Mark Twain's Mississippi

A Legacy of Guilt

by Gregg Camfield, PhD, University of California-Merced

Even though the United States was, from the beginning, a multi-cultural republic, inter-ethnic relations were never easy. This was as true of the Mississippi Valley as of any other parts of the Republic, because the three primary spurs to American racism — the displacement of indigenous peoples, the immigration of different ethnic and religious groups, and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants — were very much a part of the history of the Mississippi Valley. Mark Twain grew up in an environment that completely justified political behavior that aggrandized the situations of Americans of Northern European, Protestant background at the expense of other groups. A lifetime of travel and study, and friendship with people of more liberal views encouraged him to reject or at least modify most of his earlier racist attitudes. This was especially true with respect to African-Americans, whom he came to appreciate deeply, in part to expiate his sense of guilt for having once supported slavery and the racism that was used to justify it. Despite his growth away from the racial attitudes of his youth, however, he never seemed to move very far from the anti-Indian attitudes of his childhood.

Slavery and its Racist legacy

Few would disagree that slavery had a profound impact on America, an impact that lasts to this day, but for all the agreement that to understand America one must understand the role chattel slavery had in making America, myths about slavery abound. The image of the large Southern plantation persists, making most people think of slave-holding as restricted to the oligarches of the Deep and the Old South. The undeniable importance of the cotton industry and slavery's central place in that crucial industry bolsters the image of slavery as more or less confined to the Deep South. And while it is widely agreed that slavery existed throughout the South, most people continue to believe that it was relatively rare and mild beyond the large plantations of the Deep South.

Kernels of truth bolster that myth. Most slaves were held by men who had more than five slaves even though most slave holders had fewer than five. Those relatively few plantation owners who held hundreds of slaves used systematic violence to maintain control over a race that greatly outnumbered whites in many southern counties. But the other side of the equation needs to be revealed, especially if one is to understand Mark Twain's Mississippi.

Most slave holders held few slaves, and the broad middle class in the South was a slave-holding class. Most of these slave holders did not live in large, elegant plantations; the American middle-class in the nineteenth century was incredibly mobile, and that mobility almost invariably meant to move west, to move toward the frontier. Moving west meant moving away from opulence toward deprivation. It meant clearing fields, making one's own home with whatever materials were at hand, fixing one's own tools, building markets, creating systems of government, staking everything one owned on the chance of making money in some distant future. For the slave-holding southern middle-class, slaves were considered an absolutely central stake in taking that gamble for several reasons.

First, everything a mobile population did required labor, and when land was cheap and class status was fluid, it was difficult to hire labor. Forced labor solved the problem. Second, when families moved, it was difficult to move property. One of the reasons that living conditions were so primitive through most of the South and West in the years before the Civil War was that it was too difficult and expensive to transport furniture and most other tangible property. Slaves were the exception. They were as mobile as those who held them. Furthermore, when the African slave trade was essentially cut off at the end of the eighteenth-century, slaves became extraordinarily valuable. Slaves were the most mobile and most valuable property most southerners had. No surprise, then, that slavery was so wide-spread. To own slaves was a mark of social status in the South. Of course, the slaves' mobility cut both ways — countless numbers of them ran for freedom. No surprise, then, that slave-holders tried so hard to hang on to slaves regardless of moral, political, or social consequences. In other words, violence against slaves and against whites who opposed slavery was common throughout the slaveholding states, and, perhaps, even more common in the territories. Third, slaves did all kinds of labor in the South, not just unskilled labor. Again, the myth that slaves were just field hands and personal servants diminishes the importance of slavery to the southern economy. Slaves worked as mechanics, smiths, weavers, shipwrights — just about all kinds of skilled artisanal work in the South was done by slaves. Thus, slaves provided those who held them a degree of economic stability in the face of wild swings in the economy. If a person moved west to farm but commodity prices dropped, he could hire his slaves out to do other kinds of work, making up in rent the income lost in farming. And if times became impossible, slave-holders could always sell their slaves. Indeed, buying and selling slaves as commodities was a common practice throughout the South.

