Mark Twain Racist or Realist Essay

This essay has a total of 5074 words and 22 pages.

Mark Twain Racist or Realist

Mark Twain, Racist or Realist?


This paper examines Mark Twain’s work to determine whether or not he was racist.
Racism is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary as "the belief that one race is
superior to others." Unfortunately the issue of race isn’t black or white. There are
many shades of gray in racism and even the most progressive thoughts of old seems
conservative as progress enlightens new levels of thought. During his time, Twain was a
forward thinking author who championed many causes, one of them being fair treatment of
the downtrodden and oppressed.

The only example of potential racism is his treatment of the Goshoot Indians in Roughing
It. The main body of his work points to innovative anti-racist themes. Even if one admits
that Twain fosters some derogatory stereotypes labeling his work "scabrous, unassimiable,
and perhaps unteachable to our own time" is shortsighted and revisionist. Even if Twain
was racist the process of learning is supposed to combat backwards teaching from our past
through exposition and discussion (Wonham 40). I even learned from Mein Kampf and
objections to Mark Twain’s potential racism pale in comparison to Hitler’s
crimes against humanity. Mark Twain certainly wasn’t as politically correct as
contemporary newsmen or politicians but his primary occupation was as a satirist. Even
today successful comedians, from "Saturday Night Live" to "The Tonight Show," use
techniques similar to Twain’s irony, satire and burlesque.

Every serious Twain scholar knows of Twain’s reputation as a burlesque
humorist/satirist as well as his anti-imperialist and anti-religious tendencies. The
scholar must be careful when labeling or categorizing Twain’s work because of his
frequent use of sarcasm but Twain definitely liked blacks and abhorred slavery. His
treatment of Natives and the Chinese was questionable when looked at apart from his work
as a whole, but he slammed the white race more mercilessly than he ever condemned any
other race. Sadly, the cynical and sarcastic Mark Twain can never be fully understood
because only he knew what thoughts he was trying to convey.

Twain often used burlesques to get a point across by showing the ignorant how ignorant
they actually are. In Huck Finn, Twain linked religion and slavery by showing how the
former can pervert knowledge and cause acceptance of the latter over objections of
conscience. When Huck is "’born again’, he forgets his vow to aid Jim, and his
euphoria as being ‘born again’ resembles the feeling of being ‘light as
a feather’ that he experiences after deciding to turn Jim over to the slave-catchers
(Fulton 83)." This commentary is as much about the sorry state of slavery as it is about
slavery’s Biblical foundation.

James L. Johnson dedicated Mark Twain and the Limits of Power to outlining how, like
Emerson, Twain’s "solipsism is a fundamental ingredient in much of [his] best work
(Johnson 8)." Twain’s characters had or wanted "an extraordinary ability to dominate
the worlds in which they find themselves (Johnson 1)." Twain had little faith in a
Christian God so he put more faith in the self. Johnson also thought Twain’s
bitterness increased as he unearthed that "the larger and more masterful the Self became,
the less benevolent he was likely to be (Johnson 7)." Although Twain’s life was
common because it had limits he "envisioned a character who might not have to make those
accommodations, a hero who might break out of the prison of limitations into a brighter
life (Johnson 187)." Frustration with the world, hence a caustic temperament, arose as
time wore on but Twain never lost sight and hoped for "mastery over it and freedom
(Johnson 189)."

In 1907 Bernard Shaw remarked to Archibald Henderson that, "Mark Twain and I find
ourselves in the same position. We have to make people, who would otherwise hang us,
believe that we are joking (Clemens 5)." This point is well illustrated by the fearless
Twain in this excerpt from Mark Twain’s Jest Book:

In the spring of 1899, I was one of a crowd of some 1200 who attended at the
Waldorf-Astoria in New York to hear a lecture on his adventures in the South Africa War
given by a Lieutenant of Huzzars, one Winston Churchill – and the chair was occupied
by Mark Twain. I remember it so well, and the deafening applause which greeted the old
gentlemen when he rose to make his introductory speech. When, a long last, silence
reigned, his opening sentence staggered me. He began like this:

"Fellow thieves and robbers!" and when the roars of astonished laughter subsided, he continued,

"I take it that this audience consists of English people and Americans, so I commence my
remarks, fellow thieves and robbers – the Americans in the Philippines and the
English in South Africa." And more laughter followed when he said "But never mind,
we’re kith and kin in war and sin."

