Cults of Personality (Politics)

by Gregg Camfield, PhD, University of California-Merced


 

Mark Twain began writing the novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, first published serially in 1893 in The Century magazine, as an extravagant burlesque, in which the plot turned around the adventures of a Siamese twin with two heads (named Angelo and Luigi), four arms, and one set of legs. As the novel evolved, the role of this multiple-personality character diminished, and when Twain finally published the novel as the story of David “Pudd'nhead” Wilson solving a murder, he had separated the Siamese twin into fraternal twins. But when Twain came to publish the novel in its own volume as a subscription book, he needed it to be longer, in accordance with the traditions of subscription publication. So he picked up the discarded scraps of the original burlesque and published them as an addendum to the finished novel and titled the entire volume Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins. The latter story is certainly extraordinary, since Twain found in that conjoined twin a powerful metaphor for many aspects of the American experience, an experience of deep division and profound connection. The two heads, as Twain envisioned them, had distinctly different personalities, personalities that represent, among many other things, American politics. Two days before they arrive in a small Mississippi River town in Southern Missouri, their letter announces their coming and begs for lodging. They appear to be Italian noblemen, and Aunt Patsy Cooper and her daughter Rowena, are in ecstasies over the distinction to be brought to their boarding house. Here Twain comments on the persistent interest in royalty and in distinctions of birth that American politics could not eradicate. But when the Twin arrives and shows itself to be two personalities in one, the town does not know how to react. At first, the idea that from many, one (e pluribus unum), strikes everyone as grotesque. Americans seem to want distinctions; they want to put individuals into classes. As the town gets to know the two, it sees, in fact, the distinctions it desires, and breaks into factions following the one or the other. Luigi is a popular figure, committed to a worldly life in all of its vigor; Angelo demonstrates refined tastes and is committed to every sort of moral reform in keeping with high-toned manners and principles. As their lives develop in the town, they become committed to politics:

They appeared on the street on Friday, and were welcomed with enthusiasm by the new-born parties, the Luigi and Angelo factions. The Luigi faction carried its strength into the Democratic party, the Angelo faction entered into a combination with the Whigs. The Democrats nominated Luigi for alderman under the new city government, and the Whigs put up Angelo against him. The Democrats nominated Pudd'nhead Wilson for mayor, and he was left alone in this glory, for the Whigs had no man who was willing to enter the lists against such a formidable opponent. No politician had scored such a compliment as this before in the history of the Mississippi Valley.

The political campaign in Dawson's Landing opened in a pretty warm fashion, and waxed hotter every week. Luigi's whole heart was in it, and even Angelo developed a surprising amount of interest — which was natural, because he was not merely representing Whigism, a matter of no consequence to him, but he was representing something immensely finer and greater — to wit, Reform. In him was centred the hopes of the whole reform element of the town; he was the chosen and admired champion of every clique that had a pet reform of any sort or kind at heart. He was president of the great Teetotaller's Union, its chiefest prophet and mouthpiece.

But as the canvass went on, troubles began to spring up all around — troubles for the twins, and through them for all the parties and segments and fractions of parties. Whenever Luigi had possession of the legs, he carried Angelo to balls, rum shops, Sons of Liberty parades, horse races, campaign riots, and everywhere else that could damage him with his party and the church; and when it was Angelo's week he carried Luigi diligently to all manner of moral and religious gatherings, doing his best to regain the ground he had lost before. As a result of these double performances, there was a storm blowing all the time, an ever rising storm, too — a storm of frantic criticism of the twins, and rage over their extravagant, incomprehensible conduct.

Luigi had the final chance. The legs were his for the closing week of the canvas. He led his brother a fearful dance.

But he saved his best card for the very eve of the election. There was to be a grand turn-out of the Teetotaller's Union that day, and Angelo was to march at the head of the procession and deliver a great oration afterward. Luigi drank a couple of glasses of whiskey — which steadied his nerves and clarified his mind, but made Angelo drunk. Everybody who saw the march, saw that the Champion of the Teetotallers was half seas over, and noted also that his brother, who made no hypocritical pretensions to extra temperance virtues, was dignified and sober. This eloquent fact could not be unfruitful at the end of a hot political canvass. At the mass meeting Angelo tried to make his great temperance oration but was so discommoded by hiccoughs and thickness of tongue that he had to give it up; then drowsiness overtook him and his head drooped against Luigi's and he went to sleep. Luigi apologized for him, and was going on to improve his opportunity with an appeal for a moderation of what he called "the prevailing teetotal madness," but persons in the audience began to howl and throw things at him, and then the meeting rose in wrath and chased him home.

In this little parable, Twain displays the workings of American politics in a two party system, in which each party is a complex compromise of different sub-factions, all coalescing around cults of personality. These disputes exaggerate differences and hide from view similarities.

