When Samuel Clemens “went out” with Halley’s Comet in 1910, as he had long predicted he would, he left behind a wealth of unpublished material composed under his famous pseudonym Mark Twain. Slowly, works trickled out that Clemens either hadn’t dared to publish in his lifetime or couldn’t find a publisher brave enough to issue. The Mysterious Stranger, Incident in the Philippines, Letters from the Earth, and other anti-imperialist, anti-religious works revealed new sides to the man many had dismissed as a mere humorist.
Now, we proudly present a new unpublished work by the inexhaustible Mark Twain—as well as yet another side. In “The Walt Whitman Controversy,” we see Twain’s trademark biting humor, but also the extent to which he bridled against the editorial constraints he endured along with Whitman, the depth of his deep dislike for the arbitrariness of censorship. Just as importantly, we see—and see, Ed Folsom and Jerome Loving point out in their introduction, as never before—Twain’s kinship with Whitman.
But David Caplan, in his essay after, cautions against mistaking that kinship for a meeting of minds. He contrasts Twain’s view of America with Whitman’s, using another posthumous Twain work, “The War Prayer,” as a striking example. Its bitterness may be a dead-end, Caplan worries, even if it seems easier to swallow at this moment than Whitman’s more optimistic view of America.
Perhaps it is time, as Caplan suggests, to seek an American middle ground. Twain himself despaired, “Arguments have no chance against petrified training.” The solution may not be more forceful arguments, but further discoveries and discussions such as those that follow, which may just make for less petrified training.