By Nora Nunn, PhD Candidate, English

When people think of Mark Twain, Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer probably comes to mind. Or maybe they recall his witty aphorisms such as “A classic is something that everyone wants to read but no one has read.” Then again, it could be Twain’s legendary antagonism towards Jane Austen. (Of all his barbs against her, this one is the most caustic: “Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice,” he confided to his friend in an 1898 letter, “I want to dig her up and beat her over the head with her own shin-bone.”)

Seldom, however, do they think of his interest human rights in the Belgian Congo.

Perhaps it’s no surprise. After all, Twain (also known as Samuel L. Clemens) only began to pen texts about the Belgian monarch King Leopold’s colonial violence in his twilight years. When writing on behalf of the Liverpool-based Congo Reform Association in 1905, his death was only few years away. By that point, he had already written many of his most famous works, including A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Innocents Abroad.

In the shadow of his capacious literary oeuvre, Twain’s 1905 satirical pamphlet about Belgian human rights atrocities, King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule, is often overlooked. With the support of the FHI Human Rights Summer research grant, my research is setting out to complicate—if not outright change—that narrative. Twain’s slender text, I argue, deserves the sustained attention both of literary and genocide scholars. In order to better contextualize the creation and publication of King Leopold’s Soliloquy and to build on the work of scholars who have come before me, I visited University of California, Berkeley, home of the Mark Twain Papers. [1]

In my dissertation, I plan explore how language—and the stories people craft from that language—and visual cultures shape individual and collective understandings of genocide, specifically in the 20th-century transnational American imagination. Taking a cultural studies approach, I also look at understandings of collective violence—such as King Leopold’s bloody reign over the Belgian Congo—before the word “genocide” was coined in the 1930s by Polish lawyer and linguistic Raphael Lemkin. And that’s where Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy comes in.

As its title suggests, King Leopold’s Soliloquy puts its readers in imaginative proximity to the machinations of the Belgian despot. Twain, already known for his anti-imperialist work such as the 1897 collection Following the Equator, chose to depict Leopold II as a “pitiless and blood-drenched” monomaniac of Shakespearean proportions.[2] As a member of the American branch of the Congo Reform Association, he realized the power of visual cultures to craft his narrative, insisting on the juxtaposition of graphic imagery with the written word. Though a slender 58 pages, the kaleidoscopic document circumnavigates the globe, from the king’s opulent palace in Brussels to rubber-collection stations in the Congo Free State—a swath of land more than 70 times larger than Belgium.

In building his case against Leopold, Twain mustered a hodgepodge of materials: photographic journalism, sketches, cartoons, diary extracts, Juvenalian satire, poetry, Shakespearean soliloquy, and late 19th-century human rights rhetoric. In the creation of a textured, visually irrefutable, and darkly satirical account of human rights abuses, he aimed to evoke his audience’s empathy by activating their imaginations. If the readers could only understand the extent of colonial violence, the text intimates, then perhaps they could help make possible political interventions in the Congo Free State, which Leopold ruled as his own private domain from 1885 to 1908.

Throughout the drafting of King Leopold’s Soliloquy, Twain’s interlocutors included his friend, president Theodore Roosevelt; Dihdwo Twe, a young Liberian activist studying in Massachusetts; Isabel V. Lyon, his “secretary” (who, according to one book, was plotting not only to marry her recently widowed boss but exile his daughter from the house); and Edmund Dene Morel, the British founder of the Congo Reform Association. Each of these voices came alive for me in the archives.

