Tolstoy and Twain – a hundred years gone, but around forever

Tolstoy and Twain – a hundred years gone, but around forever

2010 marks the centenary of the death of two of 19th century's greatest writers: Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy. Although the literary giants never met, they have a legacy in common: their gargantuan literary influence. George Orwell wrote (in a criticism of Tolstoy's criticism of Shakespeare), “Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival.” Touché. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

At a gathering of young playwrights, John Kani, the South African actor and playwright, was discussing the mystery of writing. Kani told his audience, “I find some perfect space and time. I want to write a monologue and so [in my mind] my uncle stands up and tells a story….”

And so it was as well for Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy. They told stories, great stories. And they both passed away a hundred years ago, this year – Tolstoy on 20 November, 1910 at a rural train station after fleeing his ancestral home, and Twain some seven months earlier, on 21 April, at his great Victorian gingerbread mansion in the small town New England of Redding, Connecticut.

Over his lifetime, Tolstoy produced sweeping, historically rooted stories like War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Hadji Murad – as well as works of deep religious fervour where he tried to answer the question he posed for himself in War and Peace:

Man in connection with the general life of humanity appears subject to laws which determine that life. But the same man apart from that connection appears to be free. How should the past life of nations and of humanity be regarded – as the result of the free, or as the result of the constrained, activity of man? That is a question for history.

This is also the man who would famously affix a smaller, more intimate truth onto the world in Anna Karenina – “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In contrast to Tolstoy, Mark Twain sidled up to those big questions, putting them in the hands of his seeming naifs and innocents, as in Huck Finn’s famous declaration: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Or with Huck’s moment of self-recognition and his glimmer of understanding about the true value of freedom: “I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.”

These two men, separated by thousands of kilometres, took hold of their respective countries’ national literatures throughout their long lives and remade them into their own. It comes as a bit of a shock, therefore, to realise that so few scholars and critics have tried to measure these two authors against each other. A persistent Google search reveals only a conference in Boston this past August bearing a title – drawn from Twain’s novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson: “The Very Ink With Which All History Is Written Is Merely Fluid Prejudice.” This is a sentiment that the elderly Tolstoy to which would probably have nodded his head in assent as well, as both men had turned away from organised religion later in life and moved on to more universal, more cosmic contemplations.

Leo Tolstoy was born a few years earlier than Twain at the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana (Clear Glade), in the Tula district, about a hundred kilometres from Moscow. Tolstoy was the scion of a long line of Russian nobility. His idyllic childhood was disrupted by the deaths of numerous family members and he entered Kazan University to study Asian and European languages (interestingly, Kazan University graduates include the important mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky and the equally important revolutionary leader named Vladimir Lenin). Tolstoy didn’t go beyond his second year at university, but his limited time there started him on the road to an acquaintanceship with at least a dozen languages.

Watch: Paramount’s War and Peace trailer (1956)

Tolstoy was, by all accounts, a wild, undisciplined young man. From university, he took the plunge to redirect his life by enlisting in the army to join his officer brother Nikolay, and then travelled with him through the newly annexed Caucasus region in Southern Russia, a trip that seems to have set him on his course as a writer. While in the army, Tolstoy fought in the Crimean War and then returned to the family estate before setting off for a round of European travel as a young but already increasingly successful author.

In Europe, he met the smart people, including Victor Hugo. While he was in France he would write after being shocked by a public execution that: “The truth is that the state is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens . . .. Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.” Some eighty years later, a young British Indian police officer, Eric Blair, himself at the start of becoming George Orwell, would mark his own rejection of empire from a very similar moment.

Summing up this intense, formative period of his life, Tolstoy later wrote:

I put men to death in war, I fought duels to slay others. I lost at cards, wasted the substance wrung from the sweat of peasants, punished the latter cruelly, rioted with loose women, and deceived men. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, and murder, all were committed by me, not one crime omitted, and yet I was not the less considered by my equals to be a comparatively moral man. Such was my life for ten years.

Tolstoy then married Sonya, the 19-year-old sister of a friend. She became the organiser of his world, typing his writing and helping manage the estate, but their relationship would go badly wrong, late in life, as Tolstoy’s spiritual radicalism moved him further and further from his wife’s values.

By the time Tolstoy was forty, he was about to finish creating War and Peace, a novel so massive in size and scope that actually reading it through to the end during a summer vacation has become cliché for a quest or an unsurmountable mountain. In War and Peace, the Napoleonic wars are the backdrop for Tolstoy’s exploration of the absurdity, hypocrisy, and shallowness of war and aristocratic society that reaches its climax during the Battle of Borodino. Perhaps only a writer like Tolstoy could reduce Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the country’s vast landscape to be the background for the story he really wanted to tell.

