The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion >  International



Mark Twain’s “Courage to Accept Weakness”
—American Literary Works That Should Be Read Again Today

Tsuyoshi Ishihara
Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, School of Education, Waseda University

It may sound abrupt, but please allow me to present a ranking of celebrities published in a certain magazine. Michael Jackson ranks fifth, Bob Dylan fourth, Madonna third, and Elvis Presley second. Given the ranking up to this point, who would you guess is first on the list? “If this is a poll on the most popular musician, the only candidate left is the Beatles,” one would say. Surprisingly, the answer is Mark Twain. As you know, he was a great American writer who passed away more than 100 years ago. Then you would wonder what really connects Elvis and Madonna to Twain. In fact, this is a ranking of America’s most prominent pop icons that was part of the feature article included in the 2015 spring issue of Smithsonian, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum and research complex in America. As might be expected of a journal published by an authoritative organization, the editors say that they took a wide range of elements into account when establishing the ranking procedures and ranked pop icons as objectively as possible. Apparently, it is not a random ranking.

Mark Twain, a great American writer (1835–1910)

Why, then, does Twain continue to capture the hearts of ordinary Americans like Elvis and Madonna do? Such was the question that first came to mind when NHK approached me at the end of last year to work as a lecturer for a radio program on Mark Twain. I have continued researching the American writer in some way or another for more than 20 years, so I am able to talk in my own way about the appeal of Twain. There is no guarantee, however, that my view of the American writer thus formed is not a specialist’s self-complacent one. In particular, if I were to write a text and talk on a radio program with ordinary readers and listeners in mind, drawing closer to the hearts of ordinary people would be more important than anything else when talking about the appeal of Twain. And in reality, such an approach would lead to an understanding of the essentials of Twain’s literary works. Such were the thoughts I had when I started to work for this radio program.

NHK Culture Radio: The World of Literature Mark Twain (written by Tsuyoshi Ishihara)

Incidentally, the subtitle of the NHK Culture Radio program Mark Twain—The Compass of Life is Courage to Accept Weakness. Actually, this was one of the titles the editor in charge of the program text proposed when I was wondering what the title should be after I finished writing the text. Honestly, when I saw this proposed title, I realized for the first time that it was exactly what I wanted to convey to readers through Twain.

How, then, did Twain accept human weakness? Let me cite only one example. As is often said, Twain became pessimistic in his later years as he experienced a succession of misfortunes such as the bankruptcy of the company he ran, huge amounts of debt, and the deaths of family members. In particular, the notion that “Man is a machine,” which Twain put forward in his late works, is often cited as an example to support this view. His view of man as described above is clearly expressed in the masterpiece from his later years, What Is Man? (1906). In this essay, which consists of a philosophical dialogue between a young man and an old man, the latter, who reminds one of Twain, flat out denies the view of the former, who believes in the free will of humans. According to the old man, humans are rather somewhat like a machine that is driven by huge systems such as the environment and genetics and cannot create anything through his free will.

Certainly, there are various opinions for and against Twain’s dispassionate view of humans. But true or not, one thing we can say for sure is that Twain did not expect much of humans. Twain tolerated humans—something like a leaf buffeted by enormous forces such as the environment and genetics. Reading his stories makes me even think that judging a person without free will is pointless in the first place as a machine cannot be taken to court.

With the development of modern awareness, the notion emphasizing the freedom of individuals has taken root in society, and as a result, people living today have the privilege of enjoying freedoms unimaginable in the past. On the other hand, however, if one cannot achieve results and meet expectations, the responsibility is often placed on the individual. In a worst case scenario, those who cannot find a way out are thrown into despair and commit suicide, and there is no end to such cases. At such moments, if they stop briefly and realize that humans are actually not such respectable creatures, they may be able to find clues to put up with themselves as they cannot bring results and meet expectations. And that will probably lead to tolerating others as they face similar types of suffering.

Certainly, there is no doubt that the spirit of tolerance alone will lead to an irresponsible society. In particular, unless individuals are properly held responsible for violating rules and disrupting the peace, there is little hope that a society in which all people can live with a sense of security can exist. But at the same time, shouldn’t we reconsider expecting too much of people these days and listen to the opinions of Twain? In the first place, people never seek to live in an intolerable society characterized by friction and discord which turns a blind eye to their weaknesses. I am sure that listeners who feel empathy with such thoughts will enjoy my talks about various topics on Twain quite a bit.

(*NHK Culture Radio: The World of Literature Mark Twain—The Compass of Life, broadcast on NHK Radio 2 from July 7 to September 29 on Thursdays between 8:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. and rebroadcast on Thursdays between 10:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.; also broadcast on NHK Net Radio RADIRU RADIRU)

Tsuyoshi Ishihara
Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, School of Education, Waseda University

Brief history
Prof. Tsuyoshi Ishihara was born in Tokyo in 1971. He completed the doctorate degree at the College of Liberal Arts (American Studies), University of Texas at Austin, and obtained a Ph.D. there. His field of expertise is American literature and culture. He is a professor at Waseda University Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences. He has held posts such as a member of the editorial board at the American Literature Society of Japan and the secretary general of the Japan Mark Twain Society. His writings include Mark Twain in Japan (Hiroshi Shimizu Award of the Japanese Association for American Studies), Mark Twain and Japan (award of the English Literary Society of Japan, Tohoku Chapter, and the encouragement award of the Japan Society for Children’s Literature), and A Literary and Cultural Companion to Mark Twain.