‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ was my introduction to classical literature and still stands as one of my favourite novels. The eponymous character endeared himself to me from the opening sentences: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary.”
Mark Twain had a thing about truth and lying, mainly the latter. Several of his novels are woven around plots involving lies, deception and people masquerading as other people – in short, impostures of one sort or another. Huckleberry Finn himself is the archetypal parentless boy who bluffs his way through life as the only way he knows of surviving. Both Huck and Jim, the black slave whom he befriends, are runaways, one from a society that wants to control and ‘sivilize’ him, the other from slave-traders who see him simply as a piece of merchandise.
My interest in the author was re-awakened recently when I discovered an essay by Cynthia Ozick in ‘Commentary’ (1995) titled ‘Mark Twain and the Jews’. It turns out that Mark Twain the novelist was also a journalist with the instincts of a bloodhound in his search for the truth behind some of the antisemitic myths of the day. A particular myth which exercises him profoundly is one that impugns the Jewish sense of probity in regard to financial transactions but he also gives short shrift to other antisemitic myths which would have the Jew as an unpatriotic coward, a trouble-maker and a burden on society.
His essay, ‘Concerning the Jews’ is a model of investigative journalism. He states at the outset that “if I thought myself prejudiced against the Jew, I should hold it fairest to leave this subject to a person not crippled in that way. But I think I have no such prejudice.”
That, of course, could be the voice of today’s Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the British Labour Party and a well-known antisemite versed in the contortionist’s art of disguising his antisemitism as anti-Zionism. But Mark Twain was no politician with an axe to grind. For one thing, he was an outspoken Dreyfusard in the conflict which at its heart was about the scapegoating of a loyal Jewish officer in the French Army. For another, he had impeccable credentials when it came to denouncing racism on his home ground. The title of another of his essays, ‘The United States of Lyncherdom’, speaks for itself.
One of his correspondents asks him why the Jew is forever vilified. The question is posed, “Can ignorance and fanaticism alone account for this unjust treatment?” Twain notes that “The Jew is not a disturber of the peace of any country…he is not a loafer, he is not a sot, he is not noisy, nor a rioter, he is not quarrelsome. In the statistics of crime his presence is conspicuously rare…the (Jewish) family is knitted together by the strongest affections. The Jew is not a burden on the charities of the state nor of the city”. In short, Twain observes, the Jew is “a good and orderly citizen…as honest as the average of his neighbours.”
So why is it, asks Twain, that the Jew has suffered such implacable hatred and persecution? Here he turns to the biblical story of Joseph, who, during the years of plenty and famine in Egypt, opportunistically seized the nation’s assets and in so doing reduced the Egyptian people to penury and servitude. That story burnt its way into the collective consciousness, says Twain, and set the stamp on a dozen similar episodes, both before and after the Crucifixion, in which Jewish shrewdness, insight and knowledge in the field of commerce out-manoeuvred the non-Jew and left him at a disadvantage.
Since there was no other way to compete with the Jew, legislation was introduced to restrict or expel him, says Twain. Trades and professions were denied him – except usury, causing him to sharpen and refine his wits in this narrowest of domains if he was to avoid starvation. The Jew was hated for his ability to succeed commercially, and it was this, Twain argues, more than any question of religion, which was responsible for antisemitism throughout the ages.
In reviewing a paper on so far-ranging and controversial a subject as the origins of antisemitism, the selection of illustrative quotes no doubt reflects the reviewer’s bias. Mine will be self-evident. I have nothing but admiration for Mark Twain’s bold and humane attempt to research the issue. Cynthia Ozick is less sympathetic. She takes Mark Twain to task for complicity in the antisemitic myth of the Jew as “money getter”, especially, as she points out, “at a time when the mass emigration of poor Jews by the hundreds of thousands had already begun to cram the steerage compartments of transoceanic ships”.
But Mark Twain is nothing if not relentless in his search for the truth. He paints a vivid picture of the Jew as a model citizen who early on recognised the need to amass wealth as a means of self-protection and cultivated his talents to that end. He explains how it came about that the Jew’s rivals and competitors in the human jungle, finding themselves edged out of the survival stakes, turned to violence, both legislative and physical, in order to recover lost ground and he shows how the Jew, as a result, became the victim of an eternally seething brew of hatred and bitterness.
In one single shaft of psychological insight, Mark Twain highlights the price which the Jews have paid for their survival over the centuries: they have incurred the envy of others because of their success in the face of adversity. Until this hate-generating dynamic can be named and owned by the perpetrators of antisemitism, the future for us as Jews and for humankind as a species remains as precarious as it was in 1898, when Mark Twain wrote his article.