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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 – ... more
Find essay on Indian Philosophy
I will, in the following, discuss the theme of self-reliance in the above-mentioned texts. But what exactly is self-reliance? In his 1841 publication called Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson includes an essay simply entitled Self-Reliance in which he states “Trust thyself…Great men have always done so and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age…” . Self-reliance is thus defined as the ability to be your own master and to seek your own fortune free from influences from your surroundings.
Hawthorne wrote Young Goodman Brown in 1835, some 6 years before Emerson’s Self-Reliance. Still it is obvious from the text that the notion of self-reliance was, if not named, very much alive. In the text we encounter Goodman Brown – a pious puritan settler - as he embarks on a strange and perilous journey into the woods surrounding the settlement. Hawthorne, being a harsh critic of the puritan society from which he himself derived, uses the story as an allegory, a metaphor, for the necessity of facing your internal demons and doing it alone. The Puritans believed that the wilderness was the home of the devil and his minions (Indians, wild beasts and the like) and
as such was a place to be shunned. Still, Goodman Brown leaves behind his devoted and maiden-
like wife (appropriately named Faith) and walks off. In the woods he encounters a man with features remarkably like his own (it is himself, his demon within) that guides him to a place of evil worship. Goodman Brown has visions of unthinkable evil that leaves him paranoid and unable to feel happiness for the remainder of his life. Because he has succumbed to fear of failure, he fails. But why does he fail that way? Simple. Goodman Brown fails to trust in himself. Instead he leaves his mental well being in the hands of the community from which he comes. To the Puritans the individual mind was fragile and prone to heresy if tempted. Only united did they stand a chance against the endless temptations of the devil. This is exactly the notion against which Hawthorne revolts. Had Goodman Brown had the willpower and the self-esteem necessary, he would have prevailed. With the ability to trust in one-self comes the ability to deal with any problem that life might throw in ones way, even the temptations of the soul. Thus we see the idea of self-reliance creeping into view.
Samuel L. Clemens first published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, a time where the idea of self-reliance was firmly established in the minds of the American people. The narrator and main protagonist Huck Finn is a young boy already introduced to the public in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) in which Huck is a runaway. He lives in an old barrel free of all obligations and is generally a happy boy. As Tom Sawyer progresses the boys help find a band of highwaymen, get them arrested and punished, and become rich in the process. Huck gets himself adopted by the Widow Douglas and this is where we encounter him in the beginning of Huckleberry Finn. Although he has been given everything the society deemed appropriate at the time (i.e. a family, a home etc.) Huck finds himself uncomfortable in his new clothing, unable to conform to strict house rules enforced upon him by the widow (“…The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time…” ). He generally misses the old days when he and Tom would wander about doing what they pleased. It is obvious that Clemens infuses Huck with his own ideas of freedom and wanderlust as something very positive. In fact it is almost certain that without these qualities Huck would never have survived to this point. As the story advances we encounter Huck’s father: A violent drunk with a massive inferiority complex towards everybody. He was the reason that Huck ran off and found his barrel in the first place and he is the only person that Huck truly fears. On the other hand he is his father and deep down Huck wants for them to have a normal life together. At
his reappearance, Huck’s father takes Huck ... more
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