Time Capsule

A century after his greatly “exaggerated” death, Mark Twain continues to demonstrate his relevance to history and literature. From his childhood in Hannibal, Mo., through careers as a printer’s devil, steamboat pilot, prospector, journalist, lecturer, publisher and author, he became an international celebrity and, at his death, in April 1910, Twain was much more than a “mere humorist.” His reputation as a sharp social critic was by then well-established through his verbal assaults on racial and sexual inequality; his anti-imperialist writings; and his fervent support of causes such as treatment of animals, including opposition to vivisection in animal experimentation.

Less known, perhaps, are Twain’s connections to psychology, although it’s no surprise that a man whose writings throughout his career are dominated by his fascination with human nature would be interested in the field. Throughout his life, Twain was an avid student of science and its implications for human behavior. He was an early adherent of Darwinian ideas of evolution after reading “The Descent of Man,” taking an opportunity to meet its author during a speaking tour in England. He also met with Herbert Spencer, whose “Principles of Psychology,” the first formal text on the subject, influenced Twain’s thinking on the genesis of instincts and their resistance to modification.

Twain’s connections with the American psychologist William James are well documented. Although Twain was not a particular fan of the writing of James’s literary brother, Henry, Twain and William James shared many interests and associations, dating from 1884, when both joined the newly formed American branch of the Society for Psychical Research. The two shared an interest in the paranormal, and Twain was specifically interested in the possibility of thought-transference, which he referred to as “mental telegraphy” in a letter printed in the first volume of the society’s journal. Twain and James met in Italy in 1892, the same year James became the first president of the American Psychological Association. They maintained an active friendship for the rest of their lives. (James also died in 1910.) Twain was strongly influenced by his friend’s analysis of behavior. He read James’s chapter on habit with great interest, recognizing his own pronouncements on the importance of “training,” as in this excerpt from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:”

… there is no such thing as nature; what we call by that misleading name is merely heredity and training.

Twain’s connection with James was strengthened by their opposition to the U.S. occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. James was elected vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League in 1904, and Twain was vice president of the New York chapter of the organization. James no doubt agreed with his friend’s assertion: “I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

Twain and James denounced the American military’s use of torture against the leaders of the Philippine independence movement, specifically waterboarding, referred to sardonically by Twain as the “water-cure.” Twain’s official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, observed, “When he undertook to give expression to his feelings on this subject he boiled so when he touched pen to paper to write of it that it was simply impossible for him to say anything within the bounds of print.”

The immediacy and unequivocal invective employed by Twain in his verbal assault on this and other American military practices during this period likely would find receptive ears among today’s psychologists. During the same decade, Twain was also active in the anti-vivisection movement, an offshoot of a lifelong abhorrence to animal cruelty, and was speaking out as an advocate of women’s suffrage (“I should like to see that whip-lash, the ballot, in the hands of women.”), a goal that would not be achieved in the United States until a decade following his death.

‘They know as well as I do’

One quality that characterizes much of Twain’s writing is his uncanny ability to see the world through the eyes of the “other,” underscoring the empathy that infuses his works. From the perspective of formal psychology, Twain and his most notable characters are operating within Piaget’s stage four, Formal Operations, demonstrating their capacity to see their environment from several perspectives. Twain’s protagonists are often operating within the “post-conventional morality” described in Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, in the sense that they implicitly recognize basic human rights.

An early example of Twain’s flexibility of perspective is contained in his first major work, “The Innocents Abroad,” when he comments regarding the prayer of the “grumblers” aboard ship for “fair winds” with the following repudiation:

… they know as well as I do that this is the only ship going east this time of the year, but there’s a thousand coming west — what’s a fair wind for us is a head-wind to them!

“The Innocents Abroad” also contains Twain’s verdict, which would remain unchanged, that, “Human nature is very much the same all over the world.”

The best-known example of a character who gradually adopts the perspective of the other in the course of his moral development is Huckleberry Finn, the boy who epitomizes the clash between a “sound heart” and a “deformed conscience.” In one scene, Huck, after witnessing the slave Jim’s distress while thinking of his dispersed family, concludes:

I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.

