Mark Twain’s Holy Writ

In 1905 Mark Twain wrote “The War-Prayer,” a brief short story with a straightforward pacifist message. Its criticism of jingoism—and the use of religion as a blunt instrument to support it—wouldn’t seem to be so terribly provocative that it couldn’t find a publisher, and by that point Twain’s reputation was so firmly established that it’s hard to imagine he couldn’t get anything he wrote to see the light of day. But Twain wrote it at a very jingoistic time, in the midst of the Philippine-American War (Stephen Kinzer‘s Overthrow provides a great backgrounder on how propagandistic that little-discussed era was); Harper’s Bazaar passed on the story, saying it was unfit for a woman’s magazine, and contractual issues prevented Twain from shopping it far elsewhere. “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time,” Twain wrote to a friend. “None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”

Twain was right about the piece remaining unpublished in his lifetime. (Probably right about the dead and the truth, too.) The piece wasn’t published until 1923. It’s enjoyed a second life since then, especially among antiwar protesters, and in 2006 its reputation was solid enough that Mark Twain Studies, a Japan-based journal dedicated to the author, devoted a whopping 26 articles on the story, along with republications of the story’s original manuscript (PDF) and typescript (PDF). A new academic journal based at Stanford University, Journal of Transnational American Studies, has now seen fit to republish the whole shebang; I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing, but just bouncing around it’s clear that there’s a wealth of great material inside. John J. Han discusses how the piece was repurposed (PDF) for a Babylon 5 episode; Michael J. Kiskis connects the story to Twain’s other antiwar writing, and to post-9/11 attitudes (PDF); and Twain biographer Ron Powers borrows some words from William Dean Howells to locate (PDF) just what it was about the story that made it so uniquely Twain, and what it is about America that makes the story’s message so easy to ignore:

“The War-Prayer” fully illustrates William Dean Howells’s shrewd analysis of what made Mark Twain’s diction transformative, even transcendent of its “period”: its “bottom of fury,” its “indignant sense of right and wrong,” “its “ardent hate of meanness and injustice.” These worthy passions propelled by “his single-minded use of words, which. . . express the plain, straight meaning their common acceptance has given them. . . He writes English as if it were a primitive and not a derivative language, without Gothic or Latin or Greek behind it.” Or focus-groups, or marketing, or Rove.

One thought on “Mark Twain’s Holy Writ

  1. Okay … so I went scurrying off to my bookshelves and combed through my 29 volumes of Oxford’s all-the-writings-of-Mark Twain-and-then-some-series and, sure enough, no War-Prayer. I think I’m going to try to get a refund. When Oxford says all, I expect them to deliver.
    But seriously, great post — really appreciated the link to the Stanford Transnational American Studies Journal. There was some great stuff in there!

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