A Pen Warmed-Up in Hell

Author: Mark Twain

Editor: Frederick Anderson

Type: Non-fiction, essays

Full title: A Pen Warmed-Up in Hell: Mark Twain in Protest

Published: 1870-1907 (original essays); 1979 (this collection)

I read it: December 2016


In the Introduction, editor Frederick Anderson offers nuggets of Twain outtakes that set the tone for the book. And even in these earliest pages, before the book itself properly begins, the relevance to today is startling. One paragraph is Twain’s pleading letter to a friend about who not to vote for in an important election—Twain begs him to not base the decision solely on party loyalty. In a related excerpt, he defends those who broke from an established party due to their consciences, and warns against those not brave enough to do so:

This infamous doctrine of allegiance to party plays directly into the hands of politicians of the baser sort. It enables them to foist upon the country officials whom no self-respecting man would vote for, if he could but come to understand that loyalty to himself is his first and highest duty, not loyalty to any party name. … Loyalty to petrified opinions never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world—and never will.

A hijacked party and a voting base who would still vote in favor of “the baser sort.” Sound familiar?

Anderson does a fine job in bringing together some of the sharpest and most obscure political writings from Twain. The very first entry is his “Battle Hymn of the Republic (Brought Down to Date),” a searing take on the traditional hymn that takes to task the ideal of god and country. (The first line: “Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword.”) What follows throughout the book never lets up: newspaper articles, letters, essays, and exclamations that rail mostly against American hypocrisy.

A few pieces were unclear because of my ignorance of the political landscape at the time, so when Twain was addressing specific international events the thread could get lost. Even so, eloquent lessons are wrapped into “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (an analysis of and against colonialiam/imperialism) or “Grief and Mourning for the Night,” a horrifying response to American soldiers committing a massacre in the Philippines. The back half of the book has some more general essays on troubling subjects. “The United States of Lyncherdom” condemns the rise of the practice on home soil, and is placed next to a draft of the chapter from Huck Finn about “A River Village and a Lynch Mob.” Then there is the brief and crystalizing “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice,” a perfect entry for The Portable Atheist had another Twain piece not been chosen for that book.

Mark Twain continues to inspire and provoke from well beyond the grave. The collection’s title comes from his frustration at not being able to squeeze all of his ideas into A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Well, my book is written—let it go. But if it were only to write over again there wouldn’t be so many things left out. They burn in me; and they keep multiplying and multiplying; but now they can’t ever be said. And besides, they would require a library—and a pen warmed-up in hell.

(Although I can’t stand the hyphen in “warmed-up,” I suppose I’ll give its 1889 time-stamp a pass.)

I’m tempted to argue that we need someone like him now, someone to point and prod and pop the over-bloated bubbles of our preconceptions. But I do wonder if it’s even possible to have such as person today. Many have commented on the fractured nature of our media and our independent realities. If an insightful critic wrote and published a fantastic piece against a modern social ill, who would read it? Most of us wouldn’t know it exists. Most of us might not even know that the ill exists.

We’re floating here and there without a Twain. Without even a common national medium through which to argue and persuade.

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