Satire, like every other rhetorical device developed over the centuries, can serve a useful social function. It basically depends on whether the target of the satire is worthy of condemnation (which, when you boil it down, is really what satire is, a weapon to be used against social vices) and (subjectivity always being a component) on whether it trangresses common cultural standards (i.e., taboos)—in other words, where is your own personal threshold of offense? Where do you “draw the line”? At what point does it stop being funny and starts to hurt?
For most of his life, Mark Twain had a mad-on at his homeland; it just didn’t look or act like he wanted it to, with its religious hypocrisy and racism. Thanks to his world-wide travels, moreover, he found the rest of the planet equally deplorable. Thus did Twain discover what we all do sooner or later, that the world isn’t a perfect place, but thanks to his writing skills he was better positioned to comment on it and perhaps effect change (because, unlike the narcissistic view held by so many of today’s self-appointed satirists, satire doesn’t exist for its own sake but can have—and should have—the final goal of making a difference, of righting wrongs).
As Mary Poppins told us, a spoonful of sugar makes the dosage tolerable, so Twain the satirist concocted a compound of humor and criticism that at first glance looks harmless but which at its core has a “bite” to it.
Have you ever had a good deed boomerang on you? In other words, have you ever regretted doing something that seemed like a good idea at the time? Mark Twain, writing from personal experience (or so he claims), proves (or so he thinks) that magnanimity might not be a good idea under every circumstance (and more than one TV screenwriter has used the same set-up):
ALL my life, from boyhood up, I have had the habit of reading a certain set of anecdotes, written in the quaint vein of The World’s Ingenious Fabulist, for the lesson they taught me and the pleasure they gave me. They lay always convenient to my hand, and whenever I thought meanly of my kind I turned to them, and they banished that sentiment whenever I felt myself to be selfish, sordid, and ignoble. I turned to them, and they told me what to do to win back my self-respect. Many times I wished that the charming anecdotes had not stopped with their happy climaxes, but had continued the pleasing history of the several benefactors and beneficiaries. This wish rose in my breast so persistently that at last I determined to satisfy it by seeking out the sequels of those anecdotes myself. So I set about it, and after great labor and tedious research accomplished my task. I will lay the result before you, giving you each anecdote in its turn, and following it with its sequel as I gathered it through my investigations. . . .
He then, with tongue firmly in cheek, relates several instances, along with their aftermaths, where the good deed doesn’t go unpunished:
~ There’s “The Grateful Poodle” and “the benevolent physician” who, despite all of his efforts, at last “turned his face to the wall and gave up the ghost.”
~ Another is “The Benevolent Author” who tries to help a young and struggling writer, but whose ingratitude “broke the celebrated author’s heart with mortification.”
~ And finally we have “The Grateful Husband” who is forced to declare, “Yes, you did save my wife’s life, and the next man that does it shall die in his tracks!”
If you do read Twain’s article (The Atlantic Monthly, May 1878), ask yourself whether he’s being too harsh or, conversely, not critical enough. Does the humor “save” it, or is it misapplied?
As a satirist Mark Twain wielded a most acidulous pen. Nothing was out of range of his attacks, including God, religion, love, and, as in this instance, sentimental literature intended to teach us to be good. In that respect he was way ahead of his time, a post-modernist even before the advent of modernism.