Mark Twain, considered Americas greatest writer, was far
more than a humorist. After the Civil War, he served as Americas conscience
on ethnic and racial issues. Twain defended Jews, African-Americans and
Indians against prejudice. While a majority of his contemporaries negatively
stereotyped the Jewish people, Twain defended Jewry in word and deed.
Ironically, his major published protest against anti-Semitism alienated some of the American Jews he tried to defend.
In his youth, Twain held the same negative stereotypes of
Jews that his neighbors embraced – that they were all acquisitive, cowardly
and clannish. Hannibal, Missouri, his hometown, had only one Jewish family,
the Levys, and Twain joined in hazing the young Levy sons. In 1857, Twain
wrote a humorous but uncomplimentary newspaper article about Jewish coal
dealers for a Keokuk, Iowa newspaper.
Twain seems to have had a change of heart about Jews around
the time of the Civil War. He confided to his daughter Suzy that "the
Jews seemed to him a race to be much respected . . . they had suffered much,
and had been greatly persecuted, so to ridicule or make fun of them seemed to
be like attacking a man when he was already down. And of course that fact took
away whatever was funny in the ridicule of a Jew.
A key moment came in 1860, when a trusted Mississippi River
captain, George Newhouse, told Twain a story (the veracity of which cannot be
established) about courageous Jew who boldly saved a slave girl in a poker
dispute between a desperate planter and a cheating, knife-yielding gambler.
The Jew killed the cheater in a duel and returned the slave girl to the
planters daughter, who had been her mistress, friend and companion from
birth. Twain later reported hearing similar versions of this story from other
"eye witnesses" as well.
In the moral world of 1860, returning a slave girl to her
mistress rather than freeing her was an act of chivalry and Twain saw no
contradiction in it. Rather, the story led Twain to conclude that the Jewish
hero was "an all-around man; a man cast in a large mould." These
same words found their echo in Twains reaction upon learning in 1909 that
his daughter Clara was engaged to a Russian-Jewish pianist, Ossip
Gabtilowitsch. Twain told Clara, "Any girl could be proud to marry him.
He is a man – a real man."
Twain replaced his earlier negative stereotype of the
Jewish people with another, more positive one. In 1879, he wrote privately:
Sampson was a Jew – therefore not a fool. The Jews
have the best average brain of any people in the world. The Jews are the
only race who work wholly with their brains and never with their hands.
There are no Jewish beggars, no Jewish tramps, no Jewish ditch diggers,
hod-carriers, day laborers or followers of toilsome, mechanical trades.
They are peculiarly and conspicuously the worlds intellectual
In truth, there were indeed impoverished Jewish beggars, as
there were sweated Jewish toilers in the garment and cigar industries. Just a
year earlier, New Yorks Jewish cigar makers conducted a bitter, five-month
strike for higher pay and shorter hours. While Twain had meant to pay the
Jewish people a compliment, his facts were inaccurate. Some of these
inaccuracies would later haunt him.
Twains personal view of Jews meant little until March
1898, when he wrote an article titled "Stirring Times in Austria."
Twain had been living in and traveling around Europe to gather materials for
his writing, and settled in Vienna in 1896. As part of a complicated attempt
to hold together the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the face of ethnic nationalist
fervor, in 1898 the imperial Hapsburg family designated Czech as the official
language of Bohemia (the major province of what is now the Czech Republic),
displacing the more popular German. This policy triggered rioting by
German-speaking members of the Austrian parliament, who wanted German language
and culture to predominate in the empire. To distract the populace, according
to Twain, the Austrian government stirred up anti-Semitic feelings, and Viennas
Jews became the victims of widespread attacks, both political and physical.
In March 1898, Harpers Magazine published Twains
essay. Historian Philip Foner notes, "At the very close of the lengthy
article, [Twain] mentioned, without comment, the attacks on the Jews, pointing
out that, although they were innocent parties in the dispute, they were ‘harried
and plundered. Twain noted, ‘In all cases the Jew had to roast, no matter
which side he was on."
Twains account generated several letters, and one
poignant response in particular from an American Jewish lawyer who asked Twain
"why, in your judgment, the Jews have been, and are even now, in these
days of supposed intelligence, the butt of baseless, vicious
animosities?" The lawyer asked, "Can American Jews do anything to
correct [this prejudice] either in America or abroad? Will it ever come to an
In response, Twain penned "Concerning the Jews,"
which Harpers also published. Twain expected the article to please
almost no one. His prediction was correct.
