What were They Reading? Mark Twain Had Some Thoughts.



Albert Pike, a lawyer, journalist, Civil War general and later a major figure in American Masonry, kept a circulating library in the office of the Arkansas Advocate.  We know the titles of some of his books, because borrowers often failed to bring them back, and he had to put ads (and poems) in his paper begging for their return.   The Countess Ida; Fair Rosamond; The Partisan; The Black Riders of Congaree; Tylney Hall; The Slave King.   Books for sale in the offices of the rival Arkansas Gazette included Minstrel Love; Geraldine, Or, Models of Faith and Practice; Mandeville, a Tale of the 17th Century; and the Poetical Works of Byron.

OK, so we’re in the Romantic Era.  It stills seems like pretty flowery stuff for the collection of shameless fraudsters and street brawlers who were Pike’s associates, most of whom habitually carried their Bowie knives with them to their jobs as Arkansas state legislators.  Mark Twain had some thoughts on the subject.

“Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments,” wrote Twain in Life on the Mississippi, “and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote.  Most of the world has now outlived [a] good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. … Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the [Civil] war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.”

What Scott and the writers who followed him did, in Twain’s opinion, was to create an intoxicating medieval fantasy, allowing Southern gentlemen to gloss over the horrors of slavery with myths of chivalry, honor, and heroism, and to imagine their own violent behavior as deeds of daring in the service of noble ideals.  The preoccupation of these men with the defense of their “honor” was actually written into the Arkansas Constitution, whose opening Declaration of Rights listed, among the inalienable rights of free men, the right of “acquiring possessing and protecting property and reputation.” Assaulting or even murdering a political rival could seem, to a 19th-century Arkansas gentleman, a courageous defense of that honor.  A number of modern scholars have considered Twain’s argument, and decided that, broadly speaking, it makes sense.

For more thoughts on Twain’s argument, see http://harpers.org/blog/2007/07/how-walter-scott-started-the-american-civil-war/, and http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/06/the-author-of-the-civil-war/


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