A Pen Warmed-Up in Hell


A Pen Warmed-Up in Hell, by Mark Twain; Frederick Anderson, ed., New York: Harper & Row Perennial Library, 1973, 211 pp., $1.50 paperback.

Even though Mark Twain is most famous for his fiction and his travel/autobiographical works (e.g., LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI (1883), THE INNOCENTS ABROAD (1869) ), he was also a social critic. This is often buried in the texts of his books, such as his fiery denunciation of the Established Church in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE; yet he also wrote pure social criticism, most of which is unknown to the public. In the later years of his life, his writing was almost exclusively devoted to criticism and satire of imperialist foreign policy—particularly American conduct in the Spanish-American War.

Twain was not a libertarian; he was an exponent of no systematic ideology. Yet he was able to recognize injustice and hypocrisy in an age rife with it, and aimed his criticism from a viewpoint generally sympathetic to the classical liberals. Many of the targets of his biting sarcasm are the same targets of libertarian criticism today: imperialism, statism, racism, and organized religion.

The greatest part of his newest collection, A PEN WARMED-UP IN HELL, is devoted to his antiwar and anti-imperialist writings. This includes "The War-Prayer" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic (Brought Down to Date)," neither of which he allowed to be published during his lifetime. It also contains his masterful anti-imperialist essay, "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," published in the NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW of February 1901. Those of us who began the Vietnam episode as "hawks" can only wish in retrospect that we had read it; there is no doubt where Twain would have stood on that issue:

Shall we? That is, shall we go on conferring our Civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give those poor things a rest? Shall we bang right ahead in our old-time, pious way, and commit the new century to the game; or shall we sober up and sit down and think it over first? Would it not be prudent to get our Civilization-tools together, and see how much stock is left on hand in the way of Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim Guns and Hymn Books, and Trade Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with upon occasion), and balance the books, and arrive at the profit and loss, so that we may intelligently decide whether to continue the business or sell out the property and start a new Civilization Scheme on the proceeds?

The collection also contains an excellent account of Twain's own Civil War experience, entitled "The Private History of a Campaign that Failed" (1885), which helps to explain the development of Twain's antiwar views.

Twain lashes out at statism in "The Great Revolution in Pitcairn" (1897), a supposed account of the descendants of the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty, whose idyllic existence on a Pacific island is corrupted by an infusion of nineteenth-century politics. An American intruder convinces the people that the nominal British rule is actually tyranny, brings about a mini coup d'etat in the name of "national unification," and proceeds to establish an army, navy, and civil service—to govern a self-governing people and defend against nonexistent enemies. The result:

Everybody fell to complaining that the taxes levied for the support of the army, the navy, and the rest of the imperial establishment were intolerably burdensome, and were reducing the nation to beggary. The emperor's reply—"Look at Germany; look at Italy. Are you better than they? and haven't you unification?"—did not satisfy them. They said, "People can't eat unification, and we are starving. Agriculture has ceased. Everybody is in the army, everybody is in the navy, everybody is in the public service, standing around in a uniform, with nothing whatever to do, nothing to eat, and nobody to fill the fields"—

Look at Germany; look at Italy. It is the same there. Such is unification, and there's no other way to get it,—no other way to keep it after you've got it," said the poor emperor always.

But the grumblers only replied, "We can't stand the taxes,—we can't stand them."

Racism is yet another target of Twain's criticism. "Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again" (1870) is the supposed collected letters of a Chinese immigrant on his way to the Land of Milk and Honey who disembarks in San Francisco and finds himself in Hell. He loses his money to corrupt customs officials, who charge him five times the free-market price for a "mandatory" smallpox vaccination, even though it's obvious he has had the disease before, and is thus immune to it. Next he is arrested for being the victim of an assault, and charged with "making a disturbance"—only to find he is not allowed to testify in his own behalf, because for a Chinese to testify against a white man is illegal.

So much for the Land of Milk and Honey.

These are the best pieces in the new collection, which also contains "The United States of Lyncherdom" (1901), "The Chronicle of Young Satan" from Twain's MYSTERIOUS STRANGER MANUSCRIPTS (1900), "Grief and Mourning for the Night" (1906), and various other letters and short essays. He makes a stab at organized religion in "Bible Teaching and Religious Practice" (1890), but these are not Twain's best antireligious writings; these can be found in LETTERS FROM THE EARTH (Bernard DeVoto, ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1962), and in selected passages from A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT (1889) and THE INNOCENTS ABROAD (1869).

It is regrettable that his best satires on organized religion are left out of the present volume, but nonetheless, A PEN WARMED-UP IN HELL is the best collection of Twain's social commentary to date. It is a fine introduction to a great author and critic often neglected by libertarians.