-Cyril Clemens (Clemens 15)

Carl Van Doren discusses Mark Twain and Bernard Shaw in the March 1925 issue of Century
Magazine. He writes, "Mr. Shaw makes dramas out of the Lamarckian hypothesis, and Mark
Twain out of the Darwinian (Budd 70)." Further differences are illustrated by "Mr. Shaw
can no more dispense with the free will than Mark Twain can confidently use it (Budd 70)."
Doren talks about how they brought humor to new limits because they "find so much to laugh
at they must now and again or explode (Budd 71)." Although Twain was extremely open with
most of his friends he "took pains to put on more formal robes when he came before the
world (Budd 66)." Doren suggestion, "It may have been that he lived in a time and place
which would not tolerate him at his most candid" rings true even today (Budd 66). The
candid Mark Twain won’t be widely publicized even today because his religious
beliefs, like his innovative racial beliefs, are not "likely to be adapted into an
attraction at Disneyland (Baetzhold 0)."

In his autobiography Twain wrote, "All the negroes were friends of ours, and with those of
our own age we were in face comrades (Neider 5)." He tempered this broad statement with,
"color and condition imposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of and which
rendered complete fusion impossible (Neider 5)." During Twain’s childhood the
institution of slavery was accepted by his parents, the pulpit, and promoted as part of
American History. There was little violence associated with slavery because the slaves
were part of the family. Although he commented on the history of slavery Twain never
attempted to justify it. While discussing his childhood he talked about a slave named
Uncle Dan’l, "whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile (Neider 6)." Uncle
Dan’l, Twain mentioned, is the basis for Jim (Adventures of Huckelberry Finn) and
many other characters.

Twain rose above the beliefs of his time because of the compassion and admiration for the
underdog instilled by a mother who "was the natural ally and friend of the friendless
(Neider 26)." He wrote that his mother even prayed for Satan. He held a deep reverence for
his mother but recognized that "she was not conscious that slavery was a bald, grotesque,
and unwarrantable usurpation (Neider 30)." Some scholars focus on comments by Twain such
as, "It was on the farm that I got my appreciation for his race and certain of its fine
qualities (Neder 6)." They seek to interpret this ambiguous statement as patronizing
blacks by claiming the entire race only has "certain" fine qualities. That argument
reaches a too far.

More objectionable is the allegation that in the Louis Budd version of Mark Twain:
Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays Twain "picked up the ugly habit of
depicting the corrupt American as ‘colored’ or ‘slavish’ in the
1880’s (Ladd 101)." Although this type of speech was in vogue within the
‘eastern literary establishment’ of that time Twain’s adoption of their
terminology is unsuitable for contemporary dialog. I cannot defend those statements
effectively without the ability to read them in context but Twain could’ve been
alluding to the colored politicians who had no real power in the white dominated Congress.

In Twain’s Concerning the Jews (1899) he seriously composed, "I am quite sure that
(bar one) I have no race prejudices and I think that I have no color prejudices nor caste
prejudices nor creed prejudices (Budd, Tales 355)." Concerning the Jews is a long work
defending the Jews and together with Newhouse’s Jew Story and Randall’s Jew
Story there seems to have been a concerted effort on Twain’s part to actively combat
anti-Semitism (Tuckley 279-89). Twain joked in Concerning the Jews, "All I care to know is
that a man is a human being – that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse
(Budd, Tales 355)." He continued by stating that he even feels no prejudice towards Satan
and that he might "lean a little his way, on account of him not having a fair show (Budd,
Tales 355)."

Three years later in 1902 Twain wrote an even more provocative piece. Does the Race of Man
Love a Lord? discusses how all of humanity are alike in many respects. He suggests that
"Emperors, kings, artisans, peasants, big people, little people – at the bottom we
are all alike and all the same; all alike on the inside and when our clothes are off,
nobody can tell which of us is which (Budd, Tales 516)." This work effectively compares
all members of the human race in a way that could be accepted at the turn of the century.
Twain never explicitly said that blacks, Chinese, or Natives Americans deserved to be
treated as people but preaching wasn’t his style, chicanery was.

The old adage about bringing a horse to water is true because you can’t force
somebody to learn if they’re not disposed to. Twain must’ve known that making
someone learn something means you must let them discover it for themselves rather than
trying to ram it down their throats. I wish Twain had written a letter about what the
policy should be toward the Natives, Chinese, or former slaves but his work insinuates
that it would be similar in content to Concerning the Jews.

