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Blog - Mark Twain: Twain Takes a Shot (I Guess?) (Flashback)

January 17, 2024

Another college literature paper.


This one was for my ENG 3xx course, "American Novelists," where we read books by Toni Morrison (Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved), William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom Absalom!), and Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson). 


As before, I've preserved the professor's critiques.  Underlines and things in [brackets] are from the professor. Things in {{braces}} are notes from present day me.  I think the writing is mostly strong in this one, but it's structurally pretty unfocused.



Twain Takes a Shot at Society


Note:  This essay, in its quotations from Twain about race, has some strong language.


Mark Twain's informal and conversational style lends itself well to the classification of children's adventure stories and merely amusing comic tales. [Your wording implies he's doing the classifying]  {{ Yeah, this sentence is phrased confusingly.  It kind of works spoken out loud, but is really easy to misread in print.  Maybe I should have said something like "Mark Twain's informal and conversational style lends itself to being regarded as appropriate for only children's adventure stories and amusing comic tales." That's still a little stilled, but is what I was trying to say. I wrote this opening last, and clearly was having trouble "finding it."}}   But beneath the playfulness lies a dark undercurrent of cynicism towards the values and intelligence of his fellow man. Twain identifies the culprit behind man's moral fumbling in the self-serving worlds of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson as not an inherent immorality, but rather the southern society in which they are set.


Twain's criticism extends throughout the power hierarchy of the south, independent of the racial demarcation lines. This is evidenced by Roxy's child switch in Pudd'nhead Wilson. The "pure" white Chambers grows into being one of the most moral, white and ignored, characters in the novel, [while] the mixed Tom develops into a selfish, conniving thief and murderer.  Raised as an important member of white society, Tom's behaviors were shaped by the environment that told him he was better than his "black" protector who was in fact more white than he.  Chambers, on the other hand, describes himself and Roxy as "imitation white," and says that they could not "'mount to nothing as imitation n*ggers." This statement is a self-fulfilling irony. Chambers is an imitation, and as an "imitation n*gger" is nothing in society's view.  Only when the switch is revealed and he receives his birthright does he begin to exist [from it's perspective]. The fact that he is out of place as a 'white man' and exists as an embarrassment discredits the view that behavior and the color hierarchy [are] a product of genetic superiority.


Tom and Roxy blur the color line throughout Pudd'nhead neither black nor white except in the mindset of their society. They are black only because it is the accepted theory, though in reality they are physically indistinguishable. Both fall victim, especially in their own minds, to the polluted water philosophy. The one drop of black blood in them classifies them as 'n*ggers' because of the absence of gray areas in their world. Roxy and Tom are Twain's argument against terming different ethnic backgrounds as separate human species. They move between cultures looking white and acting black, or disguised as black and acting white. The demarcation line is indiscernible except to the eye of a society rooted in years of segregation.


On a smaller scale than the abstract color debate is the effect of [the] status quo on Twain's characters. Perhaps the most blatant victim of this conditioning is Tom Sawyer in Huckleberry Finn. Tom's fallback justification for his antics is an incredulous shrug and an irritated "that's how they do it in the books." The protracted liberation of Jim from [Tom's] Aunt's takes three weeks longer than necessary so that he can get all the details right. "A prisoner's got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain't ever been tried, why, there's more glory to be gained in your being the first..."  For Tom, it is not about the freedom of a man unjustly confined, but a dashing quest for glory and adventure in the spirit of Monte Cristo. Insensitive and ridiculous, Tom's plan defies logic and all moral expedience to follow his view of conventional wisdom.


Even Huck seems to forget his breakthrough decision in chapter thirty one to free Jim despite the eternal hellfire society has promised and shelves his own idea to simply steal the guard's key and let Jim out the first night. Huck complies to the wishes of a white master rather than the needs of his subservient black "friend.' His racism, however, is conditioned rather than wholehearted and vicious conviction. While throughout their voyage he develops an affection and even an appreciation for Jim, which culminates in the montage [I'm not sure this is the word you want] of chapter thirty one, he does not fully separate the adjective "black' from Jim's name.  Huck's slow progression from "you can't learn a n*gger to argue" to deference to Jim after Tom's injury is washed away by his assertion that Jim is "white inside." This blindingly racist comment, intended as a compliment, is the highest honor a thirteen year old southern boy could bestow on a black man and shows how deeply ingrained the master-slave values run even in a person unable to understand its implications. Unfortunately, Huck never quite overcomes the constant hammering of his upbringing.