In Samuel Clemens's own experience of politics in Missouri, this is a valuable parable. While the Twins' putative nobility gives them their first entree into society, their success depends on fitting in to some aspect of village life. Luigi takes a route that makes him a natural member of the Democratic Party; Angelo of the Whig. Neither touches on the big issues the parties pursued: the Whigs by tradition and class background, generally pursued politics in support of a representative republic, in which social hierarchies would be maintained, and order would be preserved, noblesse oblige, through the ministrations of an educated elite. Whigs generally feared the rule of the people as “mobocracy.” But one doesn't win popular elections by attacking the mob. Whigs found that the common touch in electioneering was essential even as they found — and were sincerely committed to — alternative issues that would symbolically displace their fundamental concern. Moral reforms of various kinds — attacks on “intemperance,” gambling, dueling, cursing, spitting, etc., were meant to “civilize” society and in the process restrain democratic excess. The Democrats, on the other hand, found themselves arguing for the value of the exuberance of the people. They pushed policies of Western expansion, a freer money supply, the active participation of larger numbers of people in governance, all to expand the franchise, to more fully democratize American politics.

So it would seem that the lines were clearly drawn, that the opposition was total. Yet ironically, the overlaps between the parties blurred such distinctions. For instance, the Whigs, with their reformist agenda, tended to oppose slavery. They saw the evils of slavery as one of the democratic excesses that they feared. Thus, the more elitist party became deeply connected with a democratic position, i.e. the liberation of slaves. Of course, the Whig party collapsed in 1854, but its remnants, for the most part, flowed into the Republican Party, and the Radical Republicans, after the Civil War, were responsible for passing the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, amendments that have legally secured equal rights and access to the franchise for millions of Americans over time.

On the other side, the Democrats, believing in the power of the people over propertied interests, were the ones who pushed most energetically for internal improvements and national expansion. They were the natural party of a strong government to promote broad social interests, yet with the outbreak of the Civil War, they were the party of states rights and weak government.

Twain's parable suggests the impossibility of these entanglements, of how truly confused American politics always are when elections come down to choices between two apparent opposites that are nonetheless deeply linked. So it should come as no surprise that, for the most part, Twain's Mississippi writings avoid explicitly partisan political statements. After all, he began his life as a Whig, following in his father's footsteps, and then supported the Know-nothings when he, like his brother, came to identify his interests as those of a member in a craft guild. In the election of 1860, Twain refused to choose between the polar opposites of Republican and Democrat, which was a choice between a more powerful central government and opposition to slavery on the one hand, and of dissolution of the Union and support of slavery on the other. Twain chose a 3rd party, the Constitutional Union party, in favor of a status quo that could not be maintained.

After the Civil War, he joined the Republican Party, and for a while, he seemed content to subscribe to its essentially Whiggish ways. He promoted a franchise that would reward the propertied and the educated in a parable called “The Curious Republic of Gondor,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1875. Yet his 1875 series of Atlantic Monthly sketches “Old Times on the Mississippi” celebrates a more democratic Western world, one in which a working man could play gentleman, as long as his power and prestige were protected by a powerful union. Not surprisingly, then, his allegiance to the Republicans waned over time. He became a Mugwump, voted for Grover Cleveland three times for president, and, by the end of his life, supported Democrats regularly as he feared the Republicans were bringing about a national monarchy. Clemens's vacillating political loyalties show his deep ambivalence about the two entwined choices in American public life.

But while Twain's works do not spend much ink on the particulars of tariffs, currency, taxation, or on promoting one party over another, they do address the grand concern of American politics: the degree to which the U.S. should be a democracy and what it would mean for it to have a culture that valued democracy. All of his Mississippi writings are keen in depicting American attitudes toward social class. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in particular is instrumental in exposing to the United States and the world the artistic potentials in American vernacular, the generosity of common folk, and, most importantly, to show the need for racial rapprochement if America is to be truly a democracy. Yet he showed, too, the underside of democracy — the exaltation of ignorance in pap Finn, the mob violence in Bricksville, the chicanery, cupidity, and crudeness of the worst of the West. But by the 1880s, he did not seem to find a return to Whiggish aristocratic ideals the solution to the problems of democracy; indeed, he found the aristocratic impulse to be the worst feature of Western social mobility, the flaw that corrupts American society altogether. In the characters of the King and the Duke, he revealed the great puzzle of American democracy, the obsession with titles and status. He showed how we refuse, ultimately, to accept a society of equals, and the worst of us are often the most pretentious. In Chapter 46 of Life on the Mississippi, he denounced this pretense as “Sir Walter disease,” because, he argued, Sir Water Scott, through his “jejune” feudal fictions, “created rank and caste” in the South. By contrast to what he depicts as a truly democratic, modern and civilized North, Twain suggests that civilization can only be built on a foundation of democracy.