The Mark Twain Circular is a newsletter published by the Mark Twain Circle which has been in continuous publication since 1987, offering anywhere from two to twelve issues a year. The new editor of the Circular, James W. Leonard (The Citadel), has digitized the back issues, creating a valuable resource for Twain scholars and aficionados, new and old. The Circular features updates on the activities and projects of the Mark Twain Circle, including a message from the President, as well as a wide variety of Twain-related ephemera, including summaries of recent publications, conference proceedings, and interviews with scholars. The most recent issue, for instance, happens to include interviews with four members of the staff of the Center for Mark Twain Studies (the motley crew pictured below).
Early issues provide insight into the scholarly community of the late 20th century, as well as some more candid and casual commentary from seminal figures, several of whom are no longer with us.
News outlets reported last week that the current longest-running humor magazine in the U.S. – Mad magazine- will soon stop publishing new material. First issued in 1952, the New York Times describes Mad as an “irreverent baby-boomer humor Bible.” Details of the magazine’s future at this date remain sketchy. Mark Twain scholars John Bird and Judith Yaross Lee have recently edited a forthcoming collection of essays Seeing “Mad”: Essays on “Mad” Magazine’s Humor and Legacy from Cover to Fold-In. Lee describes Mad as having “a literary quality of intellect along with great irreverence in the parodies – and that’s reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Virginia City writing.”
This also seems an appropriate time to revisit at least one appearance of Mark Twain and Elmira in Mad: the October 1959 issue. The story behind this appearance begins in 1936 with a small privately printed memoir titled Drinking with Twain: Recollections of Twain and His Cronies as Told to Me Laurel O’Connor, Raconteuse (1936). The work was copyrighted by Frank Edward Kelsey (b. 1865 – d. 1952). Kelsey, a native of Michigan, was a rugged individualist who resided in Elmira for about four years in the late 1890s, working as a furniture manufacturer. During his brief time in Elmira, he dabbled in politics, helped incorporate the town of Elmira Heights and became that town’s first mayor. He also spent time at Charles Klapproth’s saloon listening to locals tell stories about their favorite hometown celebrity, Mark Twain. Laurel O’Connor (pseudonym of Laurabell Reed Connor Stones (b. 1901 – d. 1999), a journalist and intimate of Kelsey’s, wrote down the stories as Kelsey told them to her – stories about Twain drinking Old Crow whiskey at Klapproth’s in Elmira. However, there is no evidence that Kelsey ever actually met or corresponded with Twain. Klapproth’s name is misspelled throughout the memoir as “Klaproth” along with other historical inaccuracies.
By the early 1950s, Twain’s fondness for Old Crow, as told by Kelsey, gained the attention of that company and they began capitalizing on their connection to Mark Twain in their magazine ads. A number of Old Crow ads appeared featuring Twain, including one with Rudyard Kipling reading to Twain at Quarry Farm. The Twain/Kipling ad featured a small tagline: “$250 Reward is paid for documented information relating prominent 19th-Century Americans and Old Crow.”
Another ad featured Twain asking Klapproth’s bartender, “Lou, which barrel are we using now?” The line is lifted directly from Kelsey’s memoir – further evidence that Kelsey’s stories were the source of the Old Crow ad campaign. Another Old Crow ad featured Mark Twain and Bret Harte in Hartford. Yet another featured Twain grouped with “Famous Americans” Daniel Webster, Gen. John H. Morgan, Gov. Robert Letcher of Kentucky, Henry Clay and James Crow himself. All the whiskey drinkers in those ads were men.
Between 1900 and 1959, no women had appeared in whiskey ads. Then, in 1959 the tide turned. In early 1959 D’Arcy Advertising Company announced a change of policy – they would be bringing women back to whiskey ads in an upcoming ad for House of Lords scotch whiskey. It was a perfect opportunity for Mad to capitalize on the situation with seven panels of mock advertising under the heading “Women Will Appear More and More in Whiskey Ads!” The Mark Twain Old Crow ad originally captioned “Mark Twain holds forth at Klaproth’s Tavern” was re-captioned “Carrie Nation starts her Bar-Wrecking Crusade” as she takes an ax to a bottle of Old Crow.
It is not been determined when Old Crow discontinued their Mark Twain advertising campaign. However, by 1980 the company revised “When Mark Twain held forth at Klapproth’s cafe …” with new artwork and a corrected spelling for Klapproth’s name. The new artwork more accurately reflects the fireplace and bas-relief from Klapproth’s saloon that now is housed at Elmira College.
Barbara Schmidt is an independent scholar who focuses on Mark Twain, American Humor, and American History. She is the webmaster at TwainQuotes.com and the Book Review Editor for the Mark Twain Forum. In 2017, she was named a “Legacy Scholar” by the Mark Twain Journal.
Carl Richard Dolmetsch, Jr. passed away earlier this month. He was 94. Dolmetsch wrote an influential book in Mark Twain Studies, “Our Famous Guest”: Mark Twain in Vienna, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. His history of the modernist magazine, The Smart Set, was also highly acclaimed and he published both academic and popular articles on early American literature and classical music.
Dr. Dometsch was a guest of Elmira College and the Center for Mark Twain Studies in October of 1988. As a Distinguished Academic Visitor, he led courses in English and American Studies, and was part of the Trouble Begins lecture series. That lecture, “Mark Twain and The Jews,” would become part of “Our Famous Guest”. It was preserved, recently digitized, and is now available for streaming and download from our online archives.
Although it’s been almost a century since Mark Twain’s death, his staying power as an American icon endures.
There are many reasons for his iconic status: his stories (especially those that keep getting banned), his aphorisms (some of which he actually said), and his knack for relentless self-promotion that pioneered today’s viral marketing. At the heart of his continued cultural relevance, however, is Twain’s uncanny ability to tap the deep and volatile fault lines that emerged in America after the Civil War and that have continued to fracture (some at an exponential rate) well into the present.
The San Andreas Fault of these national fissures, of course, is race relations in America. But there are plenty of other ruptures extending from Twain’s era into our own: social upheaval wrought by new technologies, tensions between capitalism and socialism, and political factionalism.
Recently, while reading Kay Moser’s article “Mark Twain—Mugwump” (Mark Twain Journal, 1982), I was struck by how his political views still speak to us today, especially with the Democratic debates beginning tonight and another presidential election looming on the horizon. In her article, Moser delves into how Twain’s involvement in the 1884 presidential election “led to a showdown between his personal, strongly held convictions and the political conformity that was demanded of him by his literary friends and the Nook Farm residents.”
Up until the 1884 election, Twain had staunchly supported (and actively campaigned for) Republican presidential candidates. A speech he gave in favor of James Garfield in 1880, in fact, was remembered in Hartford “as the greatest effort of his life,” according to Albert Bigelow Paine. Twain’s friend and fellow Garfield campaigner, William Dean Howells, read the speech twice and wrote “that he could not put it out of his mind.” However, four years later the presidential election would place Twain at political odds with Howells and with many friends in Hartford.
The rift was provoked by Twain’s disdain for the Republican nominee in 1884, James G. Blaine, who, despite a reputation for corruption, had “very devoted followers within the party who would not believe any of the charges brought against him,” as Moser puts it. In protest, Twain and other reform-minded Republicans left the party to form what became known as the Mugwumps.
Derived from an anglicized version of the Algonquian word “mugquomp,” or “important person, kingpin,” the term was originally intended as an insult, implying that members of the group thought they were too good for the messy realities of party politics. Embracing the slight as a badge of their political independence, however, Twain and the Mugwumps put their support behind the Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland. Although he had his personal moral failings (such as fathering a baby out of wedlock with his mistress), the Mugwumps considered the Governor of New York and foe of Tammany Hall corruption a man of integrity (as a politician, at least).
It may be tempting to draw specific parallels between the elections of 1884 and 2020; there are certainly instances where history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme (as one of those aphorisms misattributed to Twain asserts). I’m more interested, however, in Twain’s thoughts on the importance of political independence rooted in personal conscience—wisdom that might benefit contentious factions across the spectrum today.