Russian critic and TV commentator Victor Erofeyev described Tolstoy’s literary ethos, arguing that:

When Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina throws herself under a train, what is it? Her punishment? High tragedy? The fate of fallen women? A delirious stream of consciousness? There is no answer. For that, in Tolstoy’s logic, you go to the police, not to the writer. In Dostoevsky, life is subservient to thought. In Tolstoy, thought is in a constant spin, like the grenade that will explode and take the life of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky [in War and Peace].

Despite self-doubt, religious introspection, and depression, Tolstoy finished War and Peace and then moved on to an arguably even greater work, Anna Karenina. In the years to come, an increasingly introspective collection of writings that began with Confessions and on to Resurrection led to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church, but his religious approach summoned a following of disciples dedicated to what became known as Tolstoyism. A hundred years later, remarkably, the church declined appeals to reconsider their earlier decision.

Late works like The Kingdom of God is Within You had a deep impact on the young Mahatma Gandhi (and thence onward to Martin Luther King as well), and Tolstoy and Gandhi began a correspondence about Gandhi’s idea of passive resistance. Gandhi acknowledged Tolstoy’s impact in his own autobiography, describing Tolstoy as “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced”. Although their correspondence only lasted about a year, Gandhi named his South African second ashram the Tolstoy Colony.

Tolstoy’s profoundly negative judgement on Shakespeare has helped fuel an ongoing argument about how to judge artistic worth. In his 1903 essay on Shakespeare, for example, Tolstoy wrote:

I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful aesthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth, not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium… Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness and bewilderment.

In response, forty years later, George Orwell, himself now a increasingly forceful writer and yet another largely self-taught writer, responded to Tolstoy’s criticisms in his own now-famous essay, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”. Orwell upbraided Tolstoy for trying to establish some sort of arcane religious test for greatness when he asks (and answers):

But here there arises a difficult question. If Shakespeare is all that Tolstoy has shown him to be, how did he ever come to be so generally admired? Evidently the answer can only lie in a sort of mass hypnosis, or “epidemic suggestion”. The whole civilized world has somehow been deluded into thinking Shakespeare a good writer, and even the plainest demonstration to the contrary makes no impression, because one is not dealing with a reasoned opinion but with something akin to religious faith….

Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion. Artistic theories such as Tolstoy’s are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (“sincere”, “important” and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses.

As Tolstoy’s death approached, he renounced his ancestral claim to his vast estate. As a result, his entire family, save for his youngest daughter Alexandra, rejected him in turn. Setting out on a new life at this late date in his life, he only made it as far as the stationmaster’s home at the Astapovo train station, where he died from pneumonia on November 20, 1910.

By contrast to Tolstoy’s aristocratic origins, Mark Twain came from a more modest background, in the river towns close to the American frontier, along the Mississippi River. But, as with Tolstoy, Twain’s father died young. Twain then educated himself from the contents of public libraries and from work as a printer’s apprentice in the towns and cities across an expanding nation. He became a skilled riverboat pilot, but then, as the American Civil War approached, Twain impulsively joined the Confederate army for two short weeks before, like his character, Huck Finn, he headed west, and, like Tolstoy, linked up with his brother.

Twain became secretary to the territorial governor of Nevada, and then, together with his brother Orion, he explored the west. He failed as a gold and silver prospector, but began his life as a writer, travelling as far as Hawaii and then as a reporter on one of history’s first special-purpose, charter cruises. This was a voyage to Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East with more than a hundred other Americans that became the basis for his hit memoir, The Innocents Abroad, which was released just as War and Peace was hitting the shelves. By the 1870s and ’80s, as an increasingly established author, Twain could roll out the shelf of works that made his lasting reputation: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Twain made numerous fortunes as a writer, a public lecturer and as a publisher. But, then, he lost several of them by investing in the 19th century technological equivalents of the dotcom boom and bust cycle.

While Twain initially secured his reputation as a humorist who brought a distinct American sensibility and colloquial humour to his writing, he made his most lasting impact in American letters with Huck Finn – a coming-of-age story that grasped the awkward core of America’s original sin of slavery. In creating a tale in which the best, most virtuous character is an African-American runaway slave who civilises his travelling companion, Twain produced a profoundly subversive literary work whose influence infiltrated American literature thereafter – marking out the path for works like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22. 

Watch: MGM Huckleberry Finn trailer (1939)

Years later, Ernest Hemingway wrote of Huckleberry Finn that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Some more recent critics have sometimes taken Huck Finn to be a racist tract, based on the frequent use of the clearly demeaning racial terminology throughout the book – leading to blacklisting campaigns to withdraw it from school reading lists. Others have defended it as a literary gem that undermines racial stereotyping and prejudice through irony, satire and sarcasm, as in Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s controversial analysis that is – wink wink, nudge nudge – subversively titled, “Was Huck Black?”  While Twain didn’t make a public point of it, he privately paid university tuitions for several African-American students over the years to attend top-tier schools like Yale University.

Mark Twain’s frankest views on and quarrels with organised religion – in some ways eerily paralleling Tolstoy’s – have only come to full public hearing in his autobiography, just published a century after his death. Twain wrote there that:

There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory. The invention of hell measured by our Christianity of today, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the deity nor his son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.

Amazingly, this autobiography has now become the publishing sensation of the year and the book is racing up the New York Times Best Seller List, threatening to sell 300,000 copies in hardcover alone.

In common with Tolstoy, Twain faced depression and self-doubt despite his success. And, as with Tolstoy, Twain also picked some serious literary fights, famously deriding James Fenimore Cooper’s books, as well as those by George Eliot, Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Although contemporary readers do not often see Twain as an avowedly political writer or activist, he became an increasingly angry foe of imperialism, just as an assertive, aggressive America was extending its dominion over Caribbean and Pacific islands, after its short war with Spain. About this war, Twain wrote:

I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific …Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? … I said to myself, here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American Constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves. But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris [which ended the Spanish-American War], and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem….

Twain’s political commentary, and especially the reappraisal now emerging out of the publishing phenomenon of his autobiography, has led more than one critic to argue that were Twain alive today, and with his capacity for churning out quick, deadly-accurate prose missiles, Twain would have been a prolific, influential blogger, followed by millions. He probably would have been a star on MSNBC as well.

While Twain became an entertaining, cantankerous public figure, enormously popular on the lecture circuit around the world, Tolstoy’s writing became a kind of universal critique of money and power. And his posthumously published novella, Hadji Murad, a sympathetic portrait of the Islam of the Czarist empire’s southern rim, has made Tolstoy probably the only admired Russian in Chechnya. Tolstoy’s experiences were distilled in works like The Cossacks, The Raid, and Hadji Murad, and they offered a sense of place and understanding of the Caucasus that became prescient when Russia was once again at war there in the 1990s. And Tolstoy’s response to Chechnya and the Chechens in the 1850s can even be read as a parallel to Twain’s revulsion against American imperialism, a half century later.

A museum devoted to Leo Tolstoy has recently reopened in the Chechen village of Starogladovskaya where he spent time in the 1850s, when warned of the pitfalls of Russia’s imperial quest to conquer the heavily Muslim Northern Caucasus. There is even a village named Tolstoy-Yurt in his honour in that region. When his descendant, Vladimir Tolstoy, the writer’s great-great-grandson, went to Starogladovskaya a decade ago he told the New York Times, then, that:

“I visited the museum at that moment and it completely amazed me,” he said. “It is the only museum on the territory of Chechnya that didn’t close and worked during the entire war,” he said. “The monument to Tolstoy in the courtyard of this museum was never destroyed. It stood the whole time. Of course, this was a great contrast to what I saw at that time in the capital, in Grozny, where the national museum was destroyed and looted…. “The Chechen people think that Tolstoy wrote most truthfully of the events that happened then and the character of the mountain peoples, their striving to be independent, for freedom, and their religious, ethnic and other particularities,” said Mr. Tolstoy. “Tolstoy, in spite of the fact that he was an aristocrat, a Russian count, was very democratic and open. He had friends among the Chechens.”

Between the two of them, Twain and Tolstoy, their stories have inspired dozens of films and made-for-TV movies. Their own lives have triggered yet more stage presentations and movies, including actor Hal Holbrooke’s Mark Twain Tonight and a recent film, The Last Station. 

Some years ago, on a cold, snowy evening while staying in a hotel in northern Japan, this writer absently turned on the TV and was totally captured by a Russian TV-BBC co-production of Anna Karenina. The story was familiar, but a chance to see the story as Russians saw it was hypnotic. If Twain would have been an in-your-face political blogger if he were around today, to this writer at least, Tolstoy almost certainly would have become a filmmaker in the David Lean mode – with broad, sweeping vistas competing for attention with the intricate plots.

But, beyond all this, it just seems a shame Tolstoy and Twain never had a chance to meet – it surely would have been one heckuva conversation. DM

For more, read Online-literature, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Boston University, the New York Times, the New York Times and the New York Times. But above all, read their own writing.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons.


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