For the Love of Glamour: American Aristocracy from Twain to Trump

By Mark EdmundsonApril 14, 2024

For the Love of Glamour: American Aristocracy from Twain to Trump

Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies by Paul Cantor

To the memory of Paul Cantor

IS ARISTOCRACY the natural condition of mankind? Mark Twain, who loved democracy as much as any major American writer, feared that it was.

Twain concluded that humans are eternally in love with badges and ranks and desire their own subjection. In his autobiography, he observed: “Human nature being what it is, I suppose we must expect to drift into monarchy by and by. It is a saddening thought, but we cannot change our nature: we are all alike,” he went on, “and in our blood and bone, and ineradicable, we carry the seeds out of which monarchies and aristocracies are grown: worship of gauds, titles, distinctions, power.”

Then an even sadder note: “[W]e have not ceased to be human beings by becoming Americans, and the human race was always intended to be governed by kingship, not by popular vote.”

But despite his skepticism about democracy, Twain fought hard to sustain it, and he offers us resources that we might deploy to keep feudalism at bay now, if only for a little while longer.

My anti-feudal argument here is strongly influenced by the work of Paul Cantor and, in particular, his superb book Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies (2019). Cantor, who was my colleague at the University of Virginia for nearly 40 years, recently died and left behind a remarkable body of writing that ranged from pop culture to Shakespeare. (His little book on Hamlet contains what I take to be the very best interpretation of the play.)

For Cantor, Twain excelled in showing how the United States’ commitment to democratic equality made it all the more susceptible to the lure of aristocratic élan. Those two notorious con men from Huckleberry Finn, the King and the Duke, are ragged impostors, but such is the hunger for glamour in the democratic United States that they can work their will for days on unsuspecting townspeople. Says Cantor, “The United States has broken with European aristocracy, but it remains fascinated by it. Perhaps Americans are fascinated by aristocracy precisely because they have broken with it.”

Twain wasn’t the only 19th-century foe of feudalism. The American Civil War has many causes and meanings, but one can surely see it as a second installment in the American Revolution. The Civil War was an attempt to finally free American democracy from British influence and British power. The bluecoats of the Union fought to get rid of feudalism, as practiced in the South and inspired by British example. The Antebellum South embraced a fantasy of American feudalism. The planters played the role of the nobility: the poor whites were their vassals, the enslaved Black people their serfs—or so the Southern loyalists imagined. The Confederates fought for their “way of life,” which many dignified by comparing it to the culture of nobility in England.

But Britain’s role in the Civil War went beyond Confederate mythmaking. During the early phase of the war, the South dearly hoped that the British would get involved. Some dreamed that Britain would ally itself with the South and send troops. But the more circumspect believed that the British might recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign nation.

There was money involved. The North enacted a blockade on Southern ports, making it difficult to transport Southern cotton to England’s factories to be spun into cloth. Cotton was a valuable commodity in the 19th century; some compare it to petroleum in the 20th. Southern polemicists spoke of King Cotton and how, in time, Britain would have to acknowledge that king’s might and endorse the Confederate States of America. Early in the war, there was a large stock of cotton on hand in England. But as time passed, the stock dwindled to low levels, and the British government, under Lord Palmerston, became more inclined to intervene in the war. Palmerston was generally averse to military intervention, but he and his government were interested in playing a mediating role to end the war and get the cotton moving again.

Mediation would have meant recognizing the South as a sovereign nation, which would have enraged Abraham Lincoln and the Union government. Had Britain recognized the South, the United States might have declared war. Lincoln assiduously kept the northern border with Canada fortified in case conflict came.

The Southern appeal to Britain was pragmatic: You need our cotton. But it was also emotional: We are just like you; we’re natural allies. Northerners are scheming capitalists and half-witted wage slaves. We in the South cultivate a life like yours, an aristocratic life. We live a latter-day version of the life that Sir Walter Scott imagined, and so, at your best, do you.