As Moser notes, Twain resisted the stultifying influence of political and religious orthodoxy throughout his life. “Loyalty to petrified opinions,” he observed, “never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world-and never will.” In the growing chasm today between people vehemently identifying with one party affiliation against another, Twain’s following insight seems particularly pertinent:
“No party holds the privilege of dictating to me how I shall vote. If loyalty to party is a form of patriotism, I am no patriot. If there is any valuable difference between a monarchist and an American, it lies in the theory that the American can decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn’t. I claim that difference. I am the only person in the sixty millions that is privileged to dictate my patriotism.”
from “The Writings of Mark Twain” by Albert Bigelow Paine
For Twain, one’s ever-evolving conscience, not adherence to rigid ideology, should determine how one votes and ultimately identifies as an American:
“I believe you said something about the country and the party. Certainly allegiance to these is well, but certainly a man’s first duty is to his own conscience and honor; the party and country come second to that, and never first.”
Moser concludes that Twain “insists that the true patriot is the Mugwump, the independent, the man who is not afraid of change when his conscience dictates it. And such men, Twain asserts, come from an illustrious ancestry:
‘…in the whole history of the race of men no single great and high and beneficent thing was ever done for the souls and bodies, the hearts and the brains, of the children of the world, but a Mugwump started it and Mugwumps carried it to victory. And their names are the stateliest in history: Washington, Garrison, Galileo, Luther, Christ.’”
That sentiment may be a bit over-the-top by today’s standards, but perhaps today’s standards could benefit from a little Mugwump bump.
The American Studies Association is inaugurating a new prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies. The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize is named in honor of the contributions Fishkin has made to developing the field of Transnational American Studies.
Fishkin has also devoted considerable time and energy to building international networks for Twain criticism, including Global Huck, a digital archive of translations of Adventure of Huckleberry Finn currently in development. Fishkin was a founding editor of The Journal of Transnational American Studies, launched in 2009. She has been instrumental in mentoring emerging Twain scholars and publicizing groundbreaking Twain scholarship.
Tsuyoshi Ishihara, author of Mark Twain in Japan (2005), writes, “Thanks are due first to Prof. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the great Twain scholar and Americanist, for her encouragement, suggestions, care, and patience. Her encyclopedic knowledge and sparkling insights were vital in developing this project.”
Selina Lai-Henderson, author of Mark Twain in China (2015), calls Fishkin an “intellectual giant…whose vision, breadth of knowledge, and dedication have made many of my dreams become possible.”
The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies will be awarded annually to a scholar based at institutions outside the United States who have published excellent original research in the past three years. More information and submission guidelines are available from the American Studies Association.
Congratulations to Dr. Fishkin from the Center for Mark Twain Studies.
In 1907 Oxford University deigned to give Mark Twain an honorary degree. Twain had received such plaudits before, including from esteemed American institutions such as Yale University, but the 71-year-old product of Hannibal, Missouri, who had no formal education past grammar school, was particularly flattered by the attentions of the oldest collegiate institution in the Anglophone world. As Ron Powers puts it, “[Twain] cherished the red Oxford gown he was given, and wore it whenever he felt like it, which was often.”
I like to think that on a patio, somewhere in Vermont, Dr. Powers is enjoying this early summer evening decked out in his own cherished gown, this one two shades of purple with some gold trim. Perhaps he has worn it to the grocery, or the nursery, or the bank this past week.
A hair older than Twain was when he matriculated from Oxford, Powers is, likewise, a product of Hannibal, Missouri who found a way to make his living first as a journalist and thereafter as a professional writer across genres and mediums. He spent more years in school than Twain did, but judging by his own account of his time at University of Missouri, he accumulated roughly as many honors.
Twain scholars and friends of CMTS know Powers best as a biographer and memoirist, who both explored Twain’s life as a scholar and kept the mythical figure with whom he shared some autobiographical affinities constantly on his shoulder while he was writing about television, mental illness, sports, small towns, Americana, and more. Twain is primogenitor of the idiosyncratic lineage of reporters and chroniclers to whom Powers repeatedly turns for words of wisdom, sure, but also as models for a brand of American writing which for most of his career Powers has worried is endangered. As early as 1988, long before #FakeNews, alternative facts, or filter bubbles, he wrote,
“Propelled by mass media, the tendency to frame everyday issues in the rhetoric of life and death has inflated the commonplace and deflated the significant. A saturation of cheap public rhetoric has numbed us both to the authentically spiritual and the authentically profane. Truth and falsehood have been mostly relieved of their oppositional qualities.”
from “Don’t Think of It As Art” (1988), collected in The Cruel Radiance (1994)
Ron Powers’s commencement address to the Elmira College class of 2019 was certainly foremost about their moment of “lift off,” but it also draws attention to the divisive political climate and volatile media environment which make those 1988 words seem familiar and prophetic.
