Wednesday, August 31, 2016


The Statesman and the Storyteller is Mark Zwonitzer's chronicle of a very important and understudied period in American history: when we turned into an imperialist, worldwide power. His vehicle for exploring this time is by looking at two of the period's central figures, John Hay and Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Hay was Secretary of State in the administrations of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and Clemens was America's most celebrated writer at the time. Hay, who first became prominent in his twenties as a secretary of Abraham Lincoln, was nearly universally respected in American political circles, and his deft hand was largely responsible for easing tensions with Great Britain in the late 1890's, putting teeth into the Monroe Doctrine, and making sure that China was spared the worst of the depredations planned for it by Germany and Russia. Clemens was out of the country for most of the last twenty years of his life, and the chapters dealing with him can be subtitled "How a Humorist Deals With Deadly Serious Matters," as he stared down huge debt problems and the deaths of his daughters and wife.
The book is too long, and passes over much of the first decade of the twentieth century too quickly. But it does impart a great deal of information both about its subjects and the time period it covers. I took away two major insights from the book: 1) The assuming of authority in the Philippines was as nasty and brutal a war as any nation has ever undertaken. Quite simply, the United States of America was guilty of atrocity and war crimes; it was justified by the ever-present gangrene on the American soul, racism. The inability to eradicate racism from American life on all levels is much more understandable now than it was when I was younger, because it is so deeply ingrained and has been so necessary to justify so much of what has happened her since 1607. From slavery to the wars of conquest of the Indians to the Philippines to Jim Crow to what we see today--it's a part of the American character, at least the power structure. And I have much more of an idea why foreigners think we are hypocrites of the first degree--because we have a four hundred year history of actions not matching words. 2) Theodore Roosevelt was a prick. Aside from his politics, which in the time and place could have been worse, he was just a difficult, narcissistic, heartless man. He essentially worked Hay to death. Hay was a very sick man at the time Roosevelt assumed office, and wanted nothing more than to retire and enjoy his final years in the company of his family. Roosevelt refused to accept his resignations, more than once, and even at the end of Hay's life, rather churlishly was heard to blame Hay for leaving unfinished business. Roosevelt's unvarnished, racist imperialism was one of the driving forces behind the land grabs of the period, and his unceasing rhetoric about "manliness' and image sounds like a disturbed middle school youth to modern eyes and ears. He had some good qualities, and in domestic politics actually wasn't a bad President. But as a person, and in foreign matters--he was an asshole.
This book took me nearly two weeks to finish, mostly because it is 550 pages long and it really doesn't flow well. But it is informative, and the story it tells is worth telling.

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