Eric Lott, author of Love and Theft: Black Minstrelsy and the American Working Class,
repeatedly attacks Twain for his use of blackface minstrelsy stereotyping. Twain did
mention in his autobiography that, "if I could have the nigger show back again in its
pristine quality and perfection that I should have but little further use for the opera
(Neider 59, Wonham 30)." The reasoning behind Twain’s admiration for the blackface
performance might stem from his extreme progressiveness as well as his hankering for
revival from the past. It was miraculous for a white male born in the South during 1835 to
think as progressively as Twain did. The influence of his unintellectual yet strongly
compassionate mother could be the cause of his growth.

In his autobiography, Twain penned the story of Sandy, another slave known early in his
life. He remarked on one incident in which Sandy bothered him so much with his constant
singing that he pleaded with him mother to shut the slave up. With sorrow in her voice
Mrs. Clemens responded that she "cannot bear it" when Sandy is quiet because she fears
he’s thinking. She continued by informing Twain that Sandy will never see his mother
again (Neider 7). In the next paragraph Twain mentioned that he also used Sandy in Tom
Sawyer. He blithely wrote, "I tried to get him to whitewash the fence . . . I don’t
remember what name I called him (Neider 7)."

Lott further writes that, "Ralph Ellison [Author of Invisible Man] observed that
Huckelberry Finn’s Jim rarely emerges from behind the minstrel mask (Wonham 33)."
Twain’s patronage of the minstrel show only circumstantially indites him through
association. Many of those who enjoyed the performances of whites acting like
stereotypical blacks could’ve been racist but we do not condemn everybody who enjoys
the Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck jokes as racist. Humor consists of showing an ironic
situation in a way that people enjoy. Many people watch America’s Funniest Home
Videos (or an earlier version in the Three Stooges), which contains painful looking
physical comedy. Do we dub these people as masochists?

The minstrel blackface musicals consisted of mainly slapstick humor and standard jokes
that are the precursor to today’s standup comedy. Condemning Twain for
‘cheapening’ the legacy of slavery by enjoying Minstrel Theater is similar to
accusing those who enjoyed Jim Cameron’s version of the Titanic disaster of
‘insensitivity’ to the true victims of Titanic because the movie Titanic
focuses on the unrealistic fictitious characters rather than the truly deserving deceased.
When only narrowly considering small portions a Twain’s work one will get a limited
picture of his philosophy. Ralph Ellison’s character in the Invisible Man learned to
"direct pain into laughter and to contain the electricity in that way (Lott 136)."
Twain’s sense of humor grows darker as the tragedies befalling him pile up but he
continued, in his own way, to write cathartic and satirically groundbreaking material.

The basis for the passion and repetition of Twain’s slave era works is most likely
came from his desire to counter the ‘Contented Negro on the Plantation’ themed
novels circulating during reconstruction. In the book Mark Twain’s Ethical Realism,
Joe B. Fulton writes, "Twain goes out of his way in his writings to get the dialects right
(Fulton 5)." Fulton believes that "Twain’s desire for an artistic authenticity is
itself an ethically oriented endeavor (Fulton 5)." If Fulton is correct than Twain
didn’t just pull his characters strings like a Sambo doll, he crafted characters
(from Prince and the Pauper to Tom Sawyer) to speak as people of their status would. It
would’ve been unethical and unbecoming for Twain to make his characters talk more
eloquent than they should have just for the sake of promoting the idea that blacks were
intelligent. I don’t have room to expound on the content of Fulton’s book but
he strongly supports Twain’s writings as realistic rather than romantic.

Twain couldn’t scathingly attack racist ideas as effectively as ex-slaves like
Frederick Douglass could. Men like Douglass, then Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, and
finally Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were much more effective at broadside attacks on
racism. Twain wondered if "any body of human beings existed who were able to look upon his
fiery ideas without blinking (Budd 66)." We don’t see prominent male feminists so
why should we expect a white man to come to the forefront of racial issues? Twain
didn’t want to get "hanged" because dead men can spread their ethos no further.
Twain was obviously concerned with his legacy considering the sheer amount of work he
produced. The fact that he held back many works until after his death testifies to his
dedication to his family because his later radical ideas could tarnish his name’s
sterling reputation. He opened up a dialog on miscegenation with pioneering works such as
Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Adventures of Huckelberry Finn but he does it subtly.

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