Mark Twain's 10 Lessons for a Healthy Democracy: Keeping the Republic. By Donald Tiffany Bliss. Politics and Prose Bookstore, 2022. Pp. 192. Softcover. $14.99. ISBN 978-1-62429-409-9.

The following review appeared 25 July 2022 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2022 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Regardless of any American citizen's political views, perhaps all Americans can agree that our nation's politics seem more sharply divided than ever before and that this division places democracy itself under serious threat. Of course, in today's political climate, Americans may not arrive at that conclusion by the same pathways or apply the same logic to any possible solutions.

At a time like this, some will consult their Bibles, some will reflect on what history teaches us, some will look at the latest (ghost-written) book by some politician, and others will turn to their favorite television talking-heads. Sadly, and predictably, this results in wildly different explanations for the current state of affairs and generates conflicting proposals for any solutions. However, to keep this great republic that Benjamin Franklin famously worried about keeping, Twainians know exactly where to turn. Ask not what Jesus can do for you, but ask what the grand old man Himself had to say about our American Experiment.

Modern day Twainians would not be the first to seek out Twain's opinions on the state of our union. As a worldwide celebrity, Twain's opinions on all kinds of issues were sought-out by the press, and he seldom failed to oblige them. Twain was well-qualified to comment on all things political. He'd written on local politics at the beginning of his career in the 1850s, served as both a legislative clerk and a newspaper reporter in Nevada in the early 1860s, served as an aid to a US senator in the late 1860s, published the memoirs of one former US president (U. S. Grant), met Presidents Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt, and hung out in Bermuda with one future president, Woodrow Wilson. He campaigned against Tammany Hall in New York City, and spoke on copyright legislation before a US Senate Committee in Washington DC. The list of Twain's friends and acquaintances who were politicians or captains of industry is remarkably extensive for a 19th century literary figure. Emily Dickinson knew her flies and Herman Melville knew his whales, but Mark Twain knew everybody.

Who better to guide us through Mark Twain's thoughts on politics and governance than Don Bliss? Bliss is uniquely qualified to guide even the most experienced readers of Mark Twain's writings through Twain's commentary on politics, citizenship, government, and the democratic system. Besides being the great grandson of Mark Twain's publisher, Elisha Bliss, Donald Bliss served in the Federal government for thirteen years under five administrations and practiced law in Washington DC for over thirty years. He was the US ambassador to a Canadian aviation organization for three years, was the Executive Secretary to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and was acting General Counsel of the Department of Transportation. He was also a registered lobbyist, appeared before the Supreme Court, worked on a Presidential campaign, served on several nonprofit boards, and is the author of two books on legal matters.

Ten years ago, Bliss gave us Mark Twain's Tale of Today (2012, revised ed. 2016), in which Twain's words were applied to the state of politics at that moment. In that book Bliss anticipated the reader's perfectly understandable concern that he might twist Twain's words, angle the arguments, slant toward specific candidates, or advance various viewpoints. In his preface to that book Bliss wrote that he had "sought to differentiate between Clemens's views and [his] own views about how his commentary remains relevant today [and that he did not] mean to speculate as to what Clemens would have thought about the changed circumstances that even his most vivid of imaginations could scarcely have predicted . . ." In his new book Bliss steps even further back and lets Twain speak for himself. Twain's commentaries on events of his day apply to the present, and Bliss weaves them into a very readable and coherent narrative consistent with Twain's social and political philosophy. But Bliss puts the reader on notice at the onset: "Warning: this is not a book of witty aphorisms" (3).

Before Bliss's own book in 2012, there was Max Geismar, perhaps better-known for his introduction to Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice (1968). Geismar wrote Mark Twain: An American Prophet (1970) in which he presented Twain as the "conscience of America." Before Geismar, there was Louis J. Budd's Mark Twain: Social Philosopher (1962) which examined the mixture of liberal and conservative social views that Twain held. Before Budd there was Svend Petersen's Mark Twain and the Government (1960), a collection of Twain's quotes on government. Bliss acknowledges all of these works (7) and some others, but his book is not a rehash or blending of any of those previous studies. Rather than presenting Mark Twain from a particular viewpoint or compiling a jumble of aphorisms, Bliss draws upon a wide variety of Twain's writings to diagnose what ails our body politic, and not until the Epilogue does he offer prescriptions for its recovery. He studiously avoids intruding with his own views, and even in the Epilogue he avoids a partisan stance on any issue. Instead, Bliss poses many of his solutions in "the form of questions for the reader to contemplate" and warns that "the answers will be worthless, however, if they are viewed through a partisan lens" (132).

As the title makes clear, the book consists of ten "lessons" and Twain is the instructor. Twain's own words enrich almost every paragraph (sometimes they are the entire paragraph) and they are printed in bold italics, without pesky footnotes which would impede the flow. Every quote is carefully sourced and citations for every quote are found in the Notes (164-186). The quotes come from Twain's writings where a reader would expect to find expressions of his views on democracy: Twain's autobiographical writings, his letters, notebooks, interviews, speeches, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Gilded Age, collections of his essays like Mark Twain in Eruption, Jim Zwick's Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire, The Curious Republic of Gondour, and What is Man? But many quotes derive from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Christian Science, How to Tell a Story, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, Life on the Mississippi, Merry Tales, Extracts from Adam's Diary, Eve's Diary, The Innocents Abroad, and an array of unexpected sources (Bibliography, 154-163).

The resulting text is pleasant reading and full of surprises. Astute Twainians will be familiar with Twain's more famous quotes, but nobody will recognize all of them. Twain's most familiar quotes concern Congress, war, religion, cornpone opinions, missionaries, imperialism, racism, and his evolving views on women's suffrage. But there are equally good commentaries by Twain on corruption, voter apathy, rampant political ignorance, negative campaigning, corporate welfare, blind party allegiance, government regulation, tax policy, trade unions, worship of money and authority figures, monopolies, nationalism, an independent media, and the Supreme Court. Twain's words are equally distributed among the ten lessons, almost as if he drew up the lesson-plan himself. The ten lessons, briefly summarized by Bliss (9) are:

  1. Voters must be well informed and engaged.
  2. Patriotism is loyalty to country, not party.
  3. Democracy is threatened when genuine patriotism is ignored.
  4. Congress must reflect the will of the people, not moneyed interests or partisan politics.
  5. Government overreach, unaccountability, fiscal irresponsibility, and a flawed criminal justice system are threats to democracy.
  6. Racial injustice and gender discrimination are threats to democracy.
  7. Freedom of an aggressive independent press is essential to democracy.
  8. The separation of church and state is essential to democracy.
  9. A free economy depends on innovation and a skilled educated workforce.
  10. US foreign policy must reflect self-determination and peaceful dispute resolution.

In today's political climate when school boards and educators are threatened and under attack, recommending any book to the curriculum seems risky, but this book is easy to defend from criticism from the right or left. As Bliss points out, Twain "is widely quoted for almost any proposition. Liberal or conservative, he is an equal opportunity satirist" (3). Or as Twain memorably put it himself: "Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand" ("The Chronicle of Young Satan," The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts).

Bliss has done a genuine service by producing a book in which even a well-read Twainian will see things anew. His book, like Twain's own best writing, unites thought-provoking serious discussion with humor that is by turns both warm and scathing. This book, guided by Bliss's gentle reasoning, aided and abetted by Twain's assault, stands a good chance of uniting its readers.