Mark Twain: Working Class Hero and Capitalist Protégé
By Molly Miller
Between his lavish Nook Farm home and his reckless business ventures, Mark Twain could easily come across as a greedy capitalist, a man who could care less about the thousands of workers who could lose their jobs to the Paige Compositor, so long as it could keep his wallet fat.
In Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, Justin Kaplan wrote that Twain signed an agreement in 1889 which bound him to paying James W. Paige about $160,000, plus $25,000 a year for 17 years, in exchange for all rights in the compositor, which Twain referred to as “a magnificent creature.”
Twain thought the machine would give returns of about $55 million a year.
The Paige Compositor did not pay off as Twain thought it would; instead, it left him bankrupt.
And though Twain did work his way out of bankruptcy by giving lectures and writing novels, he also got by with a little help from his friends in high places.
Henry Huttleston Rogers, for instance, helped bail Twain out of his typesetter troubles. Rogers was a chief architect of the Standard Oil trust, and despite Rogers’ questionable business practices, Kaplan wrote that Twain called him “the only man I care for in the world; the only man I would give a damn for.”
In fact, Twain admired Rogers for his faults.
“He’s a pirate all right, but he owns up to it and enjoys being a pirate,” said Twain. “That’s the reason I like him.”
Kaplan wrote that steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie spoke about Twain’s recovery in terms of admiration and approval: “Our friend entered the fiery furnace a man, and emerged a hero.”
It may not be accurate to describe Mark Twain as a friend, or even a member of the elite.
“There were definitely people in Hartford who looked down on him because he came from a different area,” said Patti Philippon, chief curator of The Mark Twain House & Museum.
Twain married into and lived among the upper-middle class, but he still had to work to gain approval.
He was less of a friend, and more of a protégé.
Twain took the advice and earned the approval of the great robber barons, and had a hard time turning down get-rich-quick schemes.
And yet in March, 1886 at the Monday Evening Club, in the company of the most distinguished gentlemen in Hartford, Twain spoke of the worker in high esteem, and condemned the capitalist.
“Who are the oppressors?” Twain asked, according to Philip S. Foner’s account in Mark Twain: Social Critic. “The few: the king, the capitalist, and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: … they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat. Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because the laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise.”
Twain valued the consent of the governed and the power of the workers.
“If the banded voters among a laboring kinship of 45 million persons shall speak out to the other 12 million or 15 million of a nation,” Twain continued, “and command that an existing system has in that moment, in an absolutely clear and clean and legal way, become an obsolete and vanished thing, then it has utterly ceased to exist.”
In fact, Twain’s Monday Evening manifesto almost sounded Marxist in its declaration of the inevitability of a revolution, once the superstructure falls away and the working class becomes aware of its destiny.
“When all … the myriads of toilers in whom is slumbering the reality of that thing which you call Power … when these rise … a Nation has risen,” Twain is quoted as saying in Foner’s book. “The working millions, in all the ages, have been horses – were horses; all they needed was a capable leader to organize their strength and tell them how to use it, and they would in that moment be master.”
Privately, Twain wrote that men were “half murdered by overwork,” and condemned “capitalist-employers” who demanded that eight-hour work days should be voluntary, not mandated by legislation, according to Foner’s book.
In thought and word, Twain was a staunch supporter of the budding labor movement. According to Kaplan, he saw himself as a sans-culotte, fighting for the common man.
Twain saw himself as a working class hero, and probably a self-made man. He did his part as a writer and lecturer to elevate the workers and denounce the management, but he never put his money where his mouth was.
Instead, Twain put all of his money in the Paige Compositor, even though he knew that, if successful, the machine would put thousands of printers out of work.
He tried to research the membership and organization of printers’ and compositors’ unions, but Kaplan wrote that Twain did so through an intermediary to keep his name out.
Twain referred to capitalists as “oppressors.” Yet when he tried to make millions off of the Paige Compositor, he relied on capitalists to help him pursue his dream.
He relied on their help again after the Paige Compositor left him bankrupt.