Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
Mark Twain, 1835-1910
Clemens, Samuel Langhorne ("Mark Twain") (1835-1910) Writer. Although Samuel Clemens initially tasted fame and employed his pen name in Nevada and California, he traced his "Mark Twain" pseudonym to his pilot days on the Mississippi River, and many features of his writings can also be attributed to that southern background. Clemens was born 30 November 1835 in the border state of Missouri and grew up in Hannibal, but his father was a Virginian and his mother was from a Kentucky family. Sam Clemens became a printer, working in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri before becoming a steamboat pilot. As a pilot posted at the river ports of St. Louis and New Orleans from 1857 until 1861, Clemens glided regularly through the Deep South sugarcane fields of Louisiana and Mississippi.
The South's watershed year of 1861 was momentous for Clemens, who accompanied his brother Orion to the Far West. Subsequently, Clemens moved east to Buffalo and then settled in the New England climate of Nook Farm in Hartford, Conn. His family, too, moved northward—to Fredonia, N.Y., and to Keokuk, Iowa. These shifts resulted in a hybridization, reflected in his literature, of the traditions and atmosphere of the South, the extravagance and energies of the West, the taboos and commerce of the East. But Louis D. Rubin, Jr., has argued persuasively that "the southern experience of Samuel L. Clemens is so thoroughly and deeply imaged in his life and work that one may scarcely read a chapter of any of his books without encountering it," and that in A Connecticut Yankee (1889) "the whole ambivalent love-hate relationship of Sam Clemens with the South is dramatized" to indicate "the South's similarity to feudal England."
Mark Twain objected to the South's pretensions. Remembering the grand, absurd village names of his youth, he chose "St. Petersburg" as the name for his fictional river town, trying to catch and satirize those grandiose dreams of splendor. After the Civil War, Twain would blame the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott for the "romantic juvenilities" and "inflated language and other windy humbuggeries" that still bedeviled the South. Returning to the river for a nostalgic visit in 1882, Clemens was aghast to learn that duels were still being fought by prominent citizens of New Orleans. However, as his steamboat drew into the Louisiana reaches of the Mississippi, he found himself admiring the "greenhouse" lawns and "dense rich foliage and huge, snow-ball blossoms" of the magnolia trees that, along with a "tropical swelter in the air," announced that he was "in the absolute South, now—no modifications, no compromises." On the streets of New Orleans, too, he "found the half-forgotten Southern intonations and elisions as pleasing to my ear as they had formerly been. A Southerner talks music."
This homeland had been a place of grief and disappointment for Twain. In Memphis he had knelt helpless and agonized while his brother Henry died from scalding burns suffered when the steamboat Pennsylvania blew up in 1858. Twain also knew firsthand the uncouth, ruffian character of river-town idlers; he portrayed their cruelties in a backward Arkansas town in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Like most southern authors of his generation, Twain felt obliged to explain why he had lived in a land that countenanced human slavery. "In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery," he testified. "I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it." Ultimately, Twain became a great American writer in part because his family had owned slaves, so that he felt a lifelong involvement in that system of bondage. His finest novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), like Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, addresses the volatile racial issue that has periodically threatened the unity of a nation. Twain's entrée to the pages of the high-brow Atlantic Monthly was a poignant story inspired by a black woman cook he met at Quarry Farm near Elmira, New York. An angry essay of 1901, "The United States of Lyncherdom," castigated Missouri for joining the southern states in resorting to mob violence against accused blacks, though Twain conceded that "the people in the South are made like the people in the North—a vast majority of whom are right-hearted and compassionate."
Twain could also portray an idealized South. One commentator, Arthur Pettit, has observed that in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Mark Twain transformed antebellum Hannibal "into a Golden Age of prelapsarian innocence and charm." The image of this dozing village rose before Twain's eyes again and again, although The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) discloses lurking secrets behind the "whitewashed exteriors" of a similar town, Dawson's Landing. Twain's benign movie-reel depiction of the typical downtown district appeared in "Old Times on the Mississippi" (1875), a passage later subsumed in Life on the Mississippi (1883); the stir and bustle on Water Street when a black drayman called out "S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin'!" and the boat came into sight on "the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun," vividly evoked this scene even for readers who had seen neither that river nor any states bordering it. Always he acknowledged sincere admiration for amenities of life taken for granted in the South. He lauded its gastronomic delights in A Tramp Abroad (1880), listing and praising 20 southern dishes such as "fried chicken, Southern style," "black bass from the Mississippi," "hot corn-pone, with chitlings," "hot hoe-cake," hominy, butter beans, and apple puffs. His mental map of the Quarles farm where he spent his boyhood summers—the main log house, the smokehouse, the slave quarters, the orchard, the tobacco field, the schoolhouse—was recreated for his autobiographical recollections.
Although Twain had a broader and more venturesome approach to fiction than his contemporaries George Washington Cable, Joel Chandler Harris, and Thomas Nelson Page, he is equally indebted with them to the shaping forces of southern culture. His experiments in reproducing black dialect, such as "A True Story," compare favorably with the studied idiom in Harris's Uncle Remus (1880) and Page's "Marse Chan" (1884); Jim's patois and Huck's vernacular in Huckleberry Finn enriched the form of the American novel forever. In language and in delineation of character, setting, and society his sketches, short stories, and novels have influenced writers as diverse as Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell, and William Faulkner. The beneficiary of a tradition of southern frontier humor, Mark Twain multiplied their notable achievements into the richer legacy he bequeathed to modern southern authors.
University of Texas at Austin
Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1974); Lewis G. Leary, Southern Excursions: Essays on Mark Twain and Others (1971); Arthur G. Pettit, Mark Twain and the South (1974); Louis D. Rubin, Jr., The Writer in the South (1972); Thomas A. Tenney, Mark Twain: A Reference Guide (1977).