This site is owned and maintained by William Ames,
a member of the Modern Language Association

Mark Twain and John Dos Passos On War

Mark Twain an John Dos Passos have similar viewpoints of war in their writings, although Twain is a traditional 19th century fiction writer, and Dos Passos is a modernist of the Harlem Renaissance; from Twain, The War Prayer, and Dos Passos, The Body of an American.

A personal biography, of sorts, is necessary to understand the political climates each writer faced, and also their own political viewpoints. Twain wrote The War Prayer in response to the Spanish/American war. Having written works such as Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it is ironic that in his later years he would write political satire and become something of an activist. Twain joined the American Anti-Imperialist League as a pulpit for his views. Feeling that Americaís involvement with Spain was simply an attempt to further colonize, he spoke out vehemently against the war, which was unexpected from the masses familiar with his more light-hearted fictional writings. His last years were spent abroad, mostly in England and Austria, and he became well known more for his philosophy than his fiction. Earning an honorary degree from Oxford, and completing several important works on imperialism and racism, Twain died leaving many unfinished undertakings in 1910. (Lauter, 213)

Had Twain not been such a popular author, his later texts, including The War Prayer, To the Person Sitting in Darkness, and Pudd‘nhead Wilson, may have gone unnoticed, however, they are now considered by many to be his best. (Lauter, 213)

The writings of John Dos Passos are heavily influenced by his experience with war in The Great War, now known as World War I, where he volunteered as an ambulance driver. Schooled in the traditional ways, and eventually attending Harvard University, Dos Passos was obviously affected. World War I left many with the aura of hopelessness, as entire cities and cultures were destroyed. A sense of fracture and incompleteness are expressed in writings of the period. Dos Passos, too, left a sense of dazed bewilderment is his writings. Three Soldiers savages the traditions and purposes of army in a civilized world, and he became involved in radical political causes, writing for New Masses, the New Playwrights Theatre and his major manuscript, U.S.A. Like Twain, Dos Passos was schooled in tradition and later spoke out angrily against war, but unlike Twain, he never enjoyed the same notoriety with the non-literary populace. (Lauter, 1743)

Despite their different styles, Twain, traditional and fictional, and Dos Passos, modernist and fictional, their are a number of similarities in their works The War Prayer, and The Body of an American (from U.S.A.) The first similarity is, of course, that they both speak out against U.S. involvement in foreign war, but on a much deeper level, they share similar metaphors and rhetoric. In The War Prayer, Twain places the reader in a church where a clerical figure is blessing the troops as they go off to do battle. The sermon uses powerful language and summons pictures of righteousness:

"God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,

thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!"
A stranger then enters and tells about the truths and horrors of war, he uses similar words, but speaks of blowing the enemy to bits and turning out families to poverty and starvation. The congregation regards him as a lunatic. (Lauter, 420)

The language of Dos Passos in The Body of an American is more colorful than Twain‘s, using a modernist approach. He plays with words, tone and point of view. His characters speak in dialect, a concept pioneered by Twain, and he makes use of non-traditional forms to express himself. The introspection and abstractions of his work do share similarities with Twain. He begins with an official-sounding declaration that is run together without punctuation or word space, and it has the sense of monotony as when grade school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance. A longer text than Twain‘s, Dos Passos tells the story of the Tomb of the Unknowns, and how a body may have been picked to represent the "American" soldier. Hinting at racism and using a speech from President Harding, he describes later in the text the horrors of war as seen by "John Doe", much like Twain‘s "messenger".

The president‘s speech reads like the sermon in The War Prayer, in that its language is flourished and righteous. The president misquotes The Lord‘s Prayer, perhaps pointing out the hypocrisy of the event.

"Our father which art in heaven hallowed be thy name . . ."

The actual prayer uses ‘who’ instead of ‘which’, and there should be a comma after ‘heaven’. This may be a hint of the fallibility and deceit of authority. (Lauter, 1746)

In both texts, the authoritarian figure is portrayed as a mouthpiece for a greater power whose task it is to lead soldiers into battle with honor and glory—not the truth.

Dos Passos uses John Doe as a device to illustrate the namelessness of the soldiers fighting in the war. Although not directly stated, Twain implies a namelessness to the soldiers in The War Prayer by not mentioning details of their lives, pointing out individual characteristics or bringing any of the characters to the story.

Both texts describe an authority, unnamed, that guides the masses to war like lemmings to the sea, and it is this point that both so eloquently state. In The War Prayer, Twain uses the messenger figure as a device to shock the masses, and they display ignorance of his purpose, and carry on the tradition of unquestioning loyalty to the church and their country. His placement of the story in a church suggests divine power, and comments on the unquestioning congregation. Dos Passos composes an elegy of nameless, numbered soldiers that blindly do as told and die bravely. The speech by the president stands as a symbol of American government, and the Lord‘s Prayer, a symbol of the church.

Although The Body of an American contains many more rich examples and illustrations of Dos Passos’ views, they share no similarities with Twain except in the overall tone of the writing. Twain‘s work is short and poignant, but remains mysterious unless the reader has a knowledge of his personal politics. Dos Passos uses his Harlem Renaissance style well, and to the reader, the meaning is much more apparent on its own merit. Both works illustrate the intentions of the authors and say them with pleasing language of their own styles. Both texts warn of American involvement in foreign wars, depict how the soldier has become a nameless collective, and each leaves the reader with a sense of resonance.

Works Cited

Lauter, Paul, General Editor. The Heath Anthology of American Literature, vol. II, 2nd edition.
New York: Heath, 1994

Home|Forum|Guest Poets|Poetry and Literature |Sleeping Giant|Bill's Home Page | Modern War Poetry

This page is the Property of William Ames - All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 1996-2009
Poems with listed authors remain copyright of the author