Thus, there were substantial economic imperatives to maintain slavery, and the wide-spread practice of slave holding ensured that there was political will among voters, that is, white men, to maintain the practice. As anti-slavery agitation became more common, as the sectional rivalry between North and South grew more intense over the issue of slavery, as an active underground railroad developed throughout North and South, the slave-holding southern majority took ever stronger legal and extra-legal steps to bolster the system. When the country was founded in the late 18th-century, most Americans believed slavery would gradually fade away, and even in the South, discussions about how to end slavery and about what to do with freed slaves — with suggestions ranging from educating and integrating the freedmen into society to “colonizing” them in Africa — were commonplace. But as the pressure against slavery increased and the economic incentives to keep it became every greater, this conversation in the South was choked off. Emancipationists and abolitionists were threatened with violence, were jailed, were socially ostracized. It got to the point were public resistance to slavery was almost as dangerous for a white person as for a slave. And while in the early days of slavery many slaves were considered part of the family structure, to the point that they were encouraged to attend church, to read the bible, even, in a few famous cases, to write poetry, by the 1830s, it was usually illegal to teach a slave to read. In fact, the only way to sustain a practice that was drifting further and further from the nation's political ideals was to de-humanize the slaves, to argue that they occupied a lower rung on the ladder of creation and thus were legitimately denied any rights or human courtesies whatsoever. In other words, racism grew deeper the longer slavery was practiced precisely because in a republic founded on ideals of liberty and equality, slavery was such an anomaly that it took extraordinary mental and moral gymnastics to justify. Deep racism as a political, as well as social, practice became commonplace. The final myth, that the slavery of the border states, especially those of the West, was milder than that of the deep South may in a shallow sense be true. The rarity of large plantations meant the absence of the intense violence necessary to control large work gangs. But the oppressive social and legal machinery that made slavery possible was as much a part of the border states as it was of the Deep South. In fact, the ease with which slaves could escape to neighboring free states, combined with the intense activities of abolitionists in border states, created a sense of siege, hardly a sense conducive to mild treatment of either slaves or whites who opposed slavery.

Sam Clemens knew about all of this first hand from various events that happened in his childhood, but mostly from the pervasive propaganda in favor of the peculiar institution. As he put it in his Autobiography:

In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud do us to make the matter sure.

This tells only part of the story, of course; the public closing of ranks happened only because slavery was under such pressure. Lynch Law in America, 1853Sam's older brother, Orion, became an abolitionist, probably because, as a printer in St. Louis, he came to see slavery as a potential threat to the value of his free labor. But when he worked in Hannibal, he kept his mouth shut. His true positions were not publically known until he moved north to the free state of Iowa.

Orion had good reasons to be politic. Not only would his struggling newspaper have gone bankrupt if it didn't take advertisements for slave sales and notices about escaped slaves, it would have been violently destroyed and he would have been lynched had he published his anti-slavery views. After all, between 1835 when Samuel Clemens was born and 1853 when his brother Orion moved to Iowa, at least three prominent Hannibal men who had publicly questioned slavery, one even in very mild terms, had been driven out of town. While there was an active underground railroad in Hannibal, the socially operative term was “underground.” Those who made the mistake of being less than subtle were driven out of town, lynched, or sent to prison. Samuel and Orion's father, John Marshall Clemens, sat on a jury that convicted three abolitionists of trying to help several slaves reach freedom. The sentence was twelve years in prison at hard labor. Eventually, Sam Clemens came to believe that “It would not be possible for a humane and intelligent person to invent a rational excuse for slavery” (“My First Lie and How I Got Out of It, 1899), yet he knew from personal experience that saving one's skin was the reason many whites in his home town remained silent in the face of what they knew was wrong.

Of course, many slave holders assuaged their guilt with the belief that they were good masters and that the slavery of their area was mild — indeed even beneficial to slaves. Again, Clemens confronted that rationalization in his writing as Mark Twain. In Following The Equator, after describing a German man striking his Indian servant, Twain says:

I had not seen the like of this for fifty years. It carried me back to my boyhood, and flashed upon me the forgotten fact that this was the usual way of explaining one's desires to a slave. . . . When I was ten years old I saw a man fling a lump of iron-ore at a slave-man in anger, for merely doing something awkwardly — as if that were a crime. It bounded from the man's skull, and the man fell and never spoke again. He was dead in an hour. . . . Nobody in the village approved of that murder, but of course no one said much about it. (Chapter 38)

This history left Samuel Clemens a legacy of guilt, guilt that he tried to assuage in his personal life through acts of charity. He gave money to or acted as a celebrity orator for fundraisers for various African American churches, the Tuskeegee Institute, and for the fledgling NAACP. Most notably, perhaps, he helped support Warner T. McGuinn through Yale law school, because, as he put it in a letter to the school's dean, “I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it” (to Francis Wayland, 24 December, 1885). McGuinn went on to a successful law career, and served as mentor of Thurgood Marshall.

But we know Clemens's attempts to expiate his guilt best through the fiction of Mark Twain. Two of Mark Twain's major Mississippi works, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (first American edition 1885) and Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) investigate the ethical and social implications of slavery. Ironic as slavery and racism were in a culture predicated on the belief “that all men are created equal” and free, Mark Twain chose to present his investigations as deeply ironic satires. In both cases, as much as he denounced the slavery of his childhood, he did so not really to condemn a practice already outlawed and rejected by most of his readers, but rather to condemn the legacy of racism slavery had left. He pointed out the inconsistencies and cruelties of racism, what he called in Pudd'nhead Wilson “a fiction of law and custom,” but a fiction that so permeates our reality as to continue to bedevil us as we grapple with slavery's long legacy.

Native AmericansNative Americans

When Clemens was born in 1835, the national policy of “Indian removal” was well under way, just a few short years before the forced removal of the Cherokee in 1838's “Trail of Tears.” The tribes were “removed” to land now part of Oklahoma and Kansas. These areas were already occupied by tribes, as were most of the lands west of the Mississippi. In the ensuing thirty years, these tribes struggled to maintain their status, arguing among themselves about which approaches would best serve their interests. While some advocated assimilation into Euro-American culture, others advocated separate but peaceful relations, and still others advocated violent resistance. The American Civil War at first appeared to provide an opportunity to use the Euro-American rift to develop native autonomy and power. In the South at the beginning of the War, Confederate troops in Missouri and Arkansas made alliances with Indian tribes, promising rights in exchange for aid against Union troops. For the most part, when native troops witnessed the intensity with which the whites fought each other, they disengaged from the battles. In the North, for example in Minnesota and Iowa, native insurgencies diverted Union troops from the internecine conflict. Yet despite tribal hopes that the Civil War would strengthen their hand, at no point did the Federal government abandon its policy of suppressing native tribes through military action. When the War was over, the Union redoubled its military efforts against those tribes that had taken up arms, sending substantial numbers of troops to the Great Plains to wage total war against the militant — and other — tribes. In other words, Mark Twain's Mississippi was a field of inter-cultural conflict for the entire time he lived there. And not surprisingly, as part of a conquering vanguard, Clemens always justified the European conquest in racial terms, describing natives as savage, as marginally human. The best known example of Twain's attitudes toward native Americans is in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where the novel's villain is “Injun Joe,” a murdering, thieving half-breed who plans to rob and then mutilate the Widow Douglas out of revenge. As he explains to his confederate:

I don't' care for her swag — you may have it. But her husband was rough on me — many times he was rough on me — and mainly he was the justice of the peace that jugged me for a vagrant. And that ain't the millionth part of it! He had me horsewhipped! — horsewhipped in front of the jail, like a nigger! — with all the town looking on! HORSEWHIPPED! — do you understand? He took advantage of me and died. But I'll take it out of her. . . . Kill? Who said anything about killing? I would kill him if he was here; but not her. When you want to get revenge on a woman you don't kill her — bosh! you go for her looks. You slit her nostrils — you notch her ears, like a sow's! (Chapter 29).

In case the reader doesn't get the point, Twain later has the Welshman explain, when Huck finally tells that Injun Joe was the culprit: “It's all plain enough, now. When you talked about notching ears and slitting noses I judged that that was your own embellishment, because white men don't take that sort of revenge. But an Injun! That's a different matter, altogether.” (Chapter 30).

This example is of a piece with many other works, published and unpublished. For example, in his letters to the Alta California of 1868, he justifies the campaign against the Sioux. In Roughing It he laments the violence of the Plains Indians and the “degradation” of the natives of California and Nevada. In the unpublished “Tom and Huck Among the Indians,” Twain dropped the story when he realized he could not publish a fictional account of Indian captivity that included torture and rape. And in his repeated attacks on the works of James Fenimore Cooper, he dismissed Cooper's lamentations over the demise of native tribes as so much romantic bosh.

By the time he published Following the Equator in 1897, he had come to oppose European conquest of natives peoples around the world, and thus cast an eye back on his own earlier support of the U.S. conquest and extirpation of America's native peoples. He acknowledged that it was wrong, but while he waxed eloquent in defending natives of New Zealand, of India, and of South Africa, his condemnation of America's actions was remarkably mild. When referring to America's role in imperial conquest, he said little more than that “All territorial possessions of all the political establishments in the earth — including America, of course — consist of pilferings from other people's wash” (chapter 63). The metaphor diminishes the value of the conquest, but it also minimizes the crime. In other places, he derides European conquests by deriding the Europeans: “There are many humorous things in world; among them the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages” (chapter 12). Of course, this is a renunciation of the justice of America's Indian policy, but it does not for a moment elevate the native Americans from the stereotype of savagery. Even at his most cosmopolitan, Clemens never renounced the idea that Native Americas were barbarians.


As immigrants themselves, Protestant northern Europeans were remarkably intolerant of other immigrants, even of other European immigrants. Substantially this was because Protestants held Catholics in contempt — and historically in Europe the contempt was reciprocal. A Know-Nothing View of PoliticsBut even though America as envisioned by Crevecoeur, and as enshrined in the Constitution, was supposed to be impervious to religious intolerance, religion remained a powerful incentive to bigotry. Americans of Northern European Protestant extraction often considered themselves the only true Americans, and deprecated others as subordinate races. It is difficult to imagine today that the Irish were held to be a different race, but in the middle of the nineteenth century in the United States, anti-Irish sentiment ran deep, so deep that a political party, The American Party, arose primarily on anti-Irish grounds.

The followers of this party, often called “Know Nothings” were especially strong in New England, but during their brief ascendancy their influence was fully national (For a contemporary comment on their view of politics, see the cartoon at right). Wherever immigration of Catholics was substantial but did not make up a majority of the population, the American Party flourished in the mid 1850s. Such was the case of much of the Mississippi Valley in the 1850s. Young Samuel Clemens was working as a typesetter in St. Louis during the “Know-Nothing” riots of 1854, and while we have no evidence that he participated, the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and especially anti-Irish comments of his letters suggest that he approved of the “Know-Nothing” agitation. Certainly, his letter from St. Louis to his brother, published in the Muscatine Tri-Weekly Journal of 28 February 1855, shows his sympathies: “A new Catholic paper (bad luck to it) is . . . soon to be established, for the purpose of keeping the Know Nothing organ straight.” We do not know which of three St. Louis nativist newspapers Clemens was referring to, but his dislike of the Catholic alternative is not only obvious, but is also an opinion he willingly made public in his correspondence to his brother's newspaper. This is very much in keeping with an attitude he expressed in a private letter to his brother of 28 November 1853 from Philadelphia:

The printer's annual ball and supper came off the other night. The proceeds amounted to about $1,000. The printers, as well as other people are endeavoring to raise money to erect a monument to Franklin, but there are so many abominable foreigners here (and among printers, too,) who hate everything American, that I am very certain as much money for such a purpose could be raised in St Louis as in Philadelphia. I was in Franklin's old office this morning, — the “North American” (formerly “Philadelphia Gazette”), and there were at least one foreighner [sic] for every American at work there.

The misspelling “foreighner” is meant to be an imitation of an Irish accent. It took much time and travel to soften Clemens's anti-Irish sentiment. Ironically, his distaste for the Irish facilitated his opening to tolerance when he observed the Irish treatment of the Chinese in San Francisco and sided with the Chinese at least in part out of his contempt for the Irish. This perversely motivated step away from the common American bigotry against the Chinese opened the door to tolerance, and once Clemens passed through this door, his walk away from widely held ethnic stereotypes was difficult to stop. Over the course of the 1870s, his virulent anti-Irish sentiment had softened, primarily because his friend and pastor in Hartford, Joseph Twichell, introduced him to the company of Twichell's Irish-Catholic priest friend, Rev. J. B. O'Hagan. Clemens mocked his own attitudes in 1