Over the course of a week in the Mark Twain Papers, I sifted through letters, notebooks, diaries, agendas, biographies, scrapbooks, and annotated congressional reports. In doing so, I traced the dramatic arc of Twain’s involvement with the reform movement. First came Twain’s early and enthusiastic correspondence with CRA president E.D. Morel, strategizing on how best to raise public awareness of King Leopold’s human rights atrocities. Next, during the drafting of the pamphlet, Twain marked up and curated selections of diary entries and testimonials by eyewitnesses to the colonial violence such as Reverend A. E. Scrivener. Yet, in spite of praise from certain readers, Twain fretted about the CRA leadership, confiding to Morel that “As things are & have been for a year progress must be slow and ineffectual.” [3] Eventually, in his dramatic note of resignation to Thomas S. Barbour, the head of the American CRA, Twain lamented about his own capacities, “I am not a bee, I am a lightning bug.” [4] In private correspondence to Twe, he echoed his disillusionment with humanity, expounding that his correspondent would be better off making his case about Congo reform to in “the lions’ cage at the zoo” rather than human beings. [5] Twain’s extreme pendulum of emotions—from zealous optimism to bitter pessimism in the power of his own writing—is a study in the limitations and possibilities of literature to effect political change.

Before having visited the archives, I had naively wondered exactly how much value such material could offer to a project, especially a literary study such as mine. The tactility of the materials and the fortuity of surprises proved me wrong.

First, I learned that gems of insight often hid in the details. For example, Twain’s marginalia on a letter to E.D. Morel indicate the crucial nature of adding visual imagery to his political pamphlet. Word alone was not enough to activate his readers’ imaginations. After reading the 1904 report presented to U.S. Congress on the Congo Free State, Twain wrote, “I want another copy of it, & some terrible illustrations.” [6] This evidence supports my argument that Twain insisted upon a multi-sensorial, multi-generic approach to narrating the Belgian human rights abuses. Marginalia, it turns out, was anything but marginal.

Second, the archives house papers written by historical actors overshadowed or eclipsed by other figures. Take, for instance, the fascinating story of Dihdwo Twe, the Liberian student who had, unlike Twain, actually been to the Belgian Congo and witnessed the human right atrocities. In exquisite penmanship, his letters critique the CRA’s tactics and offer alternatives for political intervention. Twain’s epistolary dialogue with Twe about the nature of human empathy (and apathy) yields crucial points about social movements today.

Finally, conversations with faculty and staff offered tips, clues, and insights that I never would have encountered through a search engine. For example, the generous and knowledgeable MTP reference librarian, Melissa Martin, thought that the 1904 report to the U.S. Congress on the Congo or Twain’s brother’s scrapbook of newspapers clippings, may be of special interest.

There are limitations to the archive, of course. The voices of those from the Congo are relayed second, if not third-hand, mediated through transcriptions of Western missionaries, both black and white, men and women. Many stories are missing.

Still, my time in the archives has proven crucial to filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle of Mark Twain’s involvement with—and eventual estrangement from—the CRA. Once again, I am reminded of Twain’s definition of a classic: something “everyone wants to have read but that no one wants to read.” Compared to Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, King Leopold’s Soliloquy certainly isn’t a well-known text. Going by Twain’s definition, maybe it’s better that way. After all, he actually wanted people to pick up and read the pamphlet, to take political action against the monarch, and to change the world around them. When it came to the Belgian Congo, Twain wanted his readers to live in the present continuous, not the present perfect tense.



[1] In particular, I am indebted to the work of Hunt Hawkins on this topic. See Hunt Hawkins, “Mark Twain’s Involvement with the Congo Reform Movement: ‘A Fury of Generous Indignation,’” New England Quarterly 51, no. 2 (June 1, 1978): 147–175.

[2] Mark Twain, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, Second (Boston, MA: The P.R. Warren Co., 1905), 41.

[3] “SLC to Edmund D. Morel, 8 January 1906 · New York, N.Y., (UCCL 07300).” Catalog entry. Mark Twain Project Online. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 2016. Accessed 2018-07-13.

[4] “SLC to Thomas S. Barbour, 8 January 1906 · New York, N.Y., (UCCL 08249).” Catalog entry. Mark Twain Project Online. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 2016. Accessed 2018-07-27.

[5] “SLC per Isabel V. Lyon to Dihdwo Twe, 23 October 1906 · New York, N.Y., (UCCL 08269).” Catalog entry. Mark Twain Project Online. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 2016. Accessed 2018-07-13.

[6] “SLC to Edmund D. Morel, 15–16 October 1904 · New York, N.Y., (UCCL 06930).” Catalog entry. Mark Twain Project Online. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 2016. Accessed 2018-07-13.