Bunker Mulligan "Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry." ~Mark Twain

October 11, 2004

Who we are

Filed under: Mark Twain — Bunker @ 7:17 pm

In 1897, Sam Clemens wrote about a Frenchman who had come to America to write a book about Americans–What Paul Bourget Thinks of Us. Clemens was not impressed.

To return to that first question. M. Bourget, as teacher, would simply be France teaching America. It seemed to me that the outlook was dark — almost Egyptian, in fact. What would the new teacher, representing France, teach us? Railroading? No. France knows nothing valuable about railroading. Steamshipping? No. France has no superiorities over us in that matter. Steamboating? No. French steamboating is still of Fulton’s date — 1809. Postal service? No. France is a back number there. Telegraphy? No, we taught her that ourselves. Journalism? No. Magazining? No, that is our own specialty. Government? No; Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Nobility, Democracy, Adultery — the system is too variegated for our climate. Religion? No, not variegated enough for our climate. Morals? No, we cannot rob the poor to enrich ourselves. Novel-writing? No. M. Bourget and the others know only one plan, and when that is expurgated there is nothing left of the book.

For those who look to Europe for our salvation, I think it is a moral imperative to read Mark Twain. When Europeans, or others around the world, look at us, they don’t see the soul. Twain was never quite sure there was any such thing as a soul, but he had insight.

The Observer of Peoples has to be a Classifier, a Grouper, a Deducer, a Generalizer, a Psychologizer; and, first and last, a Thinker. He has to be all these, and when he is at home, observing his own folk, he is often able to prove competency. But history has shown that when he is abroad observing unfamiliar peoples the chances are heavily against him. He is then a naturalist observing a bug, with no more than a naturalist’s chance of being able to tell the bug anything new about itself, and no more than a naturalist’s chance of being able to teach it any new ways which it will prefer to its own.

What can a European tell an American about being an American?


  1. Amen! One of my prized collections are my volumes of first edition Twain’s inherited from my family in Missouri.

    Comment by Wallace-Midland, Texas — October 11, 2004 @ 9:20 pm

  2. You’re on a roll today, Bunker; both this post and “Left vs. Right” are gems.

    What can a European tell an American about being an American?

    Pretty much nothing, I’d agree. I wonder if there are also cases, though, where the Observer of Peoples is merely a human telling a human about being a human, without the clouding of continental or national identity having any effects?

    Comment by Bogey — October 11, 2004 @ 10:59 pm

  3. Twain was first and foremost an American, Writ large. He is who needs to be teaching us about America.

    Comment by og — October 11, 2004 @ 11:30 pm

  4. Bogie is right about Twain actually “speaking bigger” than is obvious. That was his typical approach, and why I feel he is the best observer of human nature ever. He talks about one thing, but the implications are often far greater than is readily apparent. And it is intentional. All his satire fits this mold.

    Unfortunately, schools don’t even allow his books in their libraries. He uses one word which drives people like Jesse Jackson to fits. And that is a sign of ignorance. Not on Twain’s part–Jesse’s. Twain was an abolitionist from early on.

    Comment by Bunker — October 12, 2004 @ 6:27 am

  5. When did schools start to yank his books? I went to high school at the end of the 80s and start of the 90s, and we read him.

    Comment by Bogey — October 12, 2004 @ 2:17 pm

  6. Many have pulled them, especially “Huck Finn.” Can’t say how many have done it.

    Comment by Bunker — October 12, 2004 @ 2:47 pm

  7. My high school banned a lot of great books in 1997. There was a lot of controversy between the school board and some of the students (myself included). It was enough to gain national attention on at least two networks. I’m not sure that I can recall all 7 titles, but I think they’re “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Moby Dick”, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” “Of Mice and Men” “Lord of the Flies”, and “Brave New World”. A couple of them were still allowed in the Senior/dual credit TJC classes.

    Comment by Mrs. Birdie — October 12, 2004 @ 6:14 pm

  8. Sorry, i can’t count;I only placed six there.

    Comment by Mrs. Birdie — October 12, 2004 @ 6:15 pm

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