It’s not too much of a “stretcher” for the reader to conclude that the primary “moral” of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is the transforming power of the ability to adopt another’s perspective. Twain employs a literal switching of characters in service of the experience of the other in “The Prince and the Pauper” and “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” the latter constituting an example of the overwhelming influence of environment in racial issues. Huck’s ability to reject, in part, one overlearned aspect of his “deformed conscience” reflects Twain’s own views on the power of environmental factors as determinants of behavior. (“The outside influences are always pouring in upon us, and we are always obeying their orders and accepting their verdicts.”)

‘The damned human race’

The evidence from a lifetime review of Mark Twain’s writings supports the view of a behaviorist, deterministic bent in his perspective on human nature. A number of his lesser-known pieces — for example, “Corn-Pone Opinions” — underscore Twain’s assessment of environment as a controlling circumstance. (“You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ’pinions is.”) In another piece, “The Turning Point of My Life,” he catalogs a succession of events, or “links” in the “chain of circumstances,” that underscore the importance of external factors in his own life. Twain does, however, have a connection to Freudian psychology with which many readers may be unaware. During an 18-month period in 1898–99, the Clemens family lived in Vienna, Austria, where Twain’s popularity was as strong as any place on the globe. Invitations to his public appearances were coveted by fin-de-siecle Viennese, including a then-little-known Sigmund Freud. In a letter to his colleague Wilhelm Fleiss, Freud explains his absence from the lecture of another physician with the following statement:

“Schweninger’s performance, there at the talking circus, was a real disgrace! I did not attend, of course; instead I treated myself to listening to our old friend Mark Twain in person, which was a sheer delight.”

Schweninger was the personal physician to Otto von Bismarck, the political architect of the German empire. It’s doubtful that Twain and Freud ever met, but their paths certainly crossed many times during Twain’s extended stay. It is evident, however, that Twain had little, if any, notable impact on Freud’s adeptness in the expression of humor.

Any question regarding Twain’s relevance to psychology and the study of human behavior in the 21st century can be dispelled with one recent example. Consider the best-seller “Outliers,” by Malcolm Gladwell, with its discussion and case examples illustrating the primary elements of success in a varied range of human endeavors. If Gladwell had never read any of Mark Twain’s writings, it is obvious that he would agree with Twain’s conclusions that circumstance and training are the critical explanatory components of human action. Indeed, one important difference between Twain’s 1906 book, “What is Man?” and “Outliers” is the substitution of Twain’s subjective, experience-based opinions with Gladwell’s objective, data-based conclusions.

Twain’s often caustic commentary regarding the behavior of the members of his species, “the damned human race,” himself included, was based on acute observation motivated by an empathy that he traced to his mother’s influence— she famously adopted every stray cat roaming the streets of Hannibal. Coupled with his lifelong study of what might loosely be termed “human nature” and his active interest in the sciences of his era, it is no surprise that his writings often have as their focus matters consonant with the budding formal discipline of psychology, as well as the psychology of our own era.


Martin Zehr, PhD, JD, is a clinical psychologist in Kansas City, Mo. He is a member of the Mark Twain Circle of America and was a 2006 recipient of a Quarry Farm Fellowship, which allowed him the opportunity to study at the Center for Mark Twain Studies in Elmira, N.Y., while living in the summer home of Sam Clemens and his family. Zehr has been invited to the American Literature Association Convention in San Francisco in May to discuss his discovery and republication of a Twain article written in 1868 and generally unknown to Twain scholars.

Suggested reading

  • Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

  • Horn, Jason Gary. Mark Twain & William James: Crafting a Free Self. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

  • Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2005.

  • Quirk, Tom. Mark Twain and Human Nature. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.

  • Twain, Mark. Mark Twain’s Autobiography (2 vols.). New York: Harpers, 1924.

  • Zehr, Martin. The Vision of the Other in Mark Twain’s ‘The War Prayer.’ Mark Twain Studies, Vol. 2, 2006, pp. 87–92.