Britain watched the war’s progress carefully. The British press chronicled every battle, though it sometimes took days for news to make it across the Atlantic. The writers for the British press included Karl Marx, who took a strong interest in the war. Marx supported the Union, hoping that American victory would raise the status and consciousness of the workingmen and farmers who fought and put them on the road to socialism. Every Confederate victory—and in the war’s opening phase, there were plenty—nudged Britain closer to embracing the Confederacy. Lord Palmerston was no sentimentalist. He wasn’t going to be taken in by Britain’s purported cultural affinity with the South. But as the cotton reserves dwindled and the Confederate victories mounted, he and Queen Victoria took the prospect of an arrangement with the South more seriously.

Had Britain aligned itself by whatever means with the Confederacy, and the Confederacy won, it would have been a disaster. Slavery would probably have spread west. And with British help, the Southern armies might, just might, have had the strength to invade the North and take possession of significant regions. Arguably, the Union was the only functioning democracy in the world at the time. The revolutions of 1848 had ended in reactionary resurgences. If Britain banded together with the South, democracy itself could have been in peril. Aristocracy could have made a full-fledged comeback in the world, and Twain’s deepest fears would have been realized.

Aristocracy has appeal: above us, we see glorious people with unremitting power, forever bathed in golden light. Their glamour adds a mystical sheen to life. Aristocracy confers order on experience. Even if you’re a serf thrashing in the fields, you have your place and can be relatively secure.

Marx was not the first or last to remark on how deracinating capitalism could be: it created a world without stabilities where “[a]ll fixed, fast-frozen relations […] are swept away, all […] that is solid melts into air.” Twain was ever aware of our potential love for the aristocratic and did what he could to dismantle it.

But the major blow against American feudalism came from the Union army. At Antietam, they scored an apparent victory over the South that resounded throughout the United States and Europe. Looking back, historians see Antietam as a highly questionable win for the North. It looks to many more like a draw. Casualties were about even, but Robert E. Lee’s army went reeling out of Maryland, leaving the field to the bluecoats. The North declared victory. Antietam increased Lincoln’s political capital, putting him in a position to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Now, any British action that smacked of Southern favoritism would look to the world like an endorsement of slavery, for the Proclamation made it clear that the Civil War, whatever it had been at the outset, was now a war to free the enslaved. In time came the North’s authentic win at Gettysburg, and the South’s hope for British intervention dwindled almost to nothing. The brave Union soldiers struck potent blows against American feudalism.

On the other side of the ocean, the Union had some remarkable allies. The British working class detested slavery; they were proud not only that their government had outlawed the horrible practice at home in 1833 but also that the Royal Navy suppressed the slave trade in the rest of the world. The British navy liberated thousands of enslaved people and took significant casualties doing so.

The British working class in Manchester and elsewhere refused to spin rebel cotton. The workers and their families suffered privation, but they held their line and would not concede. If the British government had gone over to the Confederates, it would have faced an angry working class. In Manchester, you can see a statue of Abraham Lincoln, dressed in workman’s clothes, and read an inscription from a letter he sent to the millhands of Manchester and their families, thanking them for their courage in the fight against slavery. Lincoln wrote that he regarded their words and deeds as “an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.”

While the bluecoats were holding the line at Gettysburg and Antietam, and the workers of Manchester were holding their own, Twain was traveling under his real name, Samuel Clemens, and watching the Civil War unfold. (He spent two weeks in the Confederate army, deserted, and made off to Nevada.) Twain arrived at a shrewd observation, one that bears on us today: the death of the Confederacy would not be the death of feudalism.

Sigmund Freud, who saw Twain perform in Vienna, thought precisely the same and spent his life trying to understand why. Twain didn’t feel the need for a theory of subjection the way that Freud did. Twain simply wanted to use his writing to do something about it.

His Adventures of Huckleberry Finn came out in 1884. The novel suggests that many of the issues that created the war had not gone away. Racism was still rife in the United States. The book’s drama, of course, pivots on Huck’s slow realization that his friend Jim, a runaway slave, is every bit as much a human being as he is. Jim is a sensitive, decent man with an active conscience. One particular scene, in which he tearfully tells Huck how he mistreated his daughter because he did not know she was deaf from her bout of scarlet fever, stays with a reader long after the book is closed.

