Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, & The Nadirs of U.S. Electoral History


“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

                                                              – The Apocryphal Twain

In November 1973, Gore Vidal’s Burr debuted at #4 on the NYT Best Seller List. The novel spent the next 39 weeks in the top ten, including 21 at #1. The topic Vidal chose for his much-anticipated sequel, which also spent 25 weeks on the NYT list (nine at #1), was the year he infamously called “the low point in our republic’s history.”

The backdrop to Vidal’s 1876 is one of the most hotly contested elections in U.S. history.

An early favorite to succeed Ulysses S. Grant as the fourth consecutive Republican president was Senator James G. Blaine, but his candidacy was derailed by the unexpected circulation of several reams of private correspondence which seemed to reveal a propensity to sell political influence to private moguls. For reform Republicans, led by Secretary of Treasury Benjamin Bristow, Blaine epitomized the Washington insider serving special interests. But Blaine argued that press characterizations of his “Mulligan letters” were inaccurate and incomplete, and that any further publication was an insidious and perhaps illegal invasion of his privacy designed to benefit other candidates, particularly Bristow and Senator Roscoe Conkling.

Vidal describes Blaine’s congressional testimony a week before the Republican Convention in Cincinnati as follows, “Blaine spoke warmly of the sacred and inviolable nature of private communication between gentlemen. What was meant for one man’s eyes was no business of any other man on this earth. He made this somewhat dubious assertion sound as if it were the very foundation of the American Constitution and of all civilized law.” When the Convention opened, a crowded field of nine Republicans were nominated, with a bruised but unbroken Blaine receiving the most initial support. Seven ballots followed, interceded by increasingly incendiary debates between supporters of Blaine, Bristow, and Conkling, whose scandalous affair with a famous socialite was increasingly common knowledge.

The muckraking managed to discredit them all. The GOP finally settled on Rutherford B. Hayes, whose inclusion on the ballot was likely intended as little more than flattery for a former Ohio governor who had recently retired to manage his embattled real estate holdings. Hayes placed no higher than sixth on any of the first four ballots. He was, as Vidal describes him, “a man entirely unknown to most of the convention that had just nominated him.”

“We like men who talk straight out in plain unmistakable language—like Hayes. We not only know that such a man means something, but we know what he does mean. We have natural & justifiable distrust of talky men who make a sounding & ostentatious pretense of saying a thing & yet don’t say it after all—men who hide a mustard-seed of an idea in a kaleidoscope of words, so that the more you turn the thing the more you can’t quite capture that elusive little idea, because it always takes refuge, just in time, behind a new & bewitching rainbow-explosion of fine language—men like Mr. Tilden, for instance.”

                                                                                                                                 – Mark Twain (September, 1876)

The Democratic nominee was never in doubt. Samuel J. Tilden was a lawyer who had recently risen to Governor of New York thanks to his instrumental role prosecuting corruption within his own party, particularly that of the infamous Boss Tweed. Tilden had a reputation as a brilliant, studious policymaker who was unapologetically opposed to “the modern dynasty of associated wealth” which exerted undue influence over U.S. politics.

But Tilden was also a notoriously cold and charmless workaholic. Besides having a personality unsuited to the campaign trail, the 62-year-old suffered from a series of unappealing health problems, perhaps including, as Vidal speculates, a secret stroke. And, as the ensuing campaign revealed, his tax returns may have suggested he was not as immune to the machine politics he purportedly dismantled as his supporters believed.

Equally important to Vidal’s account of the 1876 campaign are the newspapers, particularly the New York Herald, The New York Times, and the New York Evening Post. These national newspapers, as well as a host of mass market magazines and syndicated correspondents, had the capacity, as well as the ambition, to make and break candidates. There is no suggestion in 1876 of a journalistic ethos based on accuracy and objectivity. The Herald’s Charles Nordoff quips, “As for the truth always coming out, I think it never does. But even if it did, who would know?” Vidal’s narrator contends, “There is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”

“Mark Twain is our greatest…Mark Twain. He is not, properly speaking, a novelist nor ‘just’ a journalist nor polemicist. He is simply a voice like no other.”

                                                                        – Gore Vidal (1997)

Samuel Clemens does not appear until late in Vidal’s novel, but the ascendent reputation of Mark Twain is alluded to dozens of times throughout, so that his eventual entrance is heartily anticipated. He is, as one character puts it, “a sort of God in these parts.”

The Clemens who Vidal depicts, despite enjoying unprecedented celebrity and commercial success, is despondent and depressed. He rants about the stupidity of his countrymen and characterizes democracy as an outright failure. “I can’t satirize anything at the moment,” he tells Vidal’s narrator, “I want to take a stick, an axe, a club, and smash it all to bits.”

Vidal’s narrator, Charles Schuyler, is an aging, insolvent journalist clearly envious of Twain’s string of recent successes. After meeting the mythic Twain and observing his misanthropic condition, he writes,  “It does me a world of good to pity him.” Schuyler concludes, “Whatever he might have been, he is, for now at least, hurt Caliban, a monster who has had the ill luck to see his own face mirrored in the composite looking glass of a million adoring countrymen. By cunningly playing the fool, Twain has become rich and beloved; he has also come to hate himself, but lacks the courage either to crack the mirror or to change, if he could, that deliberately common face which it so faithfully reflects.”

Vidal provides ample evidence of his narrator’s unreliability, but perhaps nothing more explicit than his denunciation of Twain. Vidal is an avowed Twainiac. He knows intimately the burden of literary celebrity and the jealousy it inspires. For him, much rides on that interjected clause: “for now at least.” Vidal knows, of course, as do many of his readers, that even as he allegedly sits with Schuyler and Jamie Bennett (Editor of the Herald) in a window booth at Delmonico’s in August 1876, Clemens has already begun working on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, transitioning into a phase of his career marked by courageous change and more incisive reflections on Americana. Like Vidal after him, Twain would “give trouble to those guardians of the national mythology.”

1876 was published with the vitriolic 1968 election, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal fresh in the minds of Vidal and his readers. 2016 may prove to be another nadir in our political history, as was 1968, 1876, 1824, etc. Vidal’s detailed demythologizing neutralizes the false impression, then and now, that we live in especially exceptional times. It does not, however, make healthy historical perspective an excuse for political apathy.

Though he did not dine at Delmonico’s during the last week of August 1876, but rather with his extended family in Elmira, Clemens was, as Vidal suggests, deeply disturbed by the 1876 election. He told William Dean Howells, “Get your book out quick, for this is a momentous time. If Tilden is elected I think the entire country will go pretty straight to Mrs. Howell’s bad place.” When the election was initially called for Tilden, he send the following telegram to Howells via Western Union:

“I love to steal awhile away

From every cumbering care,

And while returns come in today

Lift up my voice and swear.”

The disputed results led to months of judicial review and congressional negotiation, which Clemens followed dutifully. Thus, Vidal’s historical fiction raises a potent question for Twain studies. To what extent did the election of 1876 contribute to Twain’s evolving literary ethos?