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Regardless of any American citizen’s political views, perhaps all Americans can agree that our nation’s politics seem more sharply divided than ever before and that this division places democracy itself under serious threat. Of course, in today’s political climate, Americans may not arrive at that conclusion by the same pathways or apply the same logic to any possible solutions.
At a time like this, some will consult their Bibles, some will reflect on what history teaches us, some will look at the latest (ghost-written) book by some politician, and others will turn to their favorite television talking-heads. Sadly, and predictably, this results in wildly different explanations for the current state of affairs and generates conflicting proposals for any solutions. However, to keep this great republic that Benjamin Franklin famously worried about keeping, Twainians know exactly where to turn. Ask not what Jesus can do for you, but ask what the grand old man Himself had to say about our American Experiment.
Modern day Twainians would not be the first to seek out Twain’s opinions on the state of our union. As a worldwide celebrity, Twain’s opinions on all kinds of issues were sought-out by the press, and he seldom failed to oblige them. Twain was well-qualified to comment on all things political. He’d written on local politics at the beginning of his career in the 1850s, served as both a legislative clerk and a newspaper reporter in Nevada in the early 1860s, served as an aid to a US senator in the late 1860s, published the memoirs of one former US president (U. S. Grant), met Presidents Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt, and hung out in Bermuda with one future president, Woodrow Wilson. He campaigned against Tammany Hall in New York City, and spoke on copyright legislation before a US Senate Committee in Washington DC. The list of Twain’s friends and acquaintances who were politicians or captains of industry is remarkably extensive for a 19th century literary figure. Emily Dickinson knew her flies and Herman Melville knew his whales, but Mark Twain knew everybody.
Who better to guide us through Mark Twain’s thoughts on politics and governance than Don Bliss? Bliss is uniquely qualified to guide even the most experienced readers of Mark Twain’s writings through Twain’s commentary on politics, citizenship, government, and the democratic system. Besides being the great grandson of Mark Twain’s publisher, Elisha Bliss, Donald Bliss served in the Federal government for thirteen years under five administrations and practiced law in Washington DC for over thirty years. He was the US ambassador to a Canadian aviation organization for three years, was the Executive Secretary to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and was acting General Counsel of the Department of Transportation. He was also a registered lobbyist, appeared before the Supreme Court, worked on a Presidential campaign, served on several nonprofit boards, and is the author of two books on legal matters.
Ten years ago, Bliss gave us Mark Twain’s Tale of Today (2012, revised ed. 2016), in which Twain’s words were applied to the state of politics at that moment. In that book Bliss anticipated the reader’s perfectly understandable concern that he might twist Twain’s words, angle the arguments, slant toward specific candidates, or advance various viewpoints. In his preface to that book Bliss wrote that he had “sought to differentiate between Clemens’s views and [his] own views about how his commentary remains relevant today [and that he did not] mean to speculate as to what Clemens would have thought about the changed circumstances that even his most vivid of imaginations could scarcely have predicted . . .” In his new book Bliss steps even further back and lets Twain speak for himself. Twain’s commentaries on events of his day apply to the present, and Bliss weaves them into a very readable and coherent narrative consistent with Twain’s social and political philosophy. But Bliss puts the reader on notice at the onset: “Warning: this is not a book of witty aphorisms” (3)…