Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War

Mark Twain

Book cover

This volume is out of print and tends to be priced pretty high online, but I was able to get it through interlibrary loan. I’m interested in the Philippine American War, and the way it is silenced in American history, so I was intrigued to learn that Mark Twain had been an outspoken opponent of it. This book is a collection of Twain’s anti-imperialist writings, including published articles, but also letters and unpublished works.

For the most part, I didn’t find it that interesting–from the perspective of someone primarily interested in the Philippines, the content of the pieces tends to be just generically anti-imperialist, without engaging much in the specifics of the PAW. The strongest piece in the collection, for me, was an unpublished review of a biography of Emilio Aguinaldo, one of the revolutionary leaders of the Philippines. This piece really does engage with the specifics of Aguinaldo’s life, and Twain draws an interesting analogy to orient an American reader–describing Aguinaldo’s rise as the equivalent of a poor Black kid becoming a political leader in the Deep South. It’s a shame this piece doesn’t seem to be available elsewhere, as the rest of the book didn’t rise to the same level of interest for me.

I was also frustrated by one aspect of Twain’s writings. In railing against imperialism, he often frames the issue as the “British/European” tradition of empire versus the “American” tradition of respecting others’ self-determination, and criticizing the annexation of the Philippines and other territories as counter to American values. This, of course, ignores the entire history of America’s violent annexation of the territories of Native people. I’d rather Twain have appealed to the self-determination ideal, which certainly is a part of American culture, while also recognizing that our history has very often fallen short of it.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars

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