Wednesday, March 31st, 2004
What is it about Mark Twain? That’s a rhetorical question. In my understanding, Clemens, the writer was always willing to include himself among the “rabble,” about whom we spoke a lot in British Literature, and the duped. Consider this passage from “Does the Race of Man Love a Lord?” first published in North American Review (1902):
When we understand rank, we always like to rub against it. When a man is conspicuous, we always want to see him. Also, if he will pay us an attention we will manage to remember it. Also, we will mention it now and then, casually; sometimes to a friend, or if a friend is not handy, we will make out with a stranger.
Well, then, what is rank, and what is conspicuousness? At once we think of kings and aristocracies, and of world-wide celebrities in soldierships, the arts, letters, etc., and we stop there. But that is a mistake. Rank holds its court and receives its homage on every round of the ladder, from the emperor down to the rat-catcher; and distinction, also, exists on every round of the ladder, and commands its due of deference and envy.
Clemens is always all inclusive in his observations of human action and foible, in this case the ironic oddness and pervasiveness of envy. Twain writes,
To worship rank and distinction is the dear and valued privilege of all the human race, and it is freely and joyfully exercised in democracies as well as in monarchies–and even, to some extent, among those creatures whom we impertinently call the Lower Animals. For even they have some poor little vanities and foibles, though in this matter they are paupers as compared to us.
The essay stems from a “truism” that Twain extends–“An Englishman does truly love a lord” becomes “so does everyone else.” It’s not about royalty. It’s about class. It’s about “clubs.”
Take the distinguished people along down. Each has his group of homage-payers. In the navy, there are many groups; they start with the Secretary and the Admiral, and go down to the quartermaster–and below; for there will be groups among the sailors, and each of these groups will have a star who is distinguished for his battles, or his strength, or his daring, or his profanity, and is admired and envied by his group. The same with the army; the same with the literary and journalistic craft; the publishing craft; the cod-fishery craft; Standard Oil; U. S. Steel; the class A hotel–and the rest of the alphabet in that line; the class A prize-fighter–and the rest of the alphabet in his line–clear down to the lowest and obscurest six-boy gang of little gamins, with its one boy that can thrash the rest, and to whom he is king of Samoa, bottom of the royal race, but looked up to with a most ardent admiration and envy.
There is something pathetic, and funny, and pretty, about this human race’s fondness for contact with power and distinction, and for the reflected glory it gets out of it. The king, class A, is happy in the state banquet and the military show which the emperor provides for him, and he goes home and gathers the queen and the princelings around him in the privacy of the spare room, and tells them all about it, and says:
“His Imperial Majesty put his hand upon my shoulder in the most friendly way–just as friendly and familiar, oh, you can’t imagine it!–and everybody SEEING him do it; charming, perfectly charming!”
Noteably, everyone suffers:
We do love a lord–and by that term I mean any person whose situation is higher than our own. The lord of the group, for instance:
a group of peers, a group of millionaires, a group of hoodlums, a group of sailors, a group of newsboys, a group of saloon politicians, a group of college girls. No royal person has ever been the object of a more delirious loyalty and slavish adoration than is paid by the vast Tammany herd to its squalid idol in Wantage. There is not a bifurcated animal in that menagerie that would not be proud to appear in a newspaper picture in his company. At the same time, there are some in that organization who would scoff at the people who have been daily pictured in company with Prince Henry, and would say vigorously that THEY would not consent to be photographed with him–a statement which would not be true in any instance. There are hundreds of people in America who would frankly say to you that they would not be proud to be photographed in a group with the Prince, if invited; and some of these unthinking people would believe it when they said it; yet in no instance would it be true. We have a large population, but we have not a large enough one, by several millions, to furnish that man. He has not yet been begotten, and in fact he is not begettable.
But here’s my favorite part, when Twain, of course, being so fond of politicians, get’s to a favored example of the crux of the matter:
We all love to get some of the drippings of conspicuousness, and we will put up with a single, humble drip, if we can’t get any more. We may pretend otherwise, in conversation; but we can’t pretend it to ourselves privately–and we don’t. We do confess in public that we are the noblest work of God, being moved to it by long habit, and teaching, and superstition; but deep down in the secret places of our souls we recognize that, if we ARE the noblest work, the less said about it the better.
We of the North poke fun at the South for its fondness of titles–a fondness for titles pure and simple, regardless of whether they are genuine or pinchbeck. We forget that whatever a Southerner likes the rest of the human race likes, and that there is no law of predilection lodged in one people that is absent from another people. There is no variety in the human race. We are all children, all children of the one Adam, and we love toys. We can soon acquire that Southern disease if some one will give it a start. It already has a start, in fact. I have been personally acquainted with over eighty-four thousand persons who, at one time or another in their lives, have served for a year or two on the staffs of our multitudinous governors, and through that fatality have been generals temporarily, and colonels temporarily, and judge-advocates temporarily; but I have known only nine among them who could be hired to let the title go when it ceased to be legitimate. I know thousands and thousands
of governors who ceased to be governors away back in the last century; but I am acquainted with only three who would answer your letter if you failed to call them “Governor” in it. I know acres and acres of men who have done time in a legislature in prehistoric days, but among them is not half an acre whose resentment you would not raise if you addressed them as “Mr.” instead of “Hon.” The first thing a legislature does is to convene in an impressive legislative attitude, and get itself photographed. Each member frames his copy and takes it to the woods and hangs it up in the most aggressively conspicuous place in his house; and if you visit the house and fail to inquire what that accumulation is, the conversation will be brought around to it by that aforetime legislator, and he will show you a figure in it which in the course of years he has almost obliterated with the smut of his finger-marks, and say with a solemn joy, “It’s me!”
I wonder if it’s still the same today?