Ignorance, self-importance, self-satisfied provincialism and knee-jerk nationalism; hucksterism; braggadocio and bullying; racism and hypocrisy; sexism; greed and corruption. Many Americans see these traits exemplified in the current U.S. executive. Yet to students of American literature, they are all too familiar. In fact, these themes have preoccupied American writers for over 100 years. To borrow what Huck said in a different context in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: We’ve “been there before.”
Consider Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad (1869), a satirical record of the first sizeable cohort of middle-class, American tourists to visit Europe. “The people of those foreign countries are very, very ignorant,” Twain wrote. “In Paris, they simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” He notes that throughout the trip, “We always took care to make it understood that we were Americans—Americans! When we found that a good many foreigners had hardly ever heard of America, and that a good many more knew it only as a barbarous province away off somewhere that had lately been at war with somebody, we pitied the ignorance of the Old World, but abated no jot of our importance.”
Or a half century later, consider the prologue that opens Main Street(1920) by Sinclair Lewis: “Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters. What Ole Jenson the grocer says to Ezra Stowbody the banker is the new law for London, Prague, and the unprofitable isles of the sea; whatever Ezra does not know and sanction that thing is heresy, worthless for knowing and wicked to consider. Our railway station is the final aspiration of architecture.” George Babbitt in Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922) is proud of living in Zenith, a fictional Midwestern city that is truly “great.” He brags that the city has “an unparalleled number of miles of paved streets, bathrooms, vacuum cleaners, and all the other signs of civilization”—clear signs of its “all round unlimited greatness.”
Both writers also offer portraits of the huckster in American society. Think of the memorable scam-artists in Huckleberry Finn, the “duke” and “dauphin.” The duke had “been selling an article to take the tartar off the teeth—and it does take it off, too, and generly the enamel along with it” before he was run out of town. The duke and dauphin sell tickets to a stage production called “The King’s Camelopard,” which they advertise as featuring renowned actors from the London stage, but which consists entirely of a bald dauphin in body paint prancing around the stage naked. In Babbitt we learn that George Babbitt “made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay”; he happily calls himself a “hustler.” For Babbitt and others like him, Lewis writes, “the Romantic Hero was no longer the knight, the wandering poet, the cowpuncher, the aviator, nor the brave young district attorney,” but rather the man who devoted himself “to the cosmic purpose of Selling—not of selling anything in particular, for or to anybody in particular, but pure Selling.”
One would be hard pressed to find a more searing satirical take-down of bullying and braggadocio than Twain’s comments on Theodore Roosevelt, a president whom he abhorred. Twain skewered the self-regard that led Roosevelt to bring down the full wrath of his office on a terrified young woman who had innocently passed him on her horse (before she knew who he was) when both were riding on a horse trail. And he lacerated Roosevelt’s decision to inflate a hunting trip he took into “an exploit which will take a good deal of the shine out of the twelve labors of Hercules.” Twain quotes a press report about the event that noted that the President was so grateful when a member of his hunting party gave him a compliment (“Mr. President, you are no tenderfoot”) that he gave the man $20. “When other people are neglectful” and fail to offer the President sufficient “admiration,” Twain wrote, “he supplies the omission himself.” The President, Twain wrote, “is still only fourteen years old, after having lived half a century; he takes a boy’s delight in showing off.” When he called Roosevelt “the Tom Sawyer of the political world” he did not mean it as a compliment. Roosevelt, like Tom, Twain wrote, was “always showing off… He would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off, and he would go to hell for a whole one.” Calling the President a “ruffian,” Twain wrote, “We have never had a President before who was destitute of self-respect & of respect for his high office; we have had no President before who was not a gentleman; we have had no president before who was intended for a butcher, a dive-keeper or a bully.”
From the nineteenth century to the present, American writers have written scorching critiques of American racism in its myriad forms—attacking those who condemn black people who fail to act reverential towards a nation that denies them basic human rights; criticizing those who believe that black lives don’t matter; excoriating the suppression of black votes; calling out the racist fault lines that threaten the nation’s alleged commitment to equality; and exposing the injustice of white privilege.