The minor characters of Finn and Pudd'nhead also suffer from Twain's scathing reproach. He paints a less than flattering picture of the average southerner, who is droolingly fascinated by any breath of something foreign and exotic, from bad Shakespeare to the arrival of Italian twins. The Royal Nonesuch, who dupe the ignorant masses for profit, are also a product of the same Land of Opportunity that enslaved blacks for hundreds of years. Their greed is not an isolated value in Twain's world. It is prevalent in all levels, from Tom Driscoll's hope that his father will be killed in a duel so that he can collect his inheritance to Roxy's virtual extortion of the son she gave away.  Roxy has less concern for Chambers, whom she raised, than her unloving and unappreciative biological child. Her relationship with Tom is less maternal than monetary, as she threatens to reveal his secret unless he relinquishes half his allowance to her. The clever and worldly Roxy presses her high society "white' child for money rather than love. When circumstance presents an opportunity for wealth, Roxy, like Tom and the Royal Nonesuch, does not hesitate to seize it.


Dave "Pudd'nhead" Wilson is Twain's strongest character in opposition to the selfishness and ignorance of nineteenth century society. He is outcast from his community from the beginning, and his status as a social pariah reflects his separation from the provincial views and racism of Dawson's Landing. Though technically just the "other member" of the Free Thinkers Society, Wilson is clearly the embodiment of its intent. While Judge Driscoll, the president, is dueling in defense of a pricked ego to save face, Wilson is unconfined by the society that rejects him and follows his own beliefs.  He defends the twins at risk to his own already precarious reputation. It is through Wilson that Twain sells his defiance of racial roles as a product of biology.  His fingerprinting is evidence that all individuals, black and white, are unique and a black fingerprint is as indistinguishable from a white fingerprint as Tom is from a 'pure white man. (I don't think this analogy quite works.  Can you clarify it?)  However, even Wilson is not completely untouched by the workings of Dawson's Landing as at the end he reestablishes the racial order that he seemed to be a living rejection of and is finally accepted by society. (Without internal punctuation, this sentence ends in a breathless rush.)  Perhaps it is Twain's final irony that the independent and enlightened character, in solving the murder of the Judge by a method ahead of its time, becomes a stage performer pulled back into a black and white world.


Twain's cynicism is more than just a resigned sigh. He seems to doubt the readiness or ability of society to progress. Whether using Wilson's inability to permanently affect the fabric of his village or Huck's disappointing failure to fully see Jim as an equal, Twain dangles the carrot of hope just out of reach. In yet another ironic twist, the criticism is covered under a blanket of lightheartedness, allowing Twain to deliver his critique to an audience dwelling in the depths of his accusations and duped into listening.  (This sounds great - but I'm not quite sure what you mean.)   {{Very fair point. Pretty sure I meant something like "to an audience who deserve his accusations and have been duped into listening."  My original wording might be more poetic, but isn't very clear.  Also, this last critique from Professor Peters could be shorthand for this whole essay.  I never quite found the thread of the argument but the sentences themselves are pretty good.}}  



[Professor Assessment:

You make a number of strong points here, especially in pointing out the greed and provinciality of Twain's small-town South. Your writing can be sharp and cutting when you've focused in on a target.


But you haven't really taken those points and linked them in a cohesive argument. Paragraph by paragraph, the paper's great but those paragraphs don't really cohere to support of a single thesis. You end your intro by emphasizing the force of Southern society, for example, but the next three paragraphs drift away from that idea instead of building it up. All the things you describe on pp. 1-3 do happen in the society Twain depicts- but do they have a common source or origin? What facts or ideas generate these results?


On a smaller scale, I wonder if we see enough of "Chambers" to tell how moral he is; does he have much of a chance to be? And I'm not sure that Wilson is as much of a freethinker as you make out he supports the idea of dueling, remember.


You have lots of ingredients for a good paper, but you haven't really combined them. Try thinking about the paper as designed to move the reader in a straight line from point A to point B, instead of moving around the subject in an interesting way.]


{{That last sentence is really perceptive.   I wrote this one backwards, gathering ideas, then writing internally coherent paragraphs, and then afterwards trying to find a thesis and stitch the paragraphs together.  I wrote around the subject because I didn't really have one and he spotted my lack of design intention.}}

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