Last week I attended a small conference hosted by the Mark Twain Circle of American and the American Humor Studies Association. We met in San Diego. The groups meet together every four years; the most recent meeting was in New Orleans the year after Kathrina.
This time I decided to write a comparison of Twain's The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and Frances Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy. Harper's novel was published in 1892 (before Twain's). It is within a time frame during which concern with "passing" took on a greater life. William Dean Howells, for example, published An Imperative Duty in 1891; Twain himself played with the idea of "passing" not only in Pudd'nhead Wilson in 1894 but sometime earlier in the 1880s in a brief fragment of a plan for a story titled (in manuscript) "The Man with Negro Blood." This all ties to Harper and to writers such as Pauline Hopkins, Charles Chesnutt, and Nella Larsen (each of whom I teach in my course on African American Writers). This is fertile critical ground, and it helps place Twain in a much more complex combination of writers, a combination that makes it more difficult to think of him as unique in the American literary tradition of writing about race. Too often proponents of Twain raise him to unrealistic heights. It's best, I think, to bring him back to earth by linking him to other writers, his contemporaries.
At the end of my presentation, I wrote -- "Both Harper and Clemens center the lives of their black characters in the relationship of parent to child; however, for Clemens that relationship, tainted by the ideology of servitude and ruled by both law and custom, holds no positive lesson, no positive result. Once Chambers becomes Tom, Clemens begins to develop a story about the weaknesses of a motherly bond that is overwhelmed by racist doctrine and twisted by desperation and anger. In this way Clemens writes about white fears in the 1890s – esp. the fear of being supplanted by blacks and the fear of hidden and unknowable racial backgrounds. His portrait of Roxy and his description of her actions are not about sensitivity to black experience or black allegiance to the mother or family. They are about white fear at the prospect of the growing black influence – the image of the former slave as subversive, not only within American society but more specifically within the American household. Roxy’s act is ultimately the most disagreeable threat – from within – from the kitchen and the laundry – to white power and authority.
In the end, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson examines the fear of white society of the racial other and of the creeping reality of the result of miscegenation. “Tom’s” fear is every white man’s. Samuel Clemens is not interested in racial balance, but in the effects of paranoia on the white community. The worry is that we are all black inside: the inversion of Huck’s line about Jim. The question is how white society will deal with and address its possible loss of status. Chambers accepts his mother’s truth because it is the fear that has been placed within him throughout his privileged experience of life. From Yale to Dawson’s Landing, the fear is that blacks will become a social force, a fear that is somewhat supported by the strong ties that Harper argues are the real legacy of slavery. Her vision of a rising black community strengthened by its members’ allegiance to mothers and siblings, unified in its accepting responsibility for intellectual and economic lives and setting up the foundations for cooperation among generations of former slaves and their children is a contradiction to Clemens’ reality of white fear (it is a strange line from Pudd’nhead Wilson to Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots and later The Clansman). It is a pity that his vision takes so long and so hard a hold on American society."
That last comment, I had hoped, might lead to a discussion that complicates Twain's reputation for racial transcendence (Dixon's novels are notoriously racist and aimed at sparking and reinforcing white fear). It didn't. And I am left wondering why not.
Maybe we have internalized the message of Twain's unique status and have become used to the idea that he is standing alone for racial justice. And we are used to thinking that only his ideas matter. That is all too simple. We need to read Twain in context, and we need to think of his writing not as a signal that racial issues are easily resolved when white writers take them on. Why is it that we embrace Twain (or Stowe or, perhaps, Thoreau and Melville) but do not acknowledge the long and complex tradition of African American writers who write from within an experience and not about an experience. And why don't we see Twain as commenting more on the fears of white citizens than on their supposed ability to transcend race. It's a puzzle.