Twain argued that prejudice against Jews derived neither
from their public conduct nor their religion, but from envy that Christians
felt toward Jewish economic achievements. He cited the speech of a German
lawyer who wanted the Jews driven from Berlin because, according to the
lawyer, "eighty-five percent of the successful lawyers of Berlin were
Jews." Twain observed that envy "is a much more hate-inspiring thing
than is any detail connected with religion."
Twain thought Jewish success a product of their good
citizenship, family loyalty, intelligence and business acumen. He thought
crime and drunkenness non-existent among Jews; that they cared for their needy
without burdening the larger community; and that they were honest in business.
Yes, honest in business. Twain knew most of his contemporaries viewed Jewish
businessmen as crooked, but he cited the very success of Jews as proof of
their integrity. He wrote:
A business cannot thrive where the parties do not trust
each other. In the matter of numbers, the Jew counts for little in the
overwhelming population of New York, but that his honesty counts for much
is guaranteed by the fact that the immense wholesale business of Broadway,
from the Battery to Union Square, is substantially in his hands."
Twain mistakenly criticized world Jewry for not taking an
active role in the Dreyfus Affair. He suggested that Jews should become a
political force by concentrating their votes behind single issues, candidates
and parties, and that they organize military companies to raise their
prestige. He believed that Jews exhibited an "unpatriotic disinclination
to stand by the flag as a soldier," and that they had made no significant
contributions to American independence.
Commenting on the recently held first
World Zionist Congress in Basel, Twain noted that Theodor
Herzl had enunciated a plan to "gather the Jews of the world together
in Palestine, with a government of their own – under the suzerainty of the
Sultan, I suppose."
I am not the Sultan, and I am not objecting; but if
that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world are going to be
made into a free country (bar Scotland), I think it would be politic to
stop it. It will not be well to let that race find out its strength. If
the horses knew theirs, we should not ride anymore.
Twain concluded by observing:
The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose,
filled the planet with sound and splendor, then . . . passed away. The
Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is
now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no
weakening of his parts. … All things are mortal but the Jew; all other
forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
Twain described "Concerning the Jews" as "my
gem of the ocean," but predicted "neither Jew nor Christian will
approve it." In the case of Americas Jewish leadership, he proved
correct. Jewish critics acknowledged Twains respect for Jews but bemoaned
his errors of fact. They denied that Jews had played a minimal role in gaining
American liberty, or that they dominated commerce, or that they shirked
military duty. Several critics were especially offended by Twains saying
that Jews had done nothing to help acquit Captain Dreyfus.
His friendliest critics believed that Twain was innocently
ignorant of the facts. Simon Wolf, a founder of the American Jewish Historical
Society, sent Twain a copy of his book, The American Jew as Patriot,
Soldier and Citizen, to correct some of his misconceptions. Others,
like Rabbi M. S. Levy, thought Twains observations were actually
"tinged with malice and prejudice." Levy cited Jewish participants
in the American Revolution who "fought and bled" for the new nation.
He called Twains assertions "a libel on [the Jews] manhood and an
outrage historically." Levy also challenged Twains assertion that
"the Jew is a money-getter."
Money-getters? The Vanderbilts, Goulds, Astors,
Havemeyers, Rockefellers, Mackays, Huntingtons, Armours, Carnegies,
Sloanes, Whitneys, are not Jews, and yet they control and possess more
than twenty-five per cent of all the circulated wealth of the United
Twain took the criticism to heart. In 1904, he wrote a
postscript to his essay titled "The Jew as Soldier," conceding that
Jews had indeed fought in the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War
in numbers greater than their percentage of the population. This meant that
"the Jews patriotism was not merely level with the Christians but
overpassed it." Twain did not respond to Levys charges about Jews in
the economy, but he never again raised this stereotype in print.
When Twain died in 1910, the American Jewish press mourned.
His obituaries in that press often reprinted the words of the president of New
Yorks Hebrew Technical School for Girls: "In one of Mr. Clemenss
works he expressed his opinion of men, saying he had no choice between Hebrew
and Gentile, black men or white; to him, all men were alike."