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Mark Twain and the South

Arthur G. Pettit


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The South was many things to Mark Twain: boyhood home, testing ground for manhood, and the principal source of creative inspiration. Although he left the South while a young man, seldom to return, it remained for him always a haunting presence, alternately loved and loathed. To follow his changing attitudes toward the South and its people is to observe the evolving opinions of many Americans during the era that bears the abusive name he gave it -- the Gilded Age. This is the first book on a major yet largely ignored aspect of the private life of Samuel Clemens and one of the major themes in Mark Twain's writing from 1863 until his death. Mr. Pettit clearly demonstrates that Mark Twain's feelings on race and region moved in an intelligible direction. The son of a poor but proud slave-holding family in the border South, Samuel Clemens was a product of his time and place. His "retreat" in 1861 to the Nevada territory, a stronghold of Northern sentiment, resulted in a hasty shift to anti-Southern views, born more of social pressures than of a genuine change of heart. This shift became stronger after his move to New York in 1866. Yet the South continued to pull him emotionally, becoming in his tangled imagination both the mythical Eden of Tom Sawyer and the symbol of white racial guilt ultimately expressed in the paradoxical figure of Roxana in Pudd'nhead Wilson. At the same time, Mark Twain the humorist and jester to his age was slow to discard the racist jokes that were commonplace in his day. After his marriage into Eastern money and respectability, however, he gradually imposed a form of self-censorship that reflected his growing recognition of the horrors of white treatment of blacks. Mark Twain's return to the South in 1882 proved a deep disillusionment and a turning point in his thought and writings. The South was no longer Eden but Wasteland. The immediate results were Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn, both with strongly anti-Southern undercurrents. Ultimately he moved into a deeply pessimistic and sardonic vein in which the dream of racial brotherhood was forever dead and the black man was seen as leading the way toward a cosmic snuffing out of the human race. Mr. Pettit approaches his subject as a historian with a deep appreciation for literature. He bases his study on a wide variety of Mark Twain's published and unpublished works, including his notebooks, scrapbooks, and letters. An interesting feature is an examination of Clemens's relations with the only two black men he knew well in his adult years.

University Press of Kentucky, 9780813191409, 236pp.

Publication Date: March 11, 2005

About the Author

Arthur G. Pettit was assistant professor of history at Colorado College.