Kudos, congratulations, and also gratitude to Ron. We hope you enjoy listening to a few more of his words.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information here.
I had the privilege and honor of serving as a fellow at Quarry Farm last month. As many of you know, there’s nothing else to compare to a stay at Quarry Farm. For most of my stay I was there alone; it’s the quietest place I’ve ever spent time, even in contrast to my relatively quiet house in Berkeley. At home there is always ambient noise in the background, distractions, and tasks needing attention. At Quarry Farm, the quiet is seductive, always inviting one to sit and think, to take a book off the shelf and read, to listen not only to the birds but to one’s own thoughts.
I am working on a new, ambitious essay about Susy Clemens, about whom I have written in the past, but whose essence has always eluded me. There’s so much material to take in and digest, and so many unanswered questions. Surrounded by myth, by a degree of sentimentality because of her untimely death, and by the force of her father’s reminiscences about her, it’s hard sometimes to find Susy in the mix. And there are gaps. Whatever happened to the many letters written by her Bryn Mawr friend, Louise Brownell, whom Susy loved passionately? Louise kept all of Susy’s letters, which are in the archives at Hamilton College, and it clearly was not a one-sided correspondence or relationship, but Louise’s letters are gone. Where are Clara’s letters to Susy, written while the family was on the “Equator” journey and Susy and Jean stayed behind with Aunt Sue at Quarry Farm? I had the time and the inspiration to contemplate such questions, and to seek answers.
One full day and a half I did nothing but steep myself in Livy’s letters as presented in Barb Snedecor’s compelling dissertation. Livy’s letters gave me a whole new perspective on Susy; I had read a number of them before, but that was nothing compared with reading letter after letter, with no interruptions except dinner and nightfall. Nothing in my “normal” life as a retired professor offered such luxury, even living within walking distance as I do from the Mark Twain Papers. Because I was returning to the subject of Susy after several years away from it, I brought all my notes and copies of primary material with me in my suitcase, and I spent almost one full day sorting through all the material and re-reading deeply enough to re-kindle my interest in the complexity of Susy. But the riches of the library at Quarry Farm are such that there were ever more avenues to explore, and I did, every day.
I also was fortunate to be there when spring began to break out. The forsythia was in full bloom, but the major trees were just beginning to bud out with their little yellow-green leaves, which each day become more visible and more glorious. Walking up to the site of the study, then on up into the woods beyond drew me almost every day, but I had to remind myself to look up high into the trees to see the springtime unfold. And so I did.
Towards the end of my stay I was scheduled to offer a lecture in “The Trouble Begins” series. I’d done this before, many years ago, but I had forgotten how attentive the audience can be. They stayed focused the whole time, and at the end asked excellent and engaging questions. It’s a very special audience, mostly folks from the town, not academics, but people who seem to have a genuine, perhaps long-standing interest in the Langdons and Sam Clemens and family. It was especially pleasing to me because the lecture was held in the barn, whereas before I had spoken on the campus, which had its own charms. When I had occasion to read from the Autobiography in which Twain said he had written the piece in question one day up in the study when he should have been doing something else, I felt not only my own sense of marvel glancing up toward that familiar hill, but a small thrill in the audience. How were we so lucky to be here, right here, over 120 years later? If you’re ever asked to present a paper in the series, I urge you to do so, and by all means apply for a Quarry Farm fellowship for an opportunity to do serious study and thinking and writing about Mark Twain. The place is magical.
