Skip to content

Lecture Circuit

Mark Twain's Inconvenient Truths

Rod Searcey

FISHKIN: Reviving the gadfly.

View photo album >>

By Shelley Fisher Fishkin

The author of Tom Sawyer is avuncular, unthreatening, genial—cuddly almost. The Mark Twain that comes later has sharper edges, and may not be cuddly at all. What does it mean to embrace the tame Twain—the author of unthreatening books for children, beloved stories, and clever aphorisms—but to largely ignore the author of the hard-hitting essays and searing commentaries who grew increasingly disillusioned with the behavior of his countrymen and his fellow human beings generally?

It’s fine to enjoy Tom Sawyer. But freezing Twain as the author of Tom Sawyer denies all he learned about himself and his country by the time he wrote Huckleberry Finn; and doing so deprives us of a Twain we desperately need to recover today.

In Tom Sawyer, Twain evoked aspects of the world that he had lived in as a child without bringing to bear on that world the moral awareness he had acquired as an adult. In his “schoolboy days,” Twain later recalled in his autobiography, he “had no aversion to slavery” and was “not aware that there was anything wrong about it.” But [by 1876] Twain was becoming increasingly embarrassed by his failure to question the racist status quo of the world in which he had grown up. While his own father, John Marshall Clemens, had been serving on a jury that sent “slave-stealers” to the state penitentiary, his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, had been funding “slave-stealers’” activities.

Conversations with his father-in-law and other abolitionists—and with former slaves—helped prompt Twain to re-examine the moral underpinnings of the world in which he had grown up. And find them wanting. Yet no trace of the pain inflicted by slavery and or the injustice of racism had cast a shadow over the luminous happy “boy’s book” he had just published—despite the fact that Twain now knew just how deeply pain and injustice had infused the world in which he had lived as a boy. A decade after a bloody war that left the nation reeling in contradictions and confusion, Tom Sawyer evoked a prelapsarian Eden, a time when life was infinitely less complicated.

When Twain began writing Huckleberry Finn he thought he was writing another boy’s book, a sequel to Tom Sawyer. But Twain soon found himself with several hundred pages of a manuscript like no book anyone had ever written before. It was about a child who grows up in a world in which no one—including that child—questions the God-given legitimacy of a society in which people who think of themselves as supremely civilized endorse a system that is uncivilized, illegitimate and inhumane.

Twain wrote the book at a time when ex-slaves were subjected to economic exploitation, disenfranchisement and racially motivated lynchings, and the last third of the novel is increasingly understood as a satire of the many betrayals and indignities African-Americans endured after the breakdown of Reconstruction. Huckleberry Finn is a masterful satire not of slavery, which had been abolished a decade before Twain began writing the novel, but of the racism that suffused American society as Twain wrote the book in the late 1870s and early 1880s and which continues to stain Amer-ica today. This theme is as integral to Huckleberry Finn as it is irrelevant to Tom Sawyer.

The author of Huckleberry Finn had a clearer view than the author of Tom Sawyer did of the grim trajectory American race relations were likely to take as the 19th century closed. (Indeed, he had embarked on his own private affirmative action plan as one small step in addressing the problem, paying for the education of several black students. Recall his 1885 letter to the dean of the Yale Law School explaining his decision to pay for one of the first black law students there. Twain wrote, “We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it.”)

Mark Twain was not afraid to reject values he had once accepted, and he thought long and hard about how these transformations happened—or failed to happen. He shared his insights with us in a rich body of work as thought-provoking today as it was when he wrote it.

Sometimes I wonder how our world might be different if some of Twain’s more obscure writing were as familiar as his best-known work. Consider this: what if the following comment from Twain’s notebook appeared as a boxed quote in history textbooks? Patriotism “is a word which always commemorates a robbery. There isn’t a foot of land in the world which doesn’t represent the ousting and re-ousting of a long line of successive ‘owners’ who each in turn, as ‘patriots,’ with proud swelling hearts defended it against the next gang of ‘robbers’ who came to steal it and did—and became swelling-hearted patriots in their turn.” What if teachers asked students to write essays agreeing or disagreeing with this idea in high school? Or what if the final exam required students to respond to a comment Twain made in the North American Review five years before his death—“the modern patriotism, the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism is loyalty to the nation all the time, loyalty to the government when it deserves it”?

How might recent American history be different if Twain’s posthumously published “The War-Prayer”—a piece that unmasks the euphemism, hypocrisy and willful blindness that are part and parcel of the patriotic fervor stirred when a nation goes to war—had been required reading in U.S. classrooms for the last hundred years? In every prayer for a glorious victory, Twain asserts, there is this unspoken prayer: “ . . . O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells . . . help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst. . . .”

What if more people had read this passage from “Outlines of History (suppressed),” in Mark Twain’s Fables of Man (UC Press, 1972) as the warning Twain probably intended it to be: “. . . Lust of conquest had long ago done its work; trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught [the country], by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home; multitudes who had applauded the crushing of other people’s liberties, lived to suffer for their mistake in their own persons. The government was irrevocably in the hands of the prodigiously rich and their hangers-on; the suffrage had become a mere machine, which they used as they chose. There was no principle but commercialism, no patriotism but of the pocket.

Just as Huck Finn enters the classroom as a “classic” but then engulfs students in debates about race, racism, religion and hypocrisy, Mark Twain enters the national consciousness as an icon and then upsets our equilibrium and complacency, pushing us to ask questions we hadn’t planned to ask. We need that Twain—the troubling Twain, not the tame one—now more than ever.


SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN, English professor and director of the American studies program, spoke at UC-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library Centennial last year; this is an edited excerpt. In 2002, Fishkin uncovered a never-performed play by Twain called Is He Dead? Its world premiere takes place on Broadway in November.

Comments (0)


  • Be the first one to add a comment. You must log in to comment.

Rating

Your Rating
Average Rating

Actions

Tags

Be the first one to tag this!