Mark Twain and the South, by Arthur G. Pettit
(Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1974.)


Reviewed by Christopher Robbins


It's difficult to read Pettit's Mark Twain and the South and not walk away vastly confused about one of America's greatest personalities. At once the reader is presented with examples of staggering racism (jokes about the smell of rotting black flesh) and moral fortitude (Clemens' financial and vocal support of black college students) with plenty of ambiguity in between. Deciphering Twain's (and Clemens') views on the South in his most popular works is tough enough, but learning more about Clemens' past experiences and actions as well as seeing Twain's unpublished thoughts and writings is as frustrating as it is fascinating. Ultimately the reader realizes that although Twain the writer has a clear trajectory from self-aggrandizing Confederate to conscious moralist as his career progresses, Clemens remained profoundly conflicted about his visions of the South until his death.

Pettit roughly divides Twain's career into three major stages: his youth and early adulthood until 1875 (the year Tom Sawyer was published) which was steeped in the trappings of Southern culture, his "enlightened" creative period after an 1882 visit back to his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, and the increasingly troubled last decades of his life, in which he rails against the "slavery, violence, bigotry, ignorance…and romanticism" of the South until his death (83).

Clemens grew up on the border of the South, but his parents raised him to respect his landed ancestors from colonial Virginia. Indeed, "the custom of the time was upheld in the Clemens household" and when the family owned slaves Justice Clemens would physically beat them, occasionally in front of Samuel (17). Later in life Clemens would describe his nightmares over the cruelty against blacks that he witnessed as a child, but as a young man Samuel seemed quite enthusiastic about his ties to the Southern way of life. He joined a Confederate "guard" for two weeks, reveled in the decadence of Mardi Gras as a steamboat captain shipping slaves and cotton across the South, and once he moved out west, was a staunch defender of secessionism, despite the fact that his brother worked for the US government. Clemens' opinions of the Civil War seem quite partisan compared to the ambivalence described by Twain in Roughing It: Virginia City was in fact named by secessionists, and a Judge in the city threatened to whip him "on sight" for his Southern sympathies (26). Twain was forced to change the tone of many of his articles in 1862 as the political winds shifted (ie: the story of the US flag being seen through the storm in Roughing It) but he also was not below making callous and distasteful jokes, claiming on the front page of a newspaper that the proceeds from a charity dance were going to a "Miscegenation Sociey" back east.

Clemens (and his alter ego) was content to remain prejudiced in writing and deed even after the publication of Innocents Abroad, continuing to make off-color jokes and using the word "nigger" in his correspondences and at home. After moving into New England high society, he was forced to tone them down but it also allowed a removed Twain to venerate the South as a rosy, picaresque vision of his past; a view that pervades throughout Tom Sawyer. However after visiting Hannibal in 1882, he did not find the place that existed in his memory, but a veritable "wasteland" (79). It is this experience, Pettit argues, that defines how Twain will treat blacks and the South the rest of his career. His dreams of the Old South officially shattered, Twain produces The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and thus "the most appealing dream of interracial brotherhood in our literature" (109). Twain moves away (for the most part) from portraying blacks as one-dimensional minstrel characters and begins to paint them as people; in many cases better than the whites who persecute them.

Towards the end of his life and career Clemens was distraught on how to use Twain to advance the cause of blacks and to combat the injustices of Southern whites. He was outspoken on some issues, but remained silent in others. He became obsessed with his own personal "southern" identity: that "to be a Southerner in good standing one must preach good and practice evil;" Clemens was done practicing evil, but channeled his dark feelings into countless, bizarre unfinished stories and scribblings (85). It's clear that he wanted to atone for his past but did not know how.

Mark Twain and the South is an excellent companion for our class; I only wish we had gotten farther in the course so Pettit's analysis of his later works would be clearer. At times Pettit sounds like an apologist for Twain's more unsavory behavior, but overall this book is filled with anecdotes and experiences that prove to the reader that Samuel Clemens was just as confused about Twain's Southern identity as we are today.


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