Monday, April 25, 2011

On my Father, and Mark Twain’s Racism

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1
Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith  

          As a memoirist, I found Mark Twain’s Autobiography, Volume 1 interesting from a craft perspective. In it, he meanders through his life’s memories based on the daily news, the week’s correspondence, or his own whim. This style paralleled his life. Never one for doing anything “by the book” – any book, Twain meandered from one walk of life to another, from one adventure, one financial endeavor, one outlandish story to the next. In what ways did these experiences change Twain over his writing life? How is his autobiography different from, for example, Innocents Abroad, where his comments were at best culturally insensitive, and at worst classist and racist?
                 In Twainian style, allow me start with a side story of my own. I am a lesbian. Perhaps I should thank Providence that I have lived in a time where being a sexual minority didn’t cause me deep pain, or shame, or regret. Even so, I have had to stand along side of many a loved-one as they processed my situation for themselves. My father, an Irish Catholic and World War II vet from Camden, was a good example.  While I was in college, and before I “came out” to my parents, I took my girlfriend home to meet them. We stayed in my room and giggled much of the night, as (Twain would tell you) girls sometimes do. A few weeks later, I told my parents that I was a lesbian. They took the news pretty well, all things considered. Mom said, “As long as you’re happy, nothing else needs to be said.” And I was happy. My father thought through it differently. He called me a week or so later. “Well, Janice,” he said in his fatherly voice, “the rule here in our house is that if you’re not married you can’t sleep together under our roof.”  Hmm, I thought, at least he gets it. A few months after that, he called me and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking, you two can’t get married; so we’ll bend those rules next time you come home.” 
                He went on like this, processing and changing his preconceived notions little by little. Every time I came home he’d have taken another step. “Let’s go for a ride,” he’d say and we’d talk it over. He worried about the harm my openness would have on my career, my safety. Once he asked if I thought it was due to anything he had done. Another time he told me he suspected his brother might be gay and maybe that was why. (Which he was ...we think.) 
              Years later, my sister had what she called her “real wedding ceremony” with friends and family after she had married out-of-state with a justice of the peace. Pat and I had been together for 8 years by then. Right after the ceremony, my father put one arm around Pat and the other around me and said, “Couldn’t you two do something like this?” 
            He changed. His deeply embedded beliefs had been shaken to the core. He had to rebuild them, little by little. But his honest approach, his constant striving was more than any daughter could ask. 

            This is what I see in Mark Twain’s autobiography. Evidence of change. Throughout his life, Twain reevaluated his own beliefs and moved along a continuum. Still, he remained bound by his time in history, his country of birth, and his religious upbringing. In one of his earliest pieces, Innocents Abroad, his embedded racism leaked all over the pages. He painted a picture depicting White American Protestant men as the only people worth a damn. His habit of calling people “savages” carried marked negative connotations, especially from this man who knew and valued the precision of language. To his credit, Twain demonstrated movement even within that work when he said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…” underscoring his own transformation.
            Further change is evident in Twain’s autobiography. In an early section, he said of a family slave, Uncle Dan’l: “It was on the farm that I got my strong liking for his race and my appreciation of certain of its fine qualities. This feeling and this estimate have stood the test of sixty years and more and have suffered no impairment. The black face is as welcome to me now as it was then.” He refers to the slave children as his “comrades.” Importantly, he follows this by noting the ways in which they were “not comrades” because “color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of, and which rendered complete fusion impossible.” With this comment I detect truth and insight topped with a spoonful of respect. Absent from his autobiography are any of the painful and blatant racist and classist comments of his earlier work. He described George, his butler of 18 years, as “a colored man--the children's darling” and “a member of the family.” Twain demonstrated this respectful relation with others of his servants. He describes Patrick, his long time Irish coachman, as his friend. And, in fact, Patrick was pallbearer at Twain's funeral. When writing of the last thirteen days of his daughter Susy's life, he said, “she had faithful old friends” at her side. These included “Patrick, the coachman; Katy, who had begun to serve …(them) when Susy was eight; and John and Ellen, (the gardener and cook).”
            As far as I could tell, these servants were all Irish. I did notice that George, the “colored butler,” was not mentioned as present during Susy’s final precious and coveted moments. Does this imply an outer limit of Twain’s progress towards extinguishing his racism? Neither my father nor I were totally spared the rod of homophobia. While he came to full acceptance, he never quite made it to pride. As for me, to this day I am wary of reaching for my love’s hand in public. Changing behaviors is difficult; changing deeply embedded beliefs is even harder. Twain remained bound by the limits of his race and class and time in history. But he moved; he changed over time and stayed well ahead of many in his generation. What else can we expect from the ‘father of American fiction’?

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