Back in 1852, in “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass wrote, “To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony… What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” In an 1869 column entitled “Only a Nigger,” Mark Twain impersonated the voice of a racist untroubled by the fact that an innocent man had been lynched by mistake by having him note that “only a nigger” had been killed. Twain later used the same term for a similar purpose in a key scene in Huckleberry Finn. In 1898 shortly after the Spanish–American war (in which many black troops had served bravely) and in the wake of the election-related Wilmington race riots (in which a number of black would-be voters were killed), Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, “The new attitude may be interpreted as saying, ‘Negroes, you may fight for us, but you may not vote for us. You may prove a strong bulwark when the bullets are flying, but you must stand from the line when the ballots are in the air’.”
In the early twentieth century in “The Stupendous Procession” Mark Twain rewrote the “Declaration of Independence” in a way that spelled out the unsaid assumptions behind it: “‘All white men are born free and equal.’ Declaration of Independence . . . ‘Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed white men.’ Declaration of Independence.” In Sinclair Lewis’s neglected novel, Kingsblood Royal(1947), when a white Midwestern banker finds out that he is one thirty-second black, he becomes aware of the injustice of white privilege for the first time, and chooses to resign from the white race. And in the twenty-first century, David Bradley tackles both white privilege and hypocrisy with boldness and daring in a tour de force satire of American racism entitled “Eulogy for Nigger.” The essay won the Notting Hill Essay Prize in 2015.
American writers have long taken aim at various flavours of sexism, satirizing men who accept a priori the justness of men’s right to rule the world, their right to deprive women of political equality, their right to impose themselves sexually on women and their right to demean women by ascribing their behaviour to female biology. In many books including Man-Made World (1911), and in The Forerunner (an early twentieth-century journal she founded and edited), Charlotte Perkins Gilman championed what she called “the humanness of women”; discrediting “the abusiveness and contempt that has been shown to women as females” by men who had managed somehow to monopolize “all human activities” and call them “man’s work.” In her book Are Women People? (1915), published five years before American women gained the right to vote, Alice Duer Miller poked holes in the rationales for male privilege: “Why We Oppose Votes for Men” includes, as one reason, “Because men are too emotional to vote. Their conduct at baseball games and political conventions shows this, while their innate tendency to appeal to force renders them peculiarly unfit for the task of government.”
Later writers including Sinclair Lewis and Sherley Anne Williams took aim at men who imposed themselves sexually on women simply because they could. In Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (1926) the title character, a forceful charismatic preacher, “moves on” some eight women while preaching celebrated sermons on piety and sin. In Sherley Anne Williams’s novel Dessa Rose (1986), Miz Rufel, who is white and free and Dessa, who is enslaved and black, are travelling together when an uncouth, drunk plantation master climbs uninvited into the white woman’s bed. Dessa watches startled, from her pallet on the floor: she “hadn’t knowed white mens could use a white woman like that, just take her by force same as they could with us.” In a wildly funny scene, she helps Rufel give the man the clobbering of his life—with pillows.
There is probably no better critique of men’s tendency to accuse women of cognitive and behavioral deficits rooted in female biology than Gloria Steinem’s brilliant 1978 sketch, “If Men Could Menstruate,” which pondered what would happen if “suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? The answer is clear—menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much… Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”
The level of corruption in the executive branch today–“unprecedented in the modern history of the presidency,” as a Charles P. Pierce noted in Esquire earlier this year–would not have surprised Mark Twain, who wrote that “the political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.”
Ignorance, self-importance, self-satisfied provincialism and knee-jerk nationalism; hucksterism; braggadocio and bullying; racism and hypocrisy; sexism; greed and corruption run rampant in the current government. But the best antidote to despair may be to remember that we are also a nation that has produced gifted writers able to unmask these traits—often with wit, with humor and with a faith that recognizing these alarming flaws is a first step towards becoming the kind of society that rejects them.
This piece originally appeared at The Times Literary Supplement. Republished with author permission.