Teachers at all levels may be intrigued by this recent episode of the C19 podcast featuring (and produced by) Koritha Mitchell of Ohio State University. The episode is not exclusively about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mitchell considers a range of texts by authors from various historical periods and with various racial identities. But Twain’s novel is prominent and she also alludes to the NewSouth edition of the novel which replaced the n-word with slave. Mitchell says, “The Huck Finn example is important because C19 scholars likely believe its more directly related to their work than the aforementioned books by [Randall] Kennedy and [Jabari] Asim. But what makes it even more important is that people working on the 19th century also seem to view the debate in terms of whether Twain is being censored, rather than considering how they might hold themselves to a higher standard as teachers and scholars.”
Central to Dr. Mitchell’s pedagogical perspective is her classroom covenant, portions of which she discusses in detail. This document, along with further commentary, can be viewed in full at her website: KorithaMitchell.com
You can subscribe to the C19 podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, and other popular platforms. Check out other projects from C19: The Society of 19th-Century Americanists at their website: C19Society.org
In collaboration with SmallTown 360, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has created an interactive map of 1901 Elmira. The map highlights the important people and places that shaped Mark Twain and the Langdon family during his summers in Elmira. Key points include Quarry Farm, the Langdon Mansion, and the Park Church. The map also points out lesser known places like the home of Darius Ford, friend of Twain and Elmira College professor who was offered to accompany Charley Langdon as a companion and tutor on a round the world tour; the home of John Slee, associate of Twain during his Buffalo days and the eventual manager of J. Langdon & Co.; the Lyceum Theater, where in 1868 Twain first performed in public in Elmira, with a young Olivia Langdon in the audience; and the Elmira Reformatory, a prison in which Twain performed for the “captivated” audience – Twain later wrote that he found the group extremely satisfactory.
The Center for Mark Twain Studies hopes that this map is used by all teachers, students, and Twain enthusiasts with the goal of promoting Mark Twain’s important legacy in Elmira. At the same time, CMTS endeavors to celebrate its own local history as a vibrant, cosmopolitan upstate New York town in the latter half of the19th and early 20th century.
CMTS would like to thank the following people with their help on this project:
Among the most common and resilient myths in Mark Twain Studies is that Samuel Clemens was economically illiterate and financially incompetent. This myth was born during his lifetime, specifically during the widely publicized bankruptcy of his publishing house following the Panic of 1893. Clemens made little effort to defend his reputation as a businessman, even as he became, by his own accounting, wealthier in the final decade of his life than he had been at any time before. Though the exact size of Clemens’s estate was disputed following his death in 1910, all agreed that it was enviably large. Still, the first several generations of Twain scholars placed far more emphasis on the fortune Twain lost than upon the fact that he made that fortune in the first place, or that he remade it. A few scholars have attempted to complicate the standard account of Twain’s fiscal foolishness, but many more treat it as established fact.
In “Mark Twain’s Portfolio,” I am going to take a closer look at Clemens’s investments. While I am, as I expect readers to be, curious as to whether these investments were profitable, in most cases I will not be able to reduce their returns to a reliable dollar figure because the exact dates of purchase and sale by Clemens or his heirs are rarely part of the public record. But we do have a fairly comprehensive record of what Clemens’s portfolio looked like at the time of his death, as well as discussions of investing in public and private writings during his life. Beyond evaluating whether these specific investments were “good” or “bad,” I will be attentive to whether and how they reflected the worldview expressed in Twain’s published works and public discourse.
Clemens’s investing practices intersect with his politics in complicated and sometimes conflicting ways. This is probably nowhere more evident than in his ownership, at the time of his death, of at least 165 shares of United Fruit Company. This was, in purely pecuniary terms, a great investment. Two weeks before Clemens’s death, the Wall Street Journal reported that United Fruit was trading at $174 per share, making Clemens’s block worth, adjusted for inflation, more than $740,000. The share price was up over 40% in the preceding year and United Fruit was reliably paying a 2% quarterly dividend to shareholders. Clemens’s United Fruit stock was generating passive income as well as appreciating exchange value.
