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Considered by critics to be far and away the quintessential American novelist, Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain see figure #1) used his ability to convey biting satire and quick wit as a means of addressing sensitive and controversial social issues of his time. Twain was unafraid to direct his sharp tongue even at himself, once remarking "The human race is a race of cowards; and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner" (Twain, Mark, and Voto Bernard Augustine De). However, he was in his element when he was using his gift of writing with wit to shine the light of inquiry upon whatever topic garnered his interest. Twain was an expert in the use of modern language. It is this aspect of Twains writing that has garnered the most scrutiny by those who would seek to discredit him as nothing more than the kind of racist he himself most despised. While readers today may find discomfort in the use of the dreaded "n" word that is quite prevalent in some of Twains works, he took pride in his careful preservation of dialects and use of language by different minorities and ethnicities.
Mark Twain was born on Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri (CMG Worldwide). Twain, who's birth name is Samuel Langhorn Clemens, took the name Mark Twain years later when he wrote a series of comical "travel letters" for the Keokuk Daily Post, (American Writers). His first real fame came when his story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" appeared in the New York Saturday Press on November 18, 1865. Twain is probably best known however, for his books "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". He wrote 28 books and numerous short stories, letters and sketches. Mark Twain grew up in Missouri, a slave state. His father was a judge, but he was also traded in slaves at times. His uncle, John Quarles, owned 20 slaves; so Twain witnessed the practice of slavery first-hand whenever he spent summers at his uncle's place. When he was still a young boy, Mark Twain witnessed the killing of a slave by his owner for "merely doing something awkward" (Twain). Twain had a rather uneventful childhood up until his father's death from pneumonia when he was 12 years old. He became a printers apprentice barely a year later and eventually worked as a printer, before eventually becoming a licensed riverboat pilot in 1858 at age 19. When the Civil War shut down river trade, Twain enlisted in the Confederate Army, and was given the rank of lieutenant, but he deserted after only two weeks. Twain turned to writing to make a living for him and later for his wife and children. He married Olivia Langdon in 1870 and the couple had four children. One died as an infant, two died in their twenties and the fourth, a daughter, died at age 88, but never had children, so there are no direct living descendants of Twain (CMG Worldwide).
One can deliver a satire with telling force through the insidious medium of a travesty, if he is careful not to overwhelm the satire with the extraneous interest of the travesty (Galaxy Magazine). In Huckleberry Finn, Twain uses satire to demonstrate the insanity of slavery. A serious subject to be sure, but Twain made use of humor, biting criticism, and satire to make the subject both interesting and provocative. In an example, Jim, a slave, is being held in a shed owned by the Phelpses, a Christian family. The family needed Jim's help to do something that they could not do on their own, so they went to the shed, removed his chains and asked him to help them. Then they returned him to the shed. Jim has the chance to escape but does not, and the ridiculousness of the situation is exposed through this ironic exchange between the captive Jim and his temporary masters. He didn't limit his opinions to just the written word either. Twain sarcastically remarked at the 1881 meeting of the New England Society of Philadelphia that "The first slave brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine" (Twain). People who write about Twain take a couple of positions regarding Twain and his views on racism. There is the humane and sympathetic Mark Twain gently arguing for minority rights then there is the exploitative Mark Twain appropriating black voices for his own profit. It would be foolish to accept one or the other extreme, it is wrong to believe that Twain was never motivated by demographics and profit, and it is also wrong to assume that he existed solely as a champion of minority rights. Slavery isn't the only subject to fall prey to Twains skills with satire. He uses Huck's view of religion to skewer the idea of blind acceptance of ideas presented by the church. He speaks through Huck declaring it to be irrelevant to the average person's life, "Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see..." (Twain). Huck also declares that prayer has never done him any good, and he can't see that it has helped many others either. In his presentation of Huck's feelings about religion, Twain demonstrates his own opposition to the blind faith that some put into the church's teachings. While Huckleberry Finn is the novel most cited by lovers and haters of Twains work, The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson brings his use of dark satire to an entirely new level. In this book, Twain happily attacks the absurdity of racial stereotyping. Using a mother's fear of seeing her slave son "sold down the river", Twain creates a situation in which two nearly identically appearing babies are switched and thus a slave baby becomes the master and the master the slave. Twain demonstrates his opinion that it is upbringing, socialization and outside influences that determine class separation and not genetics or ethnicity. Through the introduction of the Italian twin brothers, he aptly and equally uses language to skewer the stereotypes of Europeans in America as well. In fact, it is one of the Italian brothers that stands wrongly accused for murder and endures the judgment and is ostracized by the community simply because he is not a local resident.
