The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac
_Mark Twain's 10 Lessons for a Healthy Democracy: Keeping the Republic_. By
Donald Tiffany Bliss. Politics and Prose Bookstore, 2022. Pp. 192.
Softcover. $14.99. ISBN 978-1-62429-409-9.
Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell
Copyright (c) 2022 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
Regardless of any American citizen's political views, perhaps all Americans
can agree that our nation's politics seem more sharply divided than ever
before and that this division places democracy itself under serious threat.
Of course, in today's political climate, Americans may not arrive at that
conclusion by the same pathways or apply the same logic to any possible
At a time like this, some will consult their Bibles, some will reflect on
what history teaches us, some will look at the latest (ghost-written) book
by some politician, and others will turn to their favorite television
talking-heads. Sadly, and predictably, this results in wildly different
explanations for the current state of affairs and generates conflicting
proposals for any solutions. However, to keep this great republic that
Benjamin Franklin famously worried about keeping, Twainians know exactly
where to turn. Ask not what Jesus can do for you, but ask what the grand
old man Himself had to say about our American Experiment.
Modern day Twainians would not be the first to seek out Twain's opinions on
the state of our union. As a worldwide celebrity, Twain's opinions on all
kinds of issues were sought-out by the press, and he seldom failed to
oblige them. Twain was well-qualified to comment on all things political.
He'd written on local politics at the beginning of his career in the 1850s,
served as both a legislative clerk and a newspaper reporter in Nevada in
the early 1860s, served as an aid to a US senator in the late 1860s,
published the memoirs of one former US president (U. S. Grant), met
Presidents Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt, and hung out in Bermuda
with one future president, Woodrow Wilson. He campaigned against Tammany
Hall in New York City, and spoke on copyright legislation before a US
Senate Committee in Washington DC. The list of Twain's friends and
acquaintances who were politicians or captains of industry is remarkably
extensive for a 19th century literary figure. Emily Dickinson knew her
flies and Herman Melville knew his whales, but Mark Twain knew everybody.
Who better to guide us through Mark Twain's thoughts on politics and
governance than Don Bliss? Bliss is uniquely qualified to guide even the
most experienced readers of Mark Twain's writings through Twain's
commentary on politics, citizenship, government, and the democratic system.
Besides being the great grandson of Mark Twain’s publisher, Elisha Bliss,
Donald Bliss served in the Federal government for thirteen years under five
administrations and practiced law in Washington DC for over thirty years.
He was the US ambassador to a Canadian aviation organization for three
years, was the Executive Secretary to the Department of Health, Education
and Welfare, and was acting General Counsel of the Department of
Transportation. He was also a registered lobbyist, appeared before the
Supreme Court, worked on a Presidential campaign, served on several
nonprofit boards, and is the author of two books on legal matters.
Ten years ago, Bliss gave us _Mark Twain's Tale of Today_ (2012, revised
ed. 2016), in which Twain's words were applied to the state of politics at
that moment. In that book Bliss anticipated the reader's perfectly
understandable concern that he might twist Twain's words, angle the
arguments, slant toward specific candidates, or advance various viewpoints.
In his preface to that book Bliss wrote that he had "sought to
differentiate between Clemens's views and [his] own views about how his
commentary remains relevant today [and that he did not] mean to speculate
as to what Clemens would have thought about the changed circumstances that
even his most vivid of imaginations could scarcely have predicted . . ."
In his new book Bliss steps even further back and lets Twain speak for
himself. Twain's commentaries on events of his day apply to the present,
and Bliss weaves them into a very readable and coherent narrative
consistent with Twain's social and political philosophy. But Bliss puts the
reader on notice at the onset: "Warning: this is not a book of witty
Before Bliss's own book in 2012, there was Max Geismar, perhaps
better-known for his introduction to Eldridge Cleaver's _Soul on Ice_
(1968). Geismar wrote _Mark Twain: An American Prophet_ (1970) in which he
presented Twain as the "conscience of America." Before Geismar, there was
Louis J. Budd's _Mark Twain: Social Philosopher_ (1962) which examined the
mixture of liberal and conservative social views that Twain held. Before
Budd there was Svend Petersen's _Mark Twain and the Government_ (1960), a
collection of Twain's quotes on government. Bliss acknowledges all of these
works (7) and some others, but his book is not a rehash or blending of any
of those previous studies. Rather than presenting Mark Twain from a
particular viewpoint or compiling a jumble of aphorisms, Bliss draws upon a
wide variety of Twain's writings to diagnose what ails our body politic,
and not until the Epilogue does he offer prescriptions for its recovery. He
studiously avoids intruding with his own views, and even in the Epilogue he
avoids a partisan stance on any issue. Instead, Bliss poses many of his
solutions in "the form of questions for the reader to contemplate" and
warns that "the answers will be worthless, however, if they are viewed
through a partisan lens" (132).
As the title makes clear, the book consists of ten "lessons" and Twain is
the instructor. Twain's own words enrich almost every paragraph (sometimes
they _are_ the entire paragraph) and they are printed in bold italics,
without pesky footnotes which would impede the flow. Every quote is
carefully sourced and citations for every quote are found in the Notes
(164-186). The quotes come from Twain's writings where a reader would
expect to find expressions of his views on democracy: Twain's
autobiographical writings, his letters, notebooks, interviews, speeches, _A
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_, _The Gilded Age_, collections
of his essays like _Mark Twain in Eruption_, Jim Zwick's _Mark Twain's
Weapons of Satire_, _The Curious Republic of Gondour_, and _What is Man?_.
But many quotes derive from _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_, _Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn_, _Christian Science_, _How to Tell a Story_, _The Man
That Corrupted Hadleyburg_, _Life on the Mississippi_, _Merry Tales_,
_Extracts from Adam's Diary_, _Eve's Diary_, _The Innocents Abroad_, and an
array of unexpected sources (Bibliography, 154-163).
The resulting text is pleasant reading and full of surprises. Astute
Twainians will be familiar with Twain's more famous quotes, but nobody will
recognize all of them. Twain's most familiar quotes concern Congress, war,
religion, cornpone opinions, missionaries, imperialism, racism, and his
evolving views on women's suffrage. But there are equally good commentaries
by Twain on corruption, voter apathy, rampant political ignorance, negative
campaigning, corporate welfare, blind party allegiance, government
regulation, tax policy, trade unions, worship of money and authority
figures, monopolies, nationalism, an independent media, and the Supreme
Court. Twain's words are equally distributed among the ten lessons, almost
as if he drew up the lesson-plan himself. The ten lessons, briefly
summarized by Bliss (9) are:
(1) Voters must be well informed and engaged.
(2) Patriotism is loyalty to country, not party.
(3) Democracy is threatened when genuine patriotism is ignored.
(4) Congress must reflect the will of the people, not moneyed interests or
(5) Government overreach, unaccountability, fiscal irresponsibility, and a
flawed criminal justice system are threats to democracy.
(6) Racial injustice and gender discrimination are threats to democracy.
(7) Freedom of an aggressive independent press is essential to democracy.
(8) The separation of church and state is essential to democracy.
(9) A free economy depends on innovation and a skilled educated workforce.
(10) US foreign policy must reflect self-determination and peaceful dispute
In today's political climate when school boards and educators are
threatened and under attack, recommending any book to the curriculum seems
risky, but this book is easy to defend from criticism from the right or
left. As Bliss points out, Twain "is widely quoted for almost any
proposition. Liberal or conservative, he is an equal opportunity satirist"
(3). Or as Twain memorably put it himself: "Against the assault of laughter
nothing can stand" ("The Chronicle of Young Satan," _The Mysterious
Bliss has done a genuine service by producing a book in which even a
well-read Twainian will see things anew. His book, like Twain's own best
writing, unites thought-provoking serious discussion with humor that is by
turns both warm and scathing. This book, guided by Bliss's gentle
reasoning, aided and abetted by Twain's assault, stands a good chance of
uniting its readers.