United Fruit stock had by no means peaked by the time of Clemens’s death. Indeed, the share price would rise 12% in the next four months alone and the company would pay an additional 10% dividend before the end of the calendar year. The Wall Street Journal reported that United Fruit’s capitalization had increased by more than 400% in less than a decade. A market reporter for the Boston Globe wrote in September that “holders of United Fruit will not sell the stock at any reasonable price.” By 1920, United Fruit would report $44.6 million in earnings ($569.9 million in 2019 dollars). Even after adjusting for inflation, that was at least ten times the profits the company made in the final year of Clemens’s life. Presuming the administrators of Twain’s estate held on to his shares, they would’ve contributed to rapid growth in the 1910s and 1920s, and United Fruit would remain a reliable asset through most of the 20th century.
Of course, behind every great fortune lies a great crime. United Fruit was and would remain one of the most notorious corporations of the 20th century. Their commercial and political machination in Guatemala, Honduras, and throughout Central America and the Caribbean are presumed to have inspired O. Henry to coin the term “banana republic” in 1904 and to be the basis for the rapacious corporate monster in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. United Fruit’s sordid history includes too many violent labor disputes, political scandals, and cruel exploitations for me to catalog here, but numerous books have been written on the subject, notably Bitter Fruit (1982) by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bananas (2008) by Peter Chapman, and Banana Cowboys (2018) by James W. Martin.
In his contribution to Banana Wars (2003), Philippe Bourgois describes United Fruit as “the quintessential model for the institutional form of the multinational corporation that changed the face of the world during the twentieth century.” It was a “government sponsored international trade monopoly” which “was buttressed by the political, military, and economic might of the U.S. government.” In other words, United Fruit’s spectacular performance as an investment was subsidized by U.S. taxpayers through the intermediary of the proudly imperialist Republican administrations of the early 20th century.
Mark Twain was an outspoken and aggressive critic of U.S. imperialist adventuring throughout the final decade of his life. In 1900 he famously stated “I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle puts its talons on any other land.” By his own account, he came to this position by observing U.S. actions in the Philippines, which he wrote about at length. He would also publicly critique imperialism in Cuba, China, and the Belgian Congo, explicitly attacking how the moral, religious, and democratic justifications for American and European interventions in sovereign states were always masks for programmatic economic exploitation. “There must be two Americas,” he wrote, “one that sets the captive free, and one that takes that once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” As these words were being written, United Fruit was in the early stages of becoming one of the largest landholders in the world, eventually amassing 3.5 million acres of real estate across a dozen countries. These annexations and appropriations frequently met with resistance and resulted in violence.
So far as I surmised, Twain never spoke publicly of the United Fruit Company and made only passing comments about U.S. involvement in the countries where United Fruit’s operations were already becoming notorious. However, Sam Clemens and his close friend, Henry H. Rogers, who also happened to be his primary financial advisor from 1893 forward, did visit and tour a United Fruit Company outpost in Portland, Jamaica in March of 1902. The visit does not seem to have been planned. Rather, as the log of Rogers’s yacht (quoted in this section of David Fears’s Mark Twain Day By Day) reports, the pleasure cruisers “took refuge” from a “wild and tumbly” sea in the harbor at Port Antonio, described as “a deep & smooth little blue-water bay whose hilly shores were densely clothed in cocoa-palms.” Clemens, Rogers, and their fellow yachters visited what they called the “company’s hotel,” which was located on Titchfield Hill, a cliff with ocean views on all sides. There they met “some Bostonians” and became “guests of the company,” enjoying a rail tour of the plantations, including a ruined sugar mill at Golden Grove. This rail system had only recently been installed and helped to make Port Antonio “one of the wealthiest communities on the island” according to the 1903 “Handbook of Jamaica” produced by the British consul.
While Sam makes no mention of the fruit company in his letters to Livy during the cruise, he does corroborate some of these events. From the yacht on March 29 he wrote:
“We got no further than this place (40 miles [from Kingston]) when the barometer presaged a storm and we came in and anchored. It is a deep and sheltered bay, and the water is delicate green in color and limpid and brilliant. The shores and hills and mountain sides are solid with coca-groves. We spent the whole afternoon until after dark in a drive behind fast mules, through the great hills, the most prodigal and marvelous exhibition of tropical vegetation imaginable. It realized the most frantic dreams of the travel-books. The mere multitudinous names of the rare plants and trees was enough to bewilder the mind…It was a grand day, and makes all the other days of the trip poor and commonplace by comparison.”
