Mark Twain Racist Or Realist Mark Twain, Racist or Realist? Introduction 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 fu …