It has already been mentioned that Twain spent summers at his uncle's Missouri farm and used the experiences in his writing. It was during these summers that he learned folklore, dialects and stories of slavery that would be lost today without had it not been for his remembering and applying them into his stories. Twain even took the time to mention his proper use of different period dialects and language throughout Huckleberry Finn in the preface to that novel: "A number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremist form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary 'Pike-County' dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guess-work; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several patterns of speech" (Twain). It is this dedication to the authenticity of the language used by the characters that explains a goodly portion of the use of what appear to be overtly racist comments by today's standards. Because Twain narrates Huckleberry Finn through the character Huck, it is only expected that the character will speak in the dialect and using the vocabulary available to someone of Hucks education and experience (or lack thereof). By today's standards, Twains writing can at times seem harsh and inflammatory. His use of racially charged words and stereotypes at first glance seem to be the thoughts and expressions of an openly racist writer. But one has only to actually read Twains works to realize that not only was Twain NOT a racist, he was quite the opposite, clearly using his stories and writing ability to expose the hypocrisy of racism and the fallacy of slavery. While there has been a focus in recent years on the use of language that is considered racist against African Americans, Twain applied his use of language to all of his characters equally. "I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse" (Twain).
Critics of Mark Twain have cited Twains use of racially charged words in works such as Huckleberry Finn as an example of his racism. The fact that one of the main themes of the book is Huck (who is white) helps an escaped slave flies in the face of the uninformed rallying cry of the racial critics of the book. One of the strongest scenes from the novel is when the men chasing Jim are rowing toward Huck and Jim (who is hidden) on the raft. The slave catchers yell to Huck and ask him "Is your man white or black?" Hucks response is "he's white". Hardly the response expected if a racist were holding the pen. Twain was a supporter of emancipation, and remarked that Abraham Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation "not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also." Mark Twain was a supporter of women's rights and he actively campaigned for women's suffrage. His "Votes for Women" speech, in which he pressed for the granting of voting rights to women, is considered one of the most famous in history.
Mark Twain even comments on the absurdity demonstrated in the willingness of what he referred to as the "paupers, loafers and the tag-rag" to endorse slavery through their willingness to aid in the capture of runaway slaves. In his "Notebook #35" (also reproduced in several later printings of his novels), Twain wrote: "In those old slave-holding days the whole community was agreed as to one thing--the awful sacredness of slave property. To help steal a horse or a cow was a low crime, but to help a hunted slaveâ€¦ or hesitate to promptly to betray him â€¦ was a much baser crime, & carried with it a stain, a moral smirch which nothing could wipe away. That this sentiment should exist among slave-owners is comprehensibleâ€¦but that it should exist & did exist among the paupers, the loafers the tag-rag & bobtail of the community, & in a passionate & uncompromising form, is not in our remote day realizable" (Twain). He goes on to describe how even he fell into the trap of this behavior seeming normal enough to him and normal enough for him to apply it to the characters in Huckleberry Finn. "It seemed natural enough to me then; natural enough that Huck & his father the worthless loafer should feel it & approve it, though it seems now absurd" (Twain). Twain's feelings about minorities in his later years were filled with a deep caring for victims of racial inequality and abuse, and contempt for those responsible. He wrote a magazine article in 1901 after he was horrified to learn about lynching's that occurred in the south and even in his home state of Missouri that condemned the practice. "The United States of Lyncherdom," was a shining example of Twains use of satire to make his point on a very sensitive issue. In one passage, Twain begs compassionate missionaries to "leave China, come home, and convert these Christians" (Twain). Even at his advanced age, he was fearful of the reactions of Southerners, so he set aside that article, along with others that were not to be published until after his death. He reasoned: "I shouldn't even have half a friend left down there, after it was issued from the press" (Twain). As Twain grew older, he suffered the loss of three of his four children and his wife. This is cited by many as the primary reason that Twains writings grew more pessimistic and critical. Twain also turned to financial investments, with disastrous results. As a result of his financial woes, Twain turned to critiquing other writers in a series of newspaper articles. Twains pessimism began to show when he cataloged the "Literary Offenses" of James Fenimore Cooper, among others. He didn't just critically review other authors, he began criticizing other critics as well, going so far as to suggest that several well-known critics "ought to have read some of it (Coopers work) before praising it. Twain did however, present his opinion of what constituted "quality writing" in several letters and essays. He placed emphasis on concision, utility of word choice, and realism.
By today's standards, Mark Twain's writing can at times seem harsh and inflammatory. It would be impossible not to find some elements of our 20th century definition of racism in his writings. His use of racially charged words and stereotypes at first glance seem to be the thoughts and expressions of an openly racist writer. But one has only to actually read Twains works to realize that not only was Twain NOT a racist, he was quite the opposite, using his stories and writing ability to expose the hypocrisy of racism and the fallacy of slavery. "I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse" (Twain). Those that would categorize Twain as a racist are only demonstrating their ignorance of the substance of his writings and have chosen instead to only focus on the method of delivery. Twain's preface to Huckleberry Finn is a passage that these critics should consider before passing judgment on the man some call the father of American Literature: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." (Twain)