Letter to Olivia Clemens, 29 March 1902, part of the Mark Twain Papers at Bancroft Library, UC-Berkeley
Clearly, the excursion through United Fruit Company real estate in Portland, Jamaica left an impression upon Mr. Clemens, yet he does not allude to the company, its properties, or its influence over the region, even to his wife. If it was soon after this chance encounter with the operations of United Fruit that Clemens and Rogers chose to invest in the company, that investment surely paid off, but so far as I can tell, they never discussed it, as they did many of their other mutual ventures.
The ethics of the banana and sugar trades, and of the government intervention on behalf of U.S.-based corporations, were heartily debated in many of the publications Clemens regularly read, including the North American Review, where several of his anti-imperialist polemics were published. Given the consistency and vehemence of Twain’s anti-imperialism, I feel safe speculating that he knew United Fruit’s dividend payments were tainted and that he did not receive them with unalloyed delight, even though they may have reminded him of a happy day in the tropics.
“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist or an old optimist.” – Mark Twain
Twain’s increasing cynicism about mankind generally, and 20th-century America in particular, is reflected in his portfolio. As I will discuss in future installments, there were investments which Twain was enthusiastic about because he believed the business would prove a boon to society. But he also practiced what we might call “existential hedging,” taking a personal stake in companies he likely believed were complicit in making the world a worse place, but which he nevertheless expected to flourish, expressly because they adopted a business model he found morally reprehensible. By owning a piece of publicly-traded corporations like United Fruit, he could, at least, reap monetary reward from the geopolitical agenda which enraged him.
One can see Twain’s investment in United Fruit as both an acknowledgment of his own futility – an admission that his anti-imperialist writings weren’t making a damn bit of difference – and a clever way of contriving to make his political enemies subsidize his dissent. Perhaps in part because he could count on the equivalent of $50,000-$60,000 a year from his United Fruit shares (among many other investments), Twain was finally free, in the final decade of his life, from having to publish and lecture in order to sustain himself and his household. This meant that he lectured and published less frequently. It also meant he was more overtly political and polemical. He could afford to be booed, as he was in 1901 after saying that U.S. soldiers defending economic exploitation abroad were dying under a “polluted flag.”
Closely examining Mark Twain’s portfolio forces one to consider more carefully what makes an investment “good.” If returns are the only metric, than shares in United Fruit were among the best assets an investor could hold in the early decades of the 20th century. From another perspective, Twain’s sizable stake in United Fruit reveals the utmost hypocrisy, as he privately profits from Roosevelt-ian imperialism even as he berates it in public. This contradiction is characteristically Twainian.
This piece of Twain’s portfolio also leaves open a third interpretation of good investing practice. “Activist investing” has become something of a misnomer, as contemporary “activist investors” frequently use their shareholding simply to lobby for better returns. But the original ideal of “activist investing,” as articulated in the The Ethical Investor (1972), was to use shareholding to pressure publicly-traded corporations to adopt more progressive policies, including improving labor conditions, increasing employee profit-sharing, and embracing consumer protections. Was Clemens’s block of United Fruit stock part of an attempt to circumvent the government entirely and exert direct influence on a company whose interests were increasingly intertwined with U.S. foreign policy? Perhaps Clemens simply saw every share he held as one which would not fall into the hands of the war hawks he hated.
In a dialogue he wrote in 1902, “The Dervish & The Offensive Stranger,” which touches on both the history of colonialism and the contemporaneous Boer Wars, Twain demonstrates the difficulty of judging goodness. The stranger says, “England has succeeded in her good purpose of lifting up the unwilling Boers and making them better and purer and happier than they could have become by their own devices…But there are only eleven Boers left, now.” He uses this to ironically support his thesis that, “Half of the results of good intention are evil; half the results of evil intention are good.” This is about as compelling a rationalization as I can come up with for owning United Fruit Company stock.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post did not include discussion of Clemens and Rogers visiting the United Fruit Company outpost in Jamaica. Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com drew my attention to the passage in Mark Twain Day By Day which referenced the trip.