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 – and the chair was occupied