Mark Twain and the Jews

Copyright © 1993 by Bob Michael

This electronic text is from TwainWeb, the web service of the Mark Twain Forum

Mark Twain was another writer whose work on the Jews was filled with antisemitic stereotypes.[1] Providing an insight into the origins of his anti-Jewish feelings, Twain wrote: "I was raised to a prejudice against Jews--Christians always are, you know--but such as I had was in my head, there wasn't any in my heart."[2] In Hannibal, Missouri, where Twain grew up, the children were subjected to antisemitism in public and Sunday school, the town newspapers, and many, no doubt, by their parents.[3] In November 1853, a sixteen-year-old Twain wrote from Philadelphia that the Jewish presence had "desecrated" two historic homes there. And in a newspaper article of 10 April 1857 he asserted that "the blasted Jews got to adulterating the fuel." Although he later indicated that his experience taught him that Jews were not the evil characters he had been taught as a child, in 1879 he observed that "the Jews are the only race who work wholly with their brains and never with their hands. . . . They are peculiarly and conspicuously the world's intellectual aristocracy." In other words, he still stereotyped Jews, ignoring the realities of impoverished Jews and exploited Jewish labor in American cities.[4]

In his famous essay, "Concerning the Jews,"[5] written in 1898 and first published in _Harper's Monthly_ in September 1899, Twain claimed to be free of antisemitism and to be writing in defense of Jews.[6] Although he praised the Jews for their charity, close family life, hard work, and "genius,"[7] he repeated the slander that the Jews had an "unpatriotic disinclination to stand by the flag as a soldier."[8] (Up to 10,000 Jews may have fought in the Civil War--a much higher proportion than their percentage of the general population.[9]) His solution was for regiments of Jews and Jews only to enlist in the army so as to prove false the charge that "you feed on a country but don't like to fight for it."[10] In reaction to angry letters from American Jews who read the essay, Twain retracted this statement in a postscript and noted that despite having to endure American antisemitism, Jews fought widely and bravely in America's wars. Therefore, "that slur upon the Jew cannot hold up its head in presence of the figures of the War Department."[11]

In the same essay, Twain ignored historical realities to recount how the Jews had cheated, exploited, and dominated poor and ignorant Christians in the American South, Tzarist Russia, and medieval England, Spain, and Austria. "There was no way to successfully compete with [the Jew] in any vocation, the law had to step in and save the Christian from the poorhouse. . . . Even the seats of learning . . . had to be closed against this tremendous antagonist. [The Jew] has made it the end and aim of his life to get [money]."[12]

Twain's essay also describes how he wrote to the editor of the _Encyclopedia Britannica_ ten years earlier to contest the encyclopedia's claim that only a quarter of a million Jews lived in the United States. Twain was sure that one hundred times more Jews lived in America than the encyclopedia admitted. He felt that the Jewish population figures were underreported because the Jews masqueraded as Christians for business purposes.[13] "Look at the city of New York; and look at Boston, Philadelphia [and several other cities]--how your race swarms in those places!--and everywhere else in America, down to the least little village. . . . I may, of course, be mistaken, but I am strongly of the opinion that we have an immense Jewish population in America."[14]

Twain opposed Theodor Herzl's plan for a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. He argued that "if that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world was going to be made in a free country . . . , I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let that race find out its strength."[15] His analysis compares with that of Adolf Hitler, who also opposed Zionism: "All they want is a central organization for their international world swindle, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states: a haven for convicted scoundrels and a university for budding crooks."[16]

For Twain, there was evidently no place in this world for the Jews, either within Palestine or outside it. At the close of his essay, he observed that the Jews would always be unwanted and disliked aliens wherever they lived outside of their own land. "By his make and ways [the Jew] is substantially a foreigner wherever he may be, and even the angels dislike a foreigner. I am using this word foreigner in the German sense--stranger. . . . You [Jews] will always be by ways and habits and predilections substantially strangers--foreigners-- wherever you are, and that will probably keep the race prejudice against you alive."[17]

The research of Charles Glock and Rodney Stark has made clear that the fundamental basis of the distorted image of the American Jew was religious anti-Jewishness. Without the centuries of Christian Judaeophobia, these literary defamations of Jews would most likely not have been written nor would most of the creators and caretakers of the American literary imagination, their work, and their readers have been contaminated. This antisemitic vision of the Jew carried forward on the wings of secular literature has been so powerful that in the end it has helped persuade most people that the real Jew is identical with the fictitious one. And this belief has all too easily served as a pretext for hostile attitudes and harmful behavior toward Jews.


1. Twain later indicated that his experience taught him that Jews were not the evil characters he had been taught as a child. But in 1879, ignoring the impoverished state of most American Jews, he stereotyped the Jews as "the only race who work wholly with their brains and never with their hands. . . . They are peculiarly and conspicuously the world's intellectual aristocracy." Philip Foner, _Mark Twain_ (New York 1958), 222-25.

2. Janet Smith, ed., _Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race_ (New York 1962), 178. See also _An Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven,_ in _Harper's Magazine_, published as a book in October 1909; Frederick Anderson, et al., eds., _Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals_ (Berkeley 1975), 1:241-42.

3. See Ruth Ellson, _Guardians of Tradition: American Textbooks of the Nineteenth Century_ (Lincoln 1964), 46-97; Louise Mayo, _The Ambivalent Image,_ in Naomi Cohen, ed., _Essential Papers on Jewish-Christian Relations in the United States_ (New York 1990), 122.

4. Philip Foner, _Mark Twain_ (New York 1958), 222-25.

5. Mark Twain, "Concerning the Jews," _Harper's New Monthly Magazine_ (September 1899), in Charles Neider, ed., _The Complete Essays of Mark Twain_ (Garden City 1963), 235-50.

6. In 1897, he wrote to a friend, using the flattering stereotype that the Jewish brain is considerably larger than the Gentile's. "It's a marvelous race--by long odds the most marvelous that the world has produced, I suppose." Mark Twain, _Mark Twain's Letters_ (New York 1917), 647. He may have meant this statement ironically.

7. Even here his positives are stereotypes or meant ironically.

8. Twain, "Concerning the Jews," 240. In his postscript, Twain claims ignorance of the facts but also admits that he supposed that Jews refused to fight for their country. Twain, "Concerning the Jews," 250. In many nations, Jews regarded service in the national armed forces as an indication of national acceptance. In America, as early as 17th-c. New Amsterdam, Jews were not permitted to stand "watch and ward," which only full citizens could perform. When Jews petitioned to serve, they were urged "to depart whenever and whither it pleases them." Schappes, _Documentary History_, 6. Goethe also complained that _The Jew loves money, and fears danger._ Poliakov, _History of Antisemitism_, 3:49.

9. Martin Gilbert estimates that 6,000 Jews volunteered to fight for the Union; and an additional 1,200 fought for the Confederacy. Roughly 250,000 Jews fought for the United States in World War I, another 550,000 in World War II. See Gilbert, _Atlas of Jewish History_ (New York 1976), 81.

10. Twain, "Concerning the Jews," 247.

11. Twain, "Concerning the Jews," 250.

12. Twain, "Concerning the Jews," 241-2.

13. Twain, "Concerning the Jews," 245.

14. Twain, "Concerning the Jews," 246-7.

15. Twain, "Concerning the Jews," 248.

16. Hitler, _Mein Kampf_, 325.

17. Twain, "Concerning the Jews," 248. That an American historian could recently call Twain's essay, "a light-spirited article that obviously intended to praise the Jews. . . ." is testimony to our ability to deny the obvious. See Albert Lindemann, _The Jew Accused_ (Cambridge Eng. 1991), 217.