[Twain] began the project of his autobiography in 1877, a year that the historian Allan Nevins ranked as “one of the blackest in the nation’s annals.” Then as now, the situation was desperate, the economy in dire straits, democracy on its deathbed. The country was in severe depression, the rates of unemployment, bankruptcy, and business failure pegged to unprecedented levels of violence, poverty, and despair. The presidential election of 1876 had been thoroughly corrupted by fraudulent vote counts in favor of each candidate (the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, both of them held captive by the banks). A number of Republican politicians had been murdered in the Southern states for their disagreement with the policy of lynching Negroes. The Lincoln County war in New Mexico encouraged the random shooting of Mexicans; mobs formed in the streets of San Francisco to beat to death the Yellow Peril as personified in Chinese laundrymen and shopkeepers. A railroad strike in West Virginia that began in July became the first national strike in the country’s history, 500,000 workers walking away from factories and mines everywhere between New Jersey and California. Strikers in Pittsburgh set fire to the property of the Pennsylvania Railroad, destroying 39 buildings, 104 engines, 46 passenger cars, more than 1,200 freight cars. The disturbance moved Tom Scott, president of the railroad, to suggest that the strikers be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they liked that kind of bread.” State militia and federal troops complied with the suggestion, killing more than a hundred strikers in Maryland and Pennsylvania....
18 March 2012
From Lewis Lapham's essay about Mark Twain in the April 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine: