Mark Twain's Mississippi

The Idea of the West

by Gregg Camfield, University of California-Merced

While the United States was settled from East to West, Mark Twain started in the middle and moved, at different times, in both directions. It almost seems as if, having reached Hawaii, he had to return to the Atlantic to start over again, though as fate would have it, he lived on the East Coast or in Europe for the rest of his life. But when his move East was new in 1867, he merely perched in New York City, writing about the East to a western newspaper, scanning the country for opportunities. It seemed doubtful, as he expressed his western prejudices about the East, that he expected to call such an alien place home; the tone of his writing suggests instead a powerful need to interpret the West to the East. After all, the United States had just come through the Civil War with a powerfully centralized government, newly robust industries, and a redoubled sense of "manifest destiny" to connect the entire continent into a single nation. To do so, the East, Twain felt, needed to come to know the rest. So, at least, he told his California readers in a letter to the San Francisco Alta California:

An educated and highly cultivated American lady, who speaks French and Italian, and has travelled in Europe and studied the country so faithfully that she knows it as well as another woman would know her flower-garden, said to me yesterday that she had some very dear friends in San Francisco and other parts of Idaho, and these Indian rumors gave her unspeakable uneasiness; she believed that for seven nights she had hardly slept at all, with imagining the horrors which are liable at any moment to fall upon those friends; and she said she had friends in Santa Fe and Los Angeles, but she did not feels so worried about them because she believed the Indians did not infest the Cariboo country as much as they did the Farralone Mountains and other localities further West. I tried to comfort her all I could; I told her I honestly believed that her friends in San Francisco and other parts of Idaho were just as safe there as they would be in Jerusalem or any other part of China.

Here she interrupted me, and told me with a well-bred effort to keep her countenance, that Jerusalem was not in China. I apologized, and said it was a slip of the tongue — but what I had meant to express was that her friends would be just as safe in Santa Fe and other parts of Cariboo as they would be in Damascus, or any other locality in France.

And she interrupted me again, and this time she did laugh a little bit, and told me modestly and in a way that could not hurt anybody's feelings, that Damascus was not in France.

I excuse my stupidity again, and said that what I was trying to get at was, that her people might be even in the perilous gorges of the Farrallone Mountains and districts further west, and still fare as well as if they were in Hongkong or any other place in Italy.

And then she did not laugh, but looked serious and said, “Are you so preposterously ignorant as all this amounts to, or are you trying to quiz me?” And I sad, “Don't you go to Europe any more till you know a little something about your own country.” I won.

Given that the elite literary magazine of the day was The Atlantic Monthly, he had a point. Many on the Eastern seaboard looked for culture, looked for their identities, to Europe. As a westerner — and make no mistake about it, in 1867, anyone from beyond the Appalachians was a westerner — Twain set his agenda to offer an extended explanation of the West to the East. The Mississippi Valley figured prominently in that agenda. In fact, he intended to write about the Mississippi first, as he explained in a letter to his mother. Referring to an enclosed clipping from the San Francisco Examiner saying that Mark Twain “has commenced writing a book, ” he wrote:St. Louis Waterfront in 1860

The book referred to in that paragraph is a pet notion of mine . . . the bulk of it will not be finished under a year. I expect it to make about three hundred pages, and the last hundred will have to be written in St Louis, because the materials for them can only be got there. If I do not write it to suit me at first I will write it all over again, and so, who knows? — I may be an old man before I finish it. (20 January 1866).

Several books interposed, and his stay in the East stretched from a tour to permanent residency, but the ambition remained. To his new wife he wrote in 1871, “When I come to write the Mississippi book, then, look out! I will spend 2 months on the river & take notes, & I bet you I will make a standard work” (27 November). He eventually did write that standard work in Life on the Mississippi, but little did he know that he would also end up writing a series of magazine sketches and three novels that would collectively be more influential in explaining to America and the world what the Mississippi Valley part of America's West was like.

In keeping with the 1867 letter, Twain told the East much about the physical and human geography of the West, but his main interest was cultural. Inasmuch as the woman's manners include knowledge of Europe, its traditions, and its etiquette, much of Twain's agenda is to suggest something of the manners of the American West, showing his greatest interest in the hierarchies and mores of the Mississippi.

This task did not begin easily. In fact, his first effort to describe the West to the East was Roughing It, which begins with Mark Twain in St. Louis, pretending to be an Eastern dandy on his way to the rough far West. Partly the pose of city sophisticate was required to set up the dramatic tension, but partly Clemens did not want to perceive his childhood as uncivilized as he was settling in to the life of a New England gentleman. Acknowledging his roots in Western crudeness would not help him live up to his new life.

Yet marriage and the prospect of child rearing seemed to open his imagination to his past. The first written intimation of what would become Tom Sawyer appear in his 6 February 1870 reply to childhood friend Will Bowen, who had just written a letter congratulating Clemens on his marriage to Olivia Langdon. In his letter, Clemens wrote “Your letter has stirred me to the bottom. The fountains of my great deep are broken up & I have rained reminiscences for four and twenty hours.” These reminiscences would find their way into Twain's famous novel, but not first without a certain degree of refocusing. That began in The Gilded Age, co-written with college educated easterner Charles Dudley Warner, a Yankee by birth, and one of the editors and owners of the influential newspaper The Hartford Courant. In this book, Twain used his parents' migration from Tennessee to Missouri as the archetypal story of Western migration. The addition of some lurid melodrama in a steamboat explosion, followed by the rescue and adoption of a newly orphaned infant, and the novel's story of political and economic corruption begins with the kinds of upheaval that moved so many people from East to West. Twain and Warner populate the West with con-men, hucksters, operators, and — to a large extent — rubes. The society is crass both in its lack of education and cultivation, and in its efforts to make money out of pure speculation. But the novel does not show the West as being the antithesis of the East. Rather, it shows Eastern capitalists as the puppet masters who manipulate the simple avarice of the settlers to feed their deeply corrupt desires for massive wealth and complete power. The book as a whole sees Westerners as generally naive and innocent, as greedy only to make a good living while still connected to their families. Eastern capitalists, however, come across as soulless. Both authors postulate the virtuous alternative in rock-ribbed new England gentlefolk, whose traditions of republican virtue and deep education are the only things that can stand up to the cupidity of the rest of the nation. Trying to fit in to the New England aristocracy seemed to have colored the image of the West that came out in Twain's work.

Such was not to be his last word; in fact, beyond the title, The Gilded Age's words are hardly remembered. The words in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are the ones that most powerfully articulate Twain's vision of the Mississippi Valley. Indeed, this is one of the books that defines America's vision of its heartland. Twain's first efforts on this book, written in 1872 shortly before he began to work with Warner on The Gilded Age, focus almost exclusively on Tom Sawyer mimicking the rituals of courtship. Clearly, Clemens's recent courtship of Olivia Langdon influenced his imagination. Then, when his daughter was working through the fascinating first three years of life, Clemens turned again to the book. At this point, the town of “St. Petersburg” was an idyllic setting in which to play out the drama of raising children. Particularly, the drama lay in the conflict between Calvinist religious ideas of child rearing — "spare the rod and spoil the child" — and the more complex reality of how child rearing requires both love and discipline, and is a complex, communal task of shaping and guiding development, rather than of coercing a sinner into godliness. The drama is fronted in the opening chapter when Tom's Aunt Polly says, “I ain't doing my duty by the boy, and that's the Lord's truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says. I'm a laying up sin and suffering for us both I know. He's full of the Old Scratch [i.e. the Devil], but laws-a-me! He's my own dead sister's boy, poor thing, and I ain't got the heart to lash him somehow. Every time I let him off my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks.” The fact that Clemens named his idealized version of Hannibal “St. Petersburg” shows that his sympathies lay against the Calvinist rigor. The townspeople lived in heaven already.

A Crevasse on the Lower MississippiTypically for Clemens, his writing came to a halt somewhere in the middle of the book, and he lay it aside to turn to a different writing task, the series of magazine articles for The Atlantic Monthly, that ran under the title “Old Times on the Mississippi” (1874-1875). Like Tom Sawyer, “Old Times” uses the backdrop of the Mississippi Valley to create a feeling of newness, of youth; both confront initiation, growing up. In that sense, both speak to the myth of America, that the move to a new country was akin to childhood, that ours is a land of youth and opportunity. But both look to that past nostalgically, working on the assumption that the innocence of the new land is already gone. It seems that the success of the magazine articles, in which a youth masters a new trade as a riverboat pilot, galvanized Twain to finish the novel.

Regardless, when Clemens finished Tom Sawyer he called it a “hymn put in prose form to give it a worldly air.” But something about that hymn struck Clemens as a wrong note. He was fussing in his letters even as he finished the book that he had made a mistake, that he needed to put the book in first person if he was to carry the boy beyond that free-and-easy stage of life when play is a person's only work as so fantasy is reality. Somehow, this nostalgic version of the past did not sit well with Clemens; probably, as so many of the works reproduced on this website suggest, the reality was much less idyllic. And given that the success of the young pilot depended on seeing accurately not just the beauty, but also the danger, of the Mississippi River, and given, too, that the story of an apprenticeship on the river served as a metaphor for Clemens's own apprenticeship as a writer, he seemed to feel that Mark Twain had to tell a more complete truth about life on the River. That more complex picture would come out in the next three river books, the first two of which where written more-or-less simultaneously.'

Clemens began writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn immediately upon finishing Tom Sawyer. The opening chapters are a gentle challenge to Tom's fantasies, with Huck bringing the reality principle to bear on every one of Tom's fictions. By extension, Twain was bringing the reality principle to bear on the fiction of Tom. And indeed, as Twain's imagination carried Huck, with a slave as side-kick, down the river, his picture of the West, with its intimate connection to the exploitation of slave labor, became bleaker. About a third of the way in, he broke off this tale, to return to his first ambition, to write the book of the river itself.

To do so, he revisited the river in 1882, for the first time since 1867. He began by trying to travel incognito, but his fame was so great, and his presence so well known by many pilots, that his identity was revealed almost immediately. After that, he traveled in style, going from St. Louis to New Orleans, then back up the river all the way to St. Paul, Minnesota. While he first hoped that he could be objective by seeing the river as a common tourist would, his fame opened many more doors to him, with people from all walks of life trying to explain the West to him, so they could be explained through him. The picture he came back with was that the Southwest had been destroyed by slavery, and its persistent racism was preventing any resurrection. By contrast to the Northern cities of the Valley, Clemens perceived the South as being economically and morally a backwater. Astonishingly, the man who had spent so much of his career, defending the West against European charges that the West was crude and degenerate, in Life on the Mississippi, Twain even defended Mrs. Trollope's famous attacks on western mores and morals. Indeed, excised passages show that Twain was even more in agreement with Trollope than he let on in the finished book.

Burlington, Iowa in 1855

The Northern reaches of the valley, by contrast, come off as refined, elegant, and modern (See image of Burlington, Iowa, above). While he spends fewer pages on these Northern Mississippi cities and towns, they become the new idyll, the model for western expansion of civilization. The South, on which he lavished pages, he excoriated, probably as much out of shame for his own past as out of hope that his words could breed change. This trip changed forever Twain's attitude toward the West. No longer did he see the Mississippi Valley as he had when young, as an economic unit, bound by trade and the river. Indeed, he seemed finally to want to fight the Civil War, seeing himself as a reformed Southerner. Re-fighting the Civil War, this time on the Northern side, is in many ways what he intended to do as he turned back to Huck after finishing Life on the Mississippi. In fiction, he could tell his beliefs indirectly but more completely. The last stretch of the novel, when Huck tries to free Jim from the Phelps plantation, most scholars now see as an allegory of post-reconstruction south, where slick dealing and violence returned the freed slaves to virtual slavery. Nearly a decade later, Twain's presentation of the Mississippi Valley had not changed when he fictionalized it for the last time in Pudd'nhead Wilson. Slavery and the racism it required, says Twain, are merely a “fiction of law and custom,” and the reality behind that fiction is something Twain assiduously tries to uncover.

So as far as his imaginative returns to the Mississippi engaged the North/South split, Twain came to see the nation's great central valley less in terms of Western v. Eastern mores. As William Dean Howells put it in My Mark Twain:

The part of him that was Western in his Southwestern origin Clemens kept to the end, but he was the most desouthernized Southerner I ever knew. . . .[He] was entirely satisfied with the result of the Civil War, and he was eager to have its facts and meanings brought out at once in history.

This meant, of course, that the Mississippi Valley that began in his imagination as an undivided image of the American West, instead became a divided image of two American pasts, and, potentially, two American futures.