‘Serene pleasantries’ and harsh realities
Mark Twain is as inextricably linked with the emergence of modern Bermuda as he is with the Mississippi River, whitewashing fences and fixed frog-jumping contests.
His first book Innocents Abroad, a buoyant and beguiling non-fiction account of an early transatlantic pleasure cruise, was published exactly 146 years ago this week.
The 1867 voyage of the SS Quaker City had first introduced Twain to Bermuda.
And the book, by far his biggest selling work during his lifetime, introduced Bermuda to the emerging class of monied American pleasure-seekers who laid the foundations of our tourism industry.
“A few days among the breezy groves, the flower gardens, the coral caves, and the lovely vistas of blue water that went curving in and out, disappearing and anon again appearing through jungle walls of brilliant foliage, restored the energies dulled by long drowsing on the ocean, and fitted us for our final cruise,” he said of that inaugural visit.
A decade later, in 1877, Twain – by then established as one of 19th century America’s preeminent humourists, novelists and social commentators – expanded on his initial impressions of Bermuda following a second trip here in a celebrated 15,000 word-picture of the Island published in The Atlantic.
Some Rambling Notes On An Idle Excursion remains a minor classic in the overstuffed archives of travel literature. The essay not only helped to shape the outside world’s view of Bermuda as equal parts mid-Atlantic Eden and good-hearted pocket nation of professional eccentrics, it helped to shape Bermuda’s view of itself.
In November the Bermuda National Library will be marking the anniversary of Mark Twain’s first visit to the Island which would become his second home and refuge from the more jarring intrusions of modernity [shortly before his death in 1910 he said of Bermuda: “… there are no newspapers, no telegrams, no mobiles, no trolleys, no trams, no tramps, no railways, no theatres, no noise, no lectures, no riots, no murders, no fires, no burglaries, no politics, no offences of any kind, no follies but church, & I don’t go there.”]
The Library’s weeklong series of events will commemorate the Quaker City’s arrival in St George’s on November 11, 1867.
Its activities will obviously acknowledge the reassuringly avuncular popular image of Mark Twain which has come down to us over the years along with the equally genial image of Bermuda he did so much to create and popularise.
But the Library, long one of Bermuda’s most valuable if underutilised and underappreciated community resources, will likely go further than simply revisit the received wisdom about one of our most celebrated early visitors.
The Library understands its mission is much more than to be a repository of books and historical rarities: in recent years it has endeavoured to engage and reflect the wider Bermuda community, to stimulate — and if necessary provoke — thought, discussion and learning.
For instance, a display of Manuel Palacio’s always challenging artwork earlier this year, while prompting a few outraged responses, actually encouraged a healthy dialogue about race and relations in an Island where those subjects are still too often politely talked around rather than talked about.
And the Twain celebrations lend themselves to a deeper understanding of both the man and the Bermuda he knew.
The Mark Twain Bermuda tends to embrace is the unthreatening author of children’s stories, the seer of the Mississippi with a matchless facility for witticisms and the keenest of eyes for human foibles; we like to remind our visitors — and ourselves — of the “serene pleasantries” he found here, of the paradisiacal community of likeable rogues and natural wonders rendered in miniature which he extolled in his writings.
It’s all true as far as it goes. But these commonplace readings of Mark Twain and his Bermuda don’t usually go far enough. For Twain also made full use of the court jester’s licence granted to him as a humorist to rebuke and refute many of the orthodoxies, conventions and hypocrisies of his time [some of his views, for instance, on Bermuda’s petrified racial and social attitudes were deemed unprintable in his day – and there are those who would likely still consider them to be so today].
Burnished with anger but tempered by wit and compassion for the victims of injustice, he issued searing indictments of both the British and American varieties of imperialism and crusaded against the legacy of slavery and the ongoing horrors of racial subjugation and exploitation in the era of Jim Crow [recall his 1885 letter to the dean of Yale Law School explaining his decision to pay for the tuitions of some of the first black students enrolled there : “We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it.”]
His warnings about the likely impact of corporate intrusions into the political realm and the exploitation of patriotism for wars intended to open up new markets rather than to enhance American security remain both timeless and ever timely. “. . . Lust of conquest had long ago done its work; trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught [the country], by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home; multitudes who had applauded the crushing of other people’s liberties, lived to suffer for their mistake in their own persons. The government was irrevocably in the hands of the prodigiously rich and their hangers-on ... There was no principle but commercialism, no patriotism but of the pocket.”
Those participating in November’s Bermuda National Library festivities include Dr Cindy Lovell, executive director of the Mark Twain House & Museum in Connecticut and no stranger to the Island, and Bermuda’s own world-class Twain impersonator Gavin Wilson, a longtime student of the man’s wit, wisdom and wickedly irreverent views of the empty rhetoric and hollow platitudes of the powerful.
As one scholar recently said: “Just as Huckleberry Finn enters the classroom as a ‘classic’ but then engulfs students in debates about race, racism, religion and hypocrisy, Mark Twain enters [our] consciousness as an icon and then upsets our equilibrium and complacency, pushing us to ask questions we hadn’t planned to ask. We need that Twain—the troubling Twain, not the tame one—now more than ever.”
And thanks to the Bermuda National Library, we will be getting a taste of that troubling Twain along with some reminders of the tame and far better known one in November.