Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Mark Twain's white suit and Andrew Jackson

I hadn't realized before, or maybe I had forgotten, that Sanuel "Mark Twain" Clemons used his trademark white suit as a political and moral statement. Which suggests an interesting counterpoint to Johnny Cash's "Man in Black" self-branding, both of them representing a statement of solidarity with the downtrodden.

Tracy Fessenden writes about Clemon's white suit in Culture and Redemption: Religion, The Secular, and American Literature (2007):

While the white suit would become identified with Mark Twain as indelibly as the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the memorable dress belongs to a period of largely forgotten production, speculative narratives that break off without finishing and polemics that went unpublished in Twain's lifetime. And if the singular white suit stands in ironic contrast to the spotty literary output, it remains at least as difficult to read. Obviously, unreliably, the white suit projects a white persona: in Pudd'nhead Wilson, we recall, the infant slave Chambers becomes the white slave owner Tom Driscoll by being dressed in his master's "holy" clothes, his white Sunday gown ... In his white linen or silk-lined flannels Twain must have reminded audiences of the rajas who, according to Following the Equator, wrested the control of India from "Hindoo and Mohammed rulers" and "establish[ed] British superiority there." In Following the Equator, written just as the United States was launching the imperialist career that would soon eclipse Britain's, Twain confessed that his own and his Anglo-Saxon companions' white "Christian" clothes were in fact "a lie": "they are on us to expose us, to advertise what we wear them to conceal"; "they are ... a pretence that we despise gorgeous colors"; "yes, our clothes are a lie ... [T]hey are the ugly and appropriate outward exposure of an inward sham and a moral decay." [my emphasis in bold]
Clemons, in Fessenden's reading, presented himself as a proud representative of white American democracy while he simultaneously insisted on the deeply contradictory nature of that condition:

In pronouncing his White House and Savage Club audiences "unclean" Twain makes the white suit an invisible reproach to these sacred whites, to what in his "Greeting to the Twentieth Century" he calls the "stately maiden named Christendom," who "return[s] bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa, & the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her packet full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass."
Clemos Clemons, like other radical critics of American problems before and after, contrasted the ideals and preferred self-identification of the dominant American culture to the actual practices of the nation and its social reality:

If the spectacularly unblemished white suit would seem to distance Twain from an ensoiling "Christendom," however, it offers no comparable exemption from "whiteness." In "The Stupendous Procession," another of the unfinished narratives from Twain's white-suited period, modern nation-states parade with symbols of their territorial conquests, whiteness trumpeting its own ability to contain, as it were, all colors. America, the last and largest in the procession, marches with banners that pointedly revise the Declaration of lndependence - "All white men are born free and equal"; the Fourteenth Amendment - "white slavery shall no longer exist where the American flag floats"; and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" - "Christ died to make white men holy; he [Abraham Lincoln] died to make white men free."
Someone once asked me if the use of Andrew Jackson's symbolism for this blog was meant satirically. It was a good question. And I remembered it when I read the passages in Tracy's book I just quoted.

Jackson is interesting to me as an historical figure in much the same way John Brown or Newton Knight, the subject of a new film, Free State of Jones, scheduled to be released this year:

Brown by resisting the national government dominated by the Slave Power, and Knight by resisting the traitorous slaveowners revolt against democracy that was the Confederacy, both in their own ways embodied the democratic spirit and the historical trend of the democracy by resisting the established orders of which they were a part, both of which claimed to represent the American ideal of democracy. Though in the case of the Confederacy, the remnants of electoral democracy for whites were embedded in an open rebellion against American democracy that aimed to press forward the development of the fundamentally antidemocratic slave system.

Jackson and the Jacksonian movement represented radical democracy of their time. To borrow one of Joan Walsh's favorite phrases, it represented the "left wing of the possible" at the level of the national government in the US at the time.

As I've said repeatedly here, in addition to heading a movement that expanded the franchise, supported the nascent organized labor movement and encouraged a new level of popular organizing and political participation, Jackson's Presidency is associated particularly with three major events, two of which were democratic and progressive, the other far more problematic. The successful fight against the Bank of the United States as a major tool of organized money and Jackson's successful stand against John Calhoun's secessionist move in the South Carolina Nullification Controversy were the first two. The Indian Removal Act was the third.

And the latter, reactionary and destructive as it was from any kind of democratic or humane view today, was very much a part of white democracy and the Enlightenment view of the Indians as "savages" and "natural peoples" who had to be "civilized" by white Europeans, or Americans, in this case.

Mark Twain used his white suit to both affirm to the ideals of democracy and of a humane spirit of religion while simultaneously reminding people of the dark side of real existing white democracy, particularly its brutal practice of imperialism and white racism.

The symbol of Andrew Jackson here represents a recognition that democracy advances through people committed to advancing it, even against their own conventionally-perceived self-interest. In Jackson's case, he was a rich man who defended the interests of the common people against the Money Power with which he could easily have identified. He was a slaveowner and a supporter of slavery who in the Nullification Crisis took the side of democracy and American patriotism against the incipient revolt of the slaveowners class of which he was a member.

But Jackson is also a symbol that reminds us, like Twain's white suit, that "democracy" for white people is not the sum total of all virtues, that democracy can and does inflict needless cruelty on the Other, whether the Other is American Indian or Philippine peasants or Arab noncombatants today who fall victim to our freedom bombs or unarmed African-Americans who receive vigilante "justice" at the hands of white racist police.

But in the end, human history is made by real human beings. Real human beings that still often produced the results that Hegel gloomily described: "World history is not the ground of happiness. The periods of happiness are blank pages in it ..." - Hegel, Philosophy of History (German original: "Die Weltgeschichte ist nicht der Boden des Glücks. Die Perioden des Glücks sind leere Blätter in ihr ...")

But we also have to recognize the moments that point in a different direction. Polluted as they are with dark side of our human species.

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