We have lost the power at home twice this week, each time for several hours overnight. It seems to happen every time we have a serious summer thunderstorm. The utter silence and lack of light tend to disturb my sleep. We should have a generator, but we don’t. As I sat the dark thinking about the powerlessness, the title “To the person sitting in darkness” came to mind.
Who wrote that? Was it a poem?
Looking it up via Google on my phone while it still held a charge, I was reminded that “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is one of Mark Twain’s late bursts of indignation against American imperialism. It seems to derive from a speech Twain gave to the Anti-Imperialist League in 1901. It was originally published in the North American Review that year. Justin Kaplan included the piece in the 1967 compilation Great Short Works of Mark Twain.
It’s not great, but it is short. It’s not funny either. Like so much of late Mark Twain, it’s suffused with high-minded conscience.
Reading the piece brought to mind one of my great Dartmouth English teachers, the late James Cox (photo at right). Professor Cox was the funniest lecturer I have ever heard. I thought he was funnier than any comedian I had ever seen. He seemed to me to embody the spirit of Mark Twain.
The American Literature section of the MLA awarded Professor Cox the Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in 1997. The speeches given on the occasion — John Seelye’s and Professor Cox’s — are posted here.
The Dartmouth Alumni Magazine published a brief profile of him by former former student Tom Maremaa in 2009. Another former student, Alan Greenblatt, hailed his remarkable life for NPR after his death in 2012. Greenblatt recalled: “I once actually had a girlfriend break up with me after attending one of his lectures. She said she realized that she’d never really heard me laugh before.”
Reading “To The Person Sitting in Darkness” brought to mind Professor Cox’s classroom take on Huckleberry Finn. He argued that the moment when Huck declares “All right then, I’ll go to hell” — what most readers understand to be Huck’s moment of greatness — is the book’s low point. According to Professor Cox, it represented the torments of Huck’s conscience. Humor and the river are the realm of pleasure; conscience is the realm of suppression. Professor Cox had a contrarian Freudian interpretation of an aspect of Mark Twain that has stuck in my mind.
In his biography of Samuel Clemens, Justin Kaplan writes that Mark Twain encountered a storm of abuse over “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” Far from backing down, however, Mark Twain pressed the attack in a second article, “To My Missionary Critics.” The aftermath described by Kplan has an interesting twist or two with a slightly modern feel:
That October he and [William Dean] Howells came to Yale to receive honorary degrees. Theodore Roosevelt stood apart at the ceremony; since the assassination of McKinley he had been forbidden to mix in crowds or shake hands. As a long ovation went up for Clemens, Roosevelt declared privately, “When I hear what Mark Twain and others have said in criticism of the missionaries, I feel like skinning them alive.” But Mark Twain was the students’ hero. After the exercise, when he was touring the campus, a crowd of them gave the college cheer and roared out his name. He took off his hat and bowed.
Now that is funny. At least it made me laugh. It also made me wonder how Mark Twain would be greeted by Yale students nowadays. That’t not funny!
Professor Cox titled his book on Mark Twain The Fate of Humor. What about the fate of Huckleberry Finn? The progressive superego has intervened to suppress it on high school reading lists. That’s really not funny.
NOTE: Professor Cox devotes 30 pages of his book on Mark Twain to Huckleberry Finn. Here is a little of what he had to say that I was vaguely remembering from class with him. He asks: “What then is the rebellion of Huckleberry Finn?” He answers:
What is it but an attack upon the conscience? The conscience, after all is said and done, is the real tyrant in the book. It is the relentless force which pursues Huckleberry Finn; it is the tyrant from which he seeks freedom. And it is not only social conscience which threatens Huck, but any conscience. The social conscience, represented in the book by the slaveholding of the Old South, is easily seen and exposed. It is the false conscience. But what of the true conscience the reader wishes to project upon Huck and which Huck himself is at last on the threshold of accepting? It, too, is finally false.
A little later he writes:
Comfort and satisfaction are the value terms in Huckleberry Finn. Freedom for Huck is not realized in terms of political liberty but in terms of pleasure. Thus his famous pronouncement on the raft: “Other places feel so cramped and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and comfortable on a raft.”
Here Professor Cox drops a footnote: “The conscience, on the other hand, is is the source of discomfort. As Huck says, ‘…it don’t make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person’s conscience ain’t got no sense, and just goes for him anyway. If I had a yeller dog that didn’t know no more than a person’s conscience does I would pison him.'” That’s “pison” as in “poison” — don’t spellcheck me, bro!