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Mark Twain and the Jews

By Michael Feldberg

Mark Twain, considered America’s greatest writer, was far more than a humorist. After the Civil War, he served as America’s 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 planter’s 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 Twain’s 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 world’s intellectual aristocracy.

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 York’s 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.

Twain’s 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 Vienna’s Jews became the victims of widespread attacks, both political and physical.

In March 1898, Harper’s Magazine published Twain’s 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.’"

Twain’s 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 end?

In response, Twain penned "Concerning the Jews," which Harper’s 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 America’s Jewish leadership, he proved correct. Jewish critics acknowledged Twain’s 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 Twain’s 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 Twain’s 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 Twain’s assertions "a libel on [the Jew’s] manhood and an outrage historically." Levy also challenged Twain’s 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 States.

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 Jew’s patriotism was not merely level with the Christian’s but overpassed it." Twain did not respond to Levy’s 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 York’s Hebrew Technical School for Girls: "In one of Mr. Clemens’s 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."

Source:  Michael Feldberg, PhD, reprinted with permission of the author.