What we should take from the second volume of Mark Twain’s cantankerous autobiography

The Twain who steps out of the Autobiography is more sceptical and negative than the Twain of the novels but still very much the same character.

Though renowned for his aphoristic wit, Mark Twain could be mightily long-winded. At over 700 pages, the second volume of his Autobiography (University of California Press, £29.95) shows him at his most discursive. Newspaper clippings, passing remarks, casual stimulus from letters or visitors – anything could get him going. As he rummages through a huge ragbag of topics (reminiscences, reflections on religion, thoughts on suicide and death), you wonder if he’s ever going to stop. Not for some time, apparently: a third volume is already planned.

Superficially, the reason for the book’s prolixity was its mode of composition. In his last years, Twain employed a stenographer to take down his day-to-day musings. Rambling (in every sense) for two hours a day, he poured out stories, memories and ideas. Dictated between April 1906 and February 1907 (he died in 1910), the ramshackle results are both tedious and fascinating. They offer not a coherent memoir but the sound of improvised speech. That makes them quite similar to his novels, which – though written rather than dictated – pioneered a style of vernacular narrative (colloquial, jokey, unpretentiously eloquent) that peaked with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Twain always wrote spontaneously. Embarking on Tom Sawyer, he had no idea how it would end. Halfway through Huckleberry Finn, his tank ran dry and he dropped the book for two years. His mordant satire on slavery, Pudd’nhead Wilson, only emerged when, by “a kind of literary Caesarean”, he removed a comic subplot about conjoined twins. His documentary works were equally makeshift. His 1869 bestselling travel book, The Innocents Abroad, was originally a series of newspaper articles. So was Life on the Mississippi, an important source for Huckleberry Finn. All these books were written in fits and starts and rivet you with the sound of Twain’s voice.

What is new about the Autobiography is the intensity and savagery of his reflections. Twain used it to manage a conflict that had dogged his entire career. Perpetually torn between defiance and conformity, he was instinctively a critic and outsider, a satirist with violent and anarchic fancies – yet his public success depended on submission to the norms of a censorious society. His natural home was the world of his twenties, the boisterous male enclaves of the silver mines and riverboats: as he put it in Life on the Mississippi, “A pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.” Writers, by contrast, were “manacled servants of the public”. Making headway as a writer meant, for Twain, complying with (and even marrying into) a restrictive world of piety and patriotism, of good manners, high morals and polite speech. From early on, he let his work be censored – first by his mentor Mary Fairbanks, who scanned his manuscripts for vulgarity and irreverence, and later by his wife, Olivia, of whom he said: “She not only edited my works, she edited me!” In the Autobiography, he quotes from an account, written years before by his daughter Susy, of how Mamma “expergated [sic]” Huckleberry Finn: “. . . I remember so well, with what pangs of regret we used to see her turn down the leaves of the pages, which meant that some delightfully dreadful part must be scratched out.”

Twain outwardly complied and prospered as a writer but his wealth and celebrity failed to make him content. Like Huck Finn, he hankered after some means of escape from the pressures of “civilisation”. One favoured escape route was the past (where all his major novels are located): perhaps the Middle Ages (A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur) or the Tudor period (The Prince and the Pauper) or, more personally, his rambunctious young manhood or his boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri (a time when you could fight and smoke and play hooky and still retain adult affection).

Yet his commonest manoeuvre for shaking off the shackles was to split himself into two in fiction. His work is full of doubles, alter egos and disguise. A recurrent device is that of reversed identity: Edward Tudor and Tom Canty in The Prince and the Pauper; the exchanged babies in Pudd’nhead Wilson. His interest in conjoined twins resurfaced in a short story in which one (drunk and disreputable) is forced to coexist uncomfortably with another (sober and respectable). Supposedly hilarious, the story is revealing about an author who spoke elsewhere of “my double, my partner in duality, the other and wholly independent personage who resides in me”. Tellingly, Twain’s last recorded words were about Jekyll and Hyde.

For his Autobiography, he created a new double: a garrulous corpse. Requesting that sections be held back for a century, he imagined himself as already dead. Thus liberated, he could say what he thought, rather than what he wished people to think he thought. He could lay about him without fear of social reprisal. He could also cast off his status as America’s most feted author. The whitehaired, white-suited older Twain was lionised all over the world: in America he was invited to testify before congressional committees; he recalled chats with the British prime minister and dinner with the German kaiser in Europe. In the Autobiography, shrugging off the constricting mantle of fame, he was free to speak his mind.

Unfortunately, many of those he chose to attack scarcely deserved his lofty contempt. Just as the first volume of the Autobiography shocked readers with its intemperate onslaught on his personal assistant Isabel Lyon (“thief, drunkard, traitor and salacious slut”), so the second might prove startling with its endless diatribes against former colleagues – lawyers, publishers, journalists – who allegedly let him down. Among names filed under just one letter of the alphabet, you can find memorable strictures on Charles H Webb (“a poor sort of creature, and by nature and training a fraud”), Charles L Webster (“one of the most assful persons I have ever met”) and Daniel Whitford (“endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times”).

Some hate figures will be familiar to students of Twain – James W Paige, for one (“a descendant of Judas Iscariot”); Twain had lost a fortune by investing in his typesetting machine. In the case of his rival writer Bret Harte, the fulminations begin with a rumble (“He hadn’t a sincere fibre in him”) and build up to a thunderclap (“a born bummer and tramp . . . a loafer and an idler”). In the 200 pages of notes to this volume, the scrupulous editors include warnings (“one-sided and in many instances erroneous”, and so on) not to take Twain’s charges on trust.

Where his eruptions are likely to have more impact today is in the realm of religion. His portrait of God rivals that of Richard Dawkins: “In the Old Testament His acts expose His vindictive, unjust, ungenerous, pitiless and vengeful nature constantly . . . It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere.” Twain’s novels are often laced with mild religious mockery but contain nothing like his withering comments (to be held back, he said, until 2406) on “any and every god among the two or three millions of gods that our race has been manufacturing since it nearly ceased to be monkeys”.

On politics, the Autobiography might disquiet his more conservative admirers. Perhaps his invectives against men who “get down in the gutter and frankly worship dollars” can be taken with a pinch of salt, given Twain’s obsession with profit and addiction to calamitous investments (he sank money in a steam pulley, a new engraving process, a new cash register and a spiral hatpin). Yet a passage about the arms race (each country going “one battleship better”) still reads cogently, as do his warnings about imperialism. Just as he described US soldiers abroad as “uniformed assassins” in the first volume, here he asserts that praising Anglo-Saxon expansionism amounts to saying: “The English and the Americans are thieves, highwaymen, pirates, and we are proud to be of the combination.”

The Twain who steps out of the Autobiography is more sceptical and negative than the Twain of the novels but still very much the same character. He continues to function in all his doubleness: folksy and cosmopolitan, idealistic and cynical, the warmest champion and most blistering critic of mainstream American values.

David Grylls is a fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford, and the author of “Guardians and Angels: Parents and Children in 19th-Century Literature” (Faber & Faber)

On with the show: Susy and Papa in am dram at their holiday cottage in Onteora, New York, 1890. Image: Copyright Mark Twain Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era