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Monday, May 28, 2018

The Worthiest War

Guest Blogger Dept.: Who better to celebrate Decoration Day with than Mark Twain? Here’s a selection from Albert Bigelow Paine’s massive four-volume biography of Twain, published in 1912, to be followed by The Boy's Life of Mark Twain (1916), Mark Twain's Letters, (two volumes, 1917), A Short Life of Mark Twain (1920), and Mark Twain's Speeches (1923). This excerpt finds Twain in Vienna in the winter of 1989.


CLEMENS AND HIS FAMILY, as Americans, did not always have a happy time of it. It was the eve of the Spanish-American War and most of continental Europe sided with Spain. Austria, in particular, was friendly to its related nation; and from every side the Clemenses heard how America was about to take a brutal and unfair advantage of a weaker nation for the sole purpose of annexing Cuba.

Charles Langdon and his son Jervis happened to arrive in Vienna about this time, bringing straight from America the comforting assurance that the war was not one of conquest or annexation, but a righteous defense of the weak. Mrs. Clemens gave a dinner for them, at which, besides some American students, were Mark Hambourg, Gabrilowitsch, and the great Leschetizky himself. Leschetizky, an impetuous and eloquent talker, took this occasion to inform the American visitors that their country was only shamming, that Cuba would soon be an American dependency. No one not born to the language could argue with Leschetizky. Clemens once wrote of him:

“He is a most capable and felicitous talker-was born for an orator, I think. What life, energy, fire in a man past 70! & how he does play! He is easily the greatest pianist in the world. He is just as great & just as capable today as ever he was.

“Last Sunday night, at dinner with us, he did all the talking for three hours, and everybody was glad to let him. He told his experiences as a revolutionist 50 years ago in '48, and his battle-pictures were magnificently worded. Poetzl had never met him before. He is a talker himself and a good one – but he merely sat silent and gazed across the table at this inspired man, and drank in his words, and let his eyes fill and the blood come and go in his face and never said a word.”

Whatever may have been his doubts in the beginning concerning the Cuban War, Mark Twain, by the end of May, had made up his mind as to its justice. When Theodore Stanton invited him to the Decoration Day banquet to be held in Paris, he replied:

“I thank you very much for your invitation and I would accept if I were foot-free. For I should value the privilege of helping you do honor to the men who rewelded our broken Union and consecrated their great work with their lives; and also I should like to be there to do homage to our soldiers and sailors of today who are enlisted for another most righteous war, and utter the hope that they may make short and decisive work of it and leave Cuba free and fed when they face for home again. And finally I should like to be present and see you interweave those two flags which, more than any others, stand for freedom and progress in the earth – flags which represent two kindred nations, each great and strong by itself, competent sureties for the peace of the world when they stand together.”

That is to say, the flags of England and America. To an Austrian friend he emphasized this thought:

“The war has brought England and America close together-and to my mind that is the biggest dividend that any war in this world has ever paid. If this feeling is ever to grow cold again I do not wish to live to see it.”

And to Twichell, whose son David had enlisted:

“You are living your war-days over again in Dave and it must be strong pleasure mixed with a sauce of apprehension ...

“I have never enjoyed a war, even in history, as I am enjoying this one, for this is the worthiest one that was ever fought, so far as my knowledge goes. It is a worthy thing to fight for one's own country. It is another sight finer to fight for another man's. And I think this is the first time it has been done.”

But it was a sad day for him when he found that the United States really meant to annex the Philippines, and his indignation flamed up. He said:

“When the United States sent word to Spain that the Cuban atrocities must end she occupied the highest moral position ever taken by a nation since the Almighty made the earth. But when she snatched the Philippines she stained the flag.”

– from Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine, 1912.

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