. Introducing Colonel Watterson at a celebration of Lincoln's birthday in 1901,32 he ended by saying:

We are here to honor the birthday of the greatest citizen, and the noblest and the best, after Washington, that this land or any other has yet produced. The old wounds are healed; you and we are brothers again; you testify by honoring the two of us, once soldiers of the Lost Cause and foes of your great and good leader—we are now indistinguishably fused together and namable by one common great name—Americans.33

Only one great reform movement of the late nineteenth century—the regulation of business—did not receive Mark Twain's endorsement on the platform. Three reasons seem to account for this omission. In the first place, he believed wholeheartedly in capitalism and in the right of every man to succeed by his own efforts. Business enthralled him. He had been a publisher and had financed the Paige typesetter. Second, he had been rescued from bankruptcy caused by these ventures by Henry H. Rogers, one of the chief architects of Standard Oil. Rogers and Andrew Carnegie became his friends, and he demonstrated his loyalty to them. Third, Mark Twain lived mainly in Europe from 1887 to 1901, apart from the controversy.

As a matter of fact Twain knew little about laboring conditions in mills and mines and less concerning the vast profits accruing to their owners. He recognized the need of labor to organize as early as March 23, 1886. In a paper read before the Hartford Monday Evening Club he concluded his speech by saying that when all trades unite, the nation would see to it that there is fair play, work, hours, and wages.34 Although advocating the eight-hour day in 1899, he had little conception of conditions among the poor. Not until 1901 did he even visit a settlement house.

Political reform obsessed Mark Twain throughout his long life. Ambivalent about the right to vote, sometimes favoring equality of voting rights and on other occasions stating that suffrage should be restricted, he likewise fluctuated in his attitude toward the press. He poked fun at the working press in his lecture “Roughing It.”35 His attitude had changed by 1873. In a paper presented to the Monday Evening Club he castigated the press for bad reporting, editorializing in the news columns, and lying journalists. He ended by saying:

I have a vague idea that there is too much liberty of the press in this country, and that through the absence of all wholesome restraint the newspaper has become in a large degree a national curse and will probably damn the Republic yet.36

Twain blamed the press for not reporting the widespread evils of government. He knew, however, that the disease was endemic. As a member of the “Third House” in California he had scored corruption in that state's legislature. He continued the fight in Hartford. Although personally idolizing President Grant, Twain nevertheless recognized that the federal government reeked with corruption. Part of the disease, he thought, was due to universal suffrage. The “damned human race” accounted for the remainder.

But Mark Twain believed in being active in politics. He campaigned vigorously for James Garfield in 1880, having satisfied himself that Garfield was “sound” on the tariff and the elimination of graft.37 Presiding at a dinner in Boston after the election, he gloated over the results, saying, “The most important part of the victory was the election of Republican sheriffs … officers and criminals [were] on opposite sides!”38 He supported Grover Cleveland in 1884 for the same reason, again making speeches for his chosen candidate.39

On his return to New York in 1900, Twain turned his attention to corruption in municipal government. Speaking before the St. Nicholas Society on December 6, 1900, he chastised the venality of the local government with savage satire. Sentences such as “you have the best municipal government in the world—the purest and the most fragrant” were frequent.40 He continued his attack, gentler this time, before the City Club Dinner on January 4, 1901.41 He campaigned vigorously against the Croker machine, making speeches and joining a parade when Croker was defeated.42

The Cleveland campaign forced Twain to reconsider his position on party loyalty. Reared in the Whig tradition, he joined the Republican Party on his arrival in the East. Doubts about Republican idealism assailed him after 1880, and the nomination of Blaine in 1884 compelled him to bolt the party in 1884. He became a mugwump and eloquently defended his position in vigorous campaign speeches.43 Later that year he read a serious paper, “Consistency,” before the Monday Evening Club, outlining and explaining his thoughts. Among other things, he said:

I am persuaded—convinced—that this idea of consistency—unchanging allegiance to Party—has lowered the manhood of the whole nation—pulled it down and dragged it in the mud.44

At the City Club dinner on January 4, 1901, he satirized regular party members by proposing an Anti-Doughnut Party, saying:

Now it seems to me that an Anti-Doughnut Party is just what is wanted in the present emergency. I would have the Anti-Doughnut felt in every city and hamlet and school district in this state and in the United States.45

The Spanish-American War impressed Twain at first as a noble cause. The treaty with the Philippines and his glimpse of the British Colonies in Africa and Asia, however, made him a strong anti-imperialist. On...

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