"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, Part 2

You can read Part 1 of my reflection of Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain here.

What Twain finds on his journey into the deep south is not just the language differences between North and South, not just the cultural differences that had always and still to this day exist, but psychological differences.  As the nation psychologically suffered a deep wound from the Civil War, the South as loser, suffered the brunt of the change.  The North changed in that it became more industrial; the South changed in that it developed demons. 

IN the North one hears the war mentioned, in social conversation, once a month; sometimes as often as once a week; but as a distinct subject for talk, it has long ago been relieved of duty. There are sufficient reasons for this. Given a dinner company of six gentlemen to-day, it can easily happen that four of them--and possibly five--were not in the field at all. So the chances are four to two, or five to one, that the war will at no time during the evening become the topic of conversation; and the chances are still greater that if it become the topic it will remain so but a little while.  If you add six ladies to the company, you have added six people who saw so little of the dread realities of the war that they ran out of talk concerning them years ago, and now would soon weary of the war topic if you brought it up.

The case is very different in the South. There, every man you meet was in the war; and every lady you meet saw the war.  The war is the great chief topic of conversation. The interest in itis vivid and constant; the interest in other topics is fleeting.  Mention of the war will wake up a dull company and set their tongues going, when nearly any other topic would fail.  In the South, the war is what A.D. is elsewhere: they date from it.  All day long you hear things 'placed' as having happened since the waw; or du 'in' the waw; or befo' the waw; or right aftah the waw; or 'bout two yeahs or five yeahs or ten yeahs befo' the waw or aftah the waw.  It shows how intimately every individual was visited, in his own person, by that tremendous episode.  It gives the inexperienced stranger a better idea of what a vastand comprehensive calamity invasion is than he can ever get by readingbooks at the fireside.

At a club one evening, a gentleman turned to me and said, in an aside--

'You notice, of course, that we are nearly always talking about the war. It isn't because we haven't anything else to talk about, but because nothing else has so strong an interest for us. And there is another reason: In the war, each of us, in his own person, seems to have sampled all the different varieties of human experience; as a consequence, you can't mention an outside matter of any sort but it will certainly remind some listener of something that happened during the war--and out he comes with it. Of course that brings the talk back to the war.  You may try all you want to, to keep other subjects before the house, and we may all join in and help, but there can be but one result: the most random topic would load every man up with war reminiscences, and shut him up, too; and talk would be likely to stop presently, because you can't talk pale inconsequentialities when you've got a crimson fact or fancy in your head that you are burning to fetch out.'

The poet was sitting some little distance away; and presently he began to speak--about the moon.

The gentleman who had been talking to me remarked in an 'aside:' 'There, the moon is far enough from the seat of war, but you will see that it will suggest something to somebody about the war; in ten minutes from now the moon, as a topic, will be shelved.'

The poet was saying he had noticed something which was a surprise to him; had had the impression that down here, toward the equator, the moonlight was much stronger and brighter than up North; had had the impression that when he visited New Orleans, many years ago, the moon--

Interruption from the other end of the room--

'Let me explain that. Reminds me of an anecdote.  Everything is changed since the war, for better or for worse; but you'll find people down here born grumblers, who see no change except the change for the worse. There was an old negro woman of this sort. A young New-Yorker said in her presence, "What a wonderful moon you have down here!" She sighed and said, "Ah, bless yo' heart, honey, you ought to seen dat moon befo' de waw!" '

            -from Chpt XLV, “Southern Sports”

All excerpts taken from Literature Network. 
That “everything has changed since the war,” is the central contrast from the two halves of the memoir.  People have changed, the mood has changed, the culture has changed, the landscape has changed.  Twain makes one of the most insightful observations of southern culture, pre and post Civil War.  The pre-Civil War South was built on an idealism largely traced to Walter Scott’s novels.   

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.  He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully.  There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.  But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner--or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it--would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is.  It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations.  For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them.  Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.  It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War: but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman.  The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter's influence than to that of any other thing or person.

                        -from Chpt XLVI, “Enchantments and Enchanters”

The culture of the old south had been built up on a Romanticized ideal in the manner of Walter Scott’s novels.  It was a culture built on honor and inflated pride and when the Civil War came – actually the Civil War was a result of that honor—the reality and brutality of the war shattered the idealism.  It was a falling from innocence, and, if innocence falls to a maturity, this new state was a dysfunctional maturity.  In the second part of Life on the Mississippi, there is an undercurrent of life tinged with immorality, despite the charm of the steamboat life, despite the beauty of the river scenes, despite the warmth of the people he encounters.  And it’s not just Southerners.  Businessmen trying to rig business deals, gamblers cheating innocent people, cock fights on the farms and thieves and murderers in shady areas.  For Twain, something has happened to the country after the war. 

