Mark Twain made up my mind about the influence of bad ideas in literature, and he accomplished this by jabbing at my soft underbelly––my Southern identity. Born in Louisiana (any farther South, I used to joke, and I’d have drowned in the Gulf) I managed to lose the accent along the way and consequently I can “pass” for what I am not. I don’t talk like a Southerner and I never thought of myself as a Southerner, either––geographically, perhaps, but not culturally––until in 2006 I moved to the Dakotas. All at once, I felt my Southernness rather strongly in a fish-out-of-water sort of way. I now think of myself as an expatriate. Like James Joyce. (Delusions of grandeur?)
Some Southerners bask in pride, but I was never that sort. Instead, much like a kid my age growing up in West Germany, I felt a kind of war guilt, the burden of knowing ones’ ancestors fought on the wrong side. Why had they done it? And why couldn’t their descendants let it go? I wasn’t sure. Mark Twain seemed to blame Walter Scott:
A curious exemplification of the power of a single book for good or harm is shown in the effects wrought by Don Quixote and those wrought by Ivanhoe. The first swept the world’s admiration for the medieval chivalry-silliness out of existence; and the other restored it. As far as our South is concerned, the good work done by Cervantes is pretty nearly a dead letter, so effectually has Scott’s pernicious work undermined it.
Sir Walter Scott was “pernicious”? Twain insists on it. He lays out the case in Life on the Mississippi, a book that instilled in me such dreams of sailing down that river, until a kind soul pointed out that the Mississippi is not the Rhine (i.e., it isn’t beautiful). Not only did Scott’s bloated, grandiloquent style come to dominate nineteenth century letters, but his preoccupation with honor and chivalry sewed the seeds of war.
[In the South], the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner–or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it–would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.
Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition.
According to Twain, the popularity of Scott swept away not just Quixotic skepticism, but also the democratic substitution of meritocracy for aristocracy:
Against the crimes of the French Revolution and of Bonaparte may be set two compensating benefactions: the Revolution broke the chains of the Ancien Regime and of the Church, and made of a nation of abject slaves a nation of freemen; and Bonaparte instituted the setting of merit above birth, and also so completely stripped the divinity from royalty, that whereas crowned heads in Europe were gods before, they are only men since, and can never be gods again, but only figureheads, and answerable for their acts like common clay. Such benefactions as these compensate the temporary harm which Bonaparte and the Revolution did, and leave the world in debt to them for these great and permanent services to liberty, humanity, and progress.
Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still.
And the falseness of Scott’s aesthetic even introduced bad faith into the architecture of the South:
Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the [Louisiana] Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque ‘chivalry’ doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it. It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things–materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not–should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.
This goes a long way in explaining why, when Twain decided to take up the mantle of Cervantes and skewer medieval chivalry, it was a Connecticut Yankee and not a Southern Gentleman he had to send back in time. The Southerner, presumably, would have been right at home and all too pleased to leave things as he found them.
Twain, of course, was no stranger to criticism, both literary and cultural. He didn’t reserve all his scorn for Sir Walter Scott–there was plenty of contempt left over for James Fennimore Cooper. But it’s interesting to look back from the vantage point of the twenty-first century and see how a body of work now regarded as innocuous could have been credited with promoting our greatest national catastrophe — Ivanhoe as a bookend to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Whether Twain’s hyperbole hits on an underlying truth or not I can’t say, not being a scholar of the period, but I have to admit he’s got me half convinced despite contemporary skepticism about the power of fiction.
And for the record, say what you want: I like Ivanhoe.