Books | November 3, 2020 10:36 am

You’ve Probably Never Read Mark Twain’s Satire on American Elections, But It’s Famous in China

Remembering his "Running for Governor" on Election Day

mark twain
Mark Twain for Governor
Photo courtesty Library of Congress/Getty Images

Today marks yet another installment in a cherished American tradition of slander, lies and corruption: Election Day. While this year’s match may seem like a particularly contentious sign of the times, the deceit and vitriol inherent in American politics was something Mark Twain was already satirizing 150 years ago, when he published a piece in the Buffalo Express called “Running for Governor.”

The piece is “a satire of the politics of character assassination, and of gleeful participation by news organizations,” according to a recent Buffalo News column by Erik Brady. While the piece is little known in America today, it reportedly maintained a wide following in China throughout the 20th century, where it was as ubiquitous in Chinese schools as Huck Finn was in American ones.

“Running for Governor” tells the tale of Mark Twain’s fictional, ill-fated run for New York Governor against actual incumbents Stewart L. Woodford and John T. Hoffman. Twain, who enters the race on the belief that “good character” would be his trump card against his opponents, inevitably falls victim to media-fueled character assassination that labels him a variety of slanderous monickers including: “the Infamous Perjurer, the Montana Thief, the Body Snatcher, the Delirium Tremens, the Filthy Corruptionist and the Loathsome Embracer.”

Mark Twain: not a fan of politicians, but big in China
Getty Images

The story, widely reprinted in American publications after it first appeared in the Buffalo Express, of which Samuel Clemens was editor at the time, was translated for Chinese textbooks the following century, remaining popular in China even as it fell into obscurity in America.

Twain was notoriously uncomfortable, shall we say, with politicians. There’s the famous quote that’s tied to him about how politicians are like diapers, although the validity of that one is a bit suspect. For a better understanding of how Twain viewed senators and presidents, look to his 1868 short story, “Cannibalism in the Cars” which is a darkly humorous look at a bunch of congressmen stuck on a train forced to, well, the title gives it away.

But the way “Running for Governor” has taken on a bigger significance in China is less about Twain’s biting satire as the lesson it’s supposed to teach students.

Guiyou Huang, a literary critic and president of Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, said the story was taught to Chinese schoolchildren as a model of the false democracy of capitalism.

“In other words,” Huang wrote of China, “all high school graduates know who Mark Twain is.”

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