And then comes the most remarkable turn of events.  Twain arrives to his home town, the very town where he dreamt of piloting river boats in his youth.   

DURING my three days' stay in the town, I woke up every morning with the impression that I was a boy--for in my dreams the faces were all young again, and looked as they had looked in the old times--but I went to bed a hundred years old, every night--for meantime I had been seeing those faces as they are now.

            -from Chpt LV, “A Vendetta and Other Things”

The memoir here is at the climax of the narrative.  Twain has journeyed back to himself and recalls a place where once the town jail stood.  It had burned down. 

THE slaughter-house is gone from the mouth of Bear Creek and so is the small jail (or 'calaboose') which once stood in its neighborhood.  A citizen asked, 'Do you remember when Jimmy Finn, the town drunkard, was burned to death in the calaboose?'

Observe, now, how history becomes defiled, through lapse of time and the help of the bad memories of men. Jimmy Finn was not burned in the calaboose, but died a natural death in a tan vat, of a combination of delirium tremens and spontaneous combustion.  When I say natural death, I mean it was a natural death for Jimmy Finn to die. The calaboose victim was not a citizen; he was a poor stranger, a harmless whiskey-sodden tramp.  I know more about his case than anybody else; I knew too much of it, in that bygone day, to relish speaking of it.

                        -from Chpt LVI, “A Question of Law”

A town drunk who was caught in a fire.  But Twain knows more about that fire and the drunk’s death than anyone else. 

That tramp was wandering about the streets one chilly evening, with a pipe in his mouth, and begging for a match; he got neither matches nor courtesy; on the contrary, a troop of bad little boys followed him around and amused themselves with nagging and annoying him.  I assisted; but at last, some appeal which the wayfarer made for forbearance, accompanying it with a pathetic reference to his forlorn and friendless condition, touched such sense of shame and remnant of right feeling as were left in me, and I went away and got him some matches, and then hied me home and to bed, heavily weighted as to conscience, and unbuoyant in spirit.  An hour or two afterward, the man was arrested and locked up in the calaboose by the marshal--large name for a constable, but that was his title. 

A group of boys, of which Twain is a part, harass the drunkard, but ultimately Twain gives the tramp some matches for his pipe.   

At two in the morning, the church bells rang for fire, and everybody turned out, of course--I with the rest.  The tramp had used his matches disastrously: he had set his straw bed on fire, and the oaken sheathing of the room had caught.  When I reached the ground, two hundred men, women, and children stood massed together, transfixed with horror, and staring at the grated windows of the jail. Behind the iron bars, and tugging frantically at them, and screaming for help, stood the tramp; he seemed like a black object set against a sun, so white and intense was the light at his back.  That marshal could not be found, and he had the only key.  A battering-ram was quickly improvised, and the thunder of its blows upon the door had so encouraging a sound that the spectators broke into wild cheering, and believed the merciful battle won. But it was not so. The timbers were too strong; they did not yield.  It was said that the man's death-grip still held fast to the bars after he was dead; and that in this position the fires wrapped him about and consumed him. As to this, I do not know. What was seen after I recognized the face that was pleading through the bars was seen by others, not by me. 

With those matches, the drunk accidently set the jail on fire and he stuck behind the bars was burnt to death.   

I saw that face, so situated, every night for a long time afterward; and I believed myself as guilty of the man's death as if I had given him the matches purposely that he might burn himself up with them.  I had not a doubt that I should be hanged if my connection with this tragedy were found out. The happenings and the impressions of that time are burnt into my memory, and the study of them entertains me as much now as they themselves distressed me then.  If anybody spoke of that grisly matter, I was all ears in a moment, and alert to hear what might be said, for I was always dreading and expecting to find out that I was suspected; and so fine and so delicate was the perception of my guilty conscience, that it often detected suspicion in the most purposeless remarks, and in looks, gestures, glances of the eye which had no significance, but which sent me shivering away in a panic of fright, just the same.  And how sick it made me when somebody dropped, howsoever carelessly and barren of intent, the remark that 'murder will out!'For a boy of ten years, I was carrying a pretty weighty cargo.

He believed to be guilty of the man’s death.  He had harassed him; he’d given the matches to a drunkard; he knew the drunk was incapable of being careful.  So the journey back for Twain is to find that he was just as immoral as any other, that at the root of what was innocence harbored sin, and that sin was there all along ready to blossom into full scale immorality.  The Mississippi nurtured innocence and sin alike, a source of joy and a source of gloom.  It was the great bifurcator of the country and also of the soul.

1 comment:

  1. Very vivid writing. You can almost "see" what he describes.

    God bless.