Would that George Orwell and Mark Twain could see the current state of writing, especially in the political sphere. ‘Cheap immigrant labour’ and ‘Big Business’? The Gilded Age has morphed into tin. What a cage-match these two titans of literature would have debating ‘journalism’ and the concept of ‘fake news’ in 2017.
In the November 26, 1943 edition of The Tribune, George Orwell skewered mark Twain as a ‘Licensed Jester’, excoriating him for not meeting his full potential. Here is an excerpt:
In the money-grubbing period that followed the Civil War it was hard for anyone of Mark Twain’s temperament to refuse to be a success. The old, simple, stump-whittling, tobacco-chewing democracy which Abraham Lincoln typified was perishing: it was now the age of cheap immigrant labour and the growth of Big Business. Mark Twain mildly satirized his contemporaries in The Gilded Age, but he also gave himself up to the prevailing fever, and made and lost vast sums of money. He even for a period of years deserted writing for business; and he squandered his time on buffooneries, not merely lecture tours and public banquets, but, for instance, the writing of a book like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which is a deliberate flattery of all that is worst and most vulgar in American life. The man who might have been a kind of rustic Voltaire became the world’s leading after-dinner speaker, charming alike for his anecdotes and his power to make businessmen feel themselves public benefactors.
It is usual to blame Mark Twain’s wife for his failure to write the books he ought to have written, and it is evident that she did tyrannize over him pretty thoroughly. Each morning, Mark Twain would show her what he had written the day before, and Mrs. Clemens (Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Clemens) would go over it with the blue pencil, cutting out everything that she thought unsuitable. She seems to have been a drastic blue-penciller even by nineteenth-century standards. There is an account in W.D. Howells’s book My Mark Twain of the fuss that occurred over a terrible expletive that had crept into Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain appealed to Howells, who admitted that it was “just what Huck would have said,” but agreed with Mrs. Clemens that the word could not possibly be printed. The word was “hell.” Nevertheless, no writer is really the intellectual slave of his wife. Mrs. Clemens could not have stopped Mark Twain writing any book he really wanted to write. She may have made his surrender to society easier, but the surrender happened because of that flaw in his own nature, his inability to despise success.
Several of Mark Twain’s books are bound to survive, because they contain invaluable social history. His life covered the great period of American expansion.
When he was a child it was a normal day’s outing to go with a picnic lunch and watch the hanging of an Abolitionist, and when he died the aeroplane was ceasing to be a novelty. This period in America produced relatively little literature, and but for Mark Twain our picture of a Mississippi paddle-steamer, or a stage-coach crossing the plains, would be much dimmer than it is. But most people who have studied his work have come away with a feeling that he might have done something more. He gives all the while a strange impression of being about to say something and then funking it, so that Life on the Mississippi and the rest of them seem to be haunted by the ghost of a greater and much more coherent book. Significantly, he starts his autobiography by remarking that a man’s inner life is indescribable. We do not know what he would have said — it is just possible that the unprocurable pamphlet, 1601, would supply a clue but we may guess that it would have wrecked his reputation and reduced his income to reasonable proportions.