The novel is not uncomplicated on the issue of race. At one point, Huck tells his aunt Sally about a steamboat accident: a cylinder head blew out. “Good gracious! anybody hurt?” asks Aunt Sally. Unreconstructed, Huck uses a slur in describing the death of an enslaved person. “Well, it’s lucky,” says Sally, “because sometimes people do get hurt.”

I fear that there were (and maybe are) readers who laugh uninhibitedly first, then regather themselves and take in the satire against racial inhumanity. Twain has a predilection for cutting both ways.

The book shows that after the Civil War, racism is anything but done for. Nor is feudalism finished. Twain tells the story of a feud between two rich and polished Southern families, the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords. Why are they fighting? How did the feud start? No one knows. One of the saddest scenes in the book comes when Huck leans over the body of his dear friend Buck, slaughtered by the Shepherdsons.

Twain won’t let us forget that the word feud hides inside feudalism, like a rat in a gilded chest. The culture of honor, if you can call it that, demands an eye for an eye, a son for a son. Democracy, true democracy, has little time for the culture of honor. Democracy endorses a culture of dignity, where you let insults slide off your back. Sticks and stones. Dueling is necessary in an honor culture for the so-called aristocrats to maintain their place at the top of the heap.

The story of Huck’s sojourn with Buck’s family is riveting. Here are people with charisma. They have standards and values, and they’ll die to sustain them. Huck is clearly mesmerized by Colonel Grangerford:

[E]very day of his life he put on a clean shirt and a full suit from head to foot made out of linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it; and on Sundays he wore a blue tail-coat with brass buttons on it. He carried a mahogany cane with a silver head to it. There warn’t no frivolishness about him, not a bit, and he warn’t ever loud. He was as kind as he could be—you could feel that, you know, and so you had confidence. Sometimes he smiled, and it was good to see; but when he straightened himself up like a liberty-pole, […] you wanted to climb a tree first, and find out what the matter was afterwards. […] Everybody loved to have him around, too; he was sunshine most always—I mean he made it seem like good weather.

Grangerford radiates aristocratic glamour. His charisma lights the room. He plays the role of American nobility, and Huck is thrilled by it. The Colonel has his allure, yet he’s also a major force in a pointless feud that will take his own life and the lives of his three remaining sons.

Twain’s primary swipe at aristocracy in Huckleberry Finn comes in the episode of the King and the Duke, as Paul Cantor shows in his marvelous book. They are a pair of roving grifters who arrive in town pretending to be royalty. They’re such lurid fools that one feels anyone could see through them. Yet Huck and Jim are taken in, as are the townspeople. So strong is their hunger for glamour, élan, standing, and superiority that they accept the frauds at their word. The town turns out to see their dramatic production for three nights running.

Finally, democracy rallies (a bit), the people see they’ve been duped, and they come to the last staging of the play ready to salute the performers with rotten vegetables and dead cats. Says Huck: “[I]f I know the signs of a dead cat being around, and I bet I do, there was sixty-four of them went in.” It takes a while for the town to get the point of the King and the Duke. Royalty, even palpably bogus royalty, sells in the United States.

Then there’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889): a scientifically inclined can-do guy from Twain’s era time-travels back to the titular court and humiliates the boobish lot. When they are about to burn the Yankee at the stake, he calls forth an eclipse of the sun—scientist that he is, he knows it’s coming. He guns for Merlin, who is chief fraud among frauds. But almost all the knights get their share too. I recall reading this book when I was young and growing extremely sad. I loved the book, but then, too, I loved the legends of the Round Table.

Twain wasn’t above aristocratic posturing himself. He often wore a white suit in public, much like Colonel Grangerford’s, “so white it hurt your eyes.” When he entered a restaurant decked in white, people sometimes stood and cheered. Twain’s engagement with aristocracy was complex. He attacked it, but he also sold its stories and glamour and embodied some of its values.

If Twain were looking now for feudal forms to lampoon and exploit, he wouldn’t have to look far, for American feudalism is everywhere. Our politics have become dynastic in the feudal mode: the Kennedys (Camelot!), the Clintons, the Bushes. Anyone looking from afar might think that the upper reaches of American government were hereditary. We are constantly starstruck. We worship star athletes, star entrepreneurs, stars of the screen. Everyone under 30 appears to want to be an influencer: a star without anything at all to recommend them except the ability to perform catchy product endorsements. People run to social media to try to become known and loved and hated and envied. We are in a rush, it sometimes seems, to become a mock aristocracy. Everyone wants to exude charisma, “the numinous aura around a narcissistic personality,” as Camille Paglia says. Twain would be dismayed at the phenomenon but thrilled by the rich possibilities for writing. He would be ever busy in our glittering world. The only real weapon against aristocracy, Twain thought, was laughter, and in our current mock aristocracy, there is plenty to laugh at.

Despite what Twain accomplished in Connecticut Yankee and Huckleberry Finn, the American fascination with British royalty persists. The young women I teach are often Jesuitical scholars on the British royal family. When the last prince of the blood got married, it came up in class—a class on Walt Whitman, no less—and one felt a wave of gloom wash over the proceedings. It’s not that anyone thought she might marry a prince, and yet … Almost all my well-educated friends watch The Crown (2016–23) and eagerly anticipate another season of what Twain would call the “Royal Nonesuch.” American fascination with Princess Di will probably never perish.

But so what if we’re sometimes besotted by glamour and riveted by kings and queens? Is there really any harm in it? Paglia says that one reason British government has been relatively stable is that the people can slake their appetite for feudal glamour through the royals, then look to Parliament for the sober business of government. Maybe so. It’s possible that at one time Americans satisfied their own aristocratic thirst through Hollywood and let government proceed in its mildly corrupt and bland but not ineffective way. How many times has Washington, DC, been called Hollywood for ugly people?

Maybe there’s no reason to be a purist here. Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, each in his different way, wrote truly democratic poetry. They were absorbed by nature, everyday people, and everyday events, and they helped their readers share their democratic proclivities. Too often, the attempt to banish charisma from art leads to boring work. Socialist realism may have its virtues, but how many versions of Boy Meets Girl, Girl Meets Tractor can one pleasurably consume? And not everyone is Whitman or Frost, able to gather ongoing pleasure in common things and common people. But of course, Frost made a poetic celebrity of himself, the good, white-maned New England farmer. And Whitman took the money his supporters gave him to pay his living expenses and purchase a grand tomb for himself and his family in Camden, New Jersey.

There are multiple ways to describe what happened on January 6, 2021, but one might say that the mob tried to restore a monarch. Trump came to his followers with all the trappings of aristocracy: ostentatious wealth, a love of all things gold (hair included), a regal wife, a son named Barron. The people, or some of them, swooned. It was the Royal Nonesuch come back to life, and the village was ripe for it.

The 45th president had the manner of a monarch. He was hyperconfident, commanding, royal (in his own way). He embodied the qualities that Twain’s admirer Freud associated with a lead male. He was humorless, confident, decisive, and seemed in need of no one’s approbation but his own, which he plentifully possessed. The primal ruler, says Freud, “loved no one but himself, or other people only in so far as they served his needs. To objects his ego gave away no more than was barely necessary.” It was an act, you say. Maybe. But the act convinced 74 million Americans to part with their votes.

Yet there are still people who don’t buy the aristocracy act. There were the Capitol Police, who held the line against the mob on January 6 to protect the integrity of our election and the lives of our legislators. They were not entirely unlike those bluecoats, who held the line time and again at Antietam and Gettysburg. And there were the working people of Manchester, who preferred to live in want rather than spin Southern cotton. When Lincoln talked about democracy’s survival being on the line in his great address honoring the Union troops lost at the Battle of Gettysburg earlier that year, he was acknowledging how close we came to aristocracy before July 4, 1863. More recently, there were the election officials who held the line against the lying deniers, who wanted to bring elections to an end and replace them with leadership by violent acclamation. There are Whitman and Frost, who tell us 100 times in 100 artful ways that a democratic society, a post-aristocratic society, can be enough to offer people flourishing lives and that we do not need to indulge aristocratic dreams. A lot of admirable line-holding has been going on in the United States lately. But the party of aristocracy will be back in force, and it’s an open question whether democracy can survive the next onslaught. How long can a nation conceived in liberty and the proposition that all of us are created equal actually endure?

LARB Contributor

Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is The Age of Guilt: The Super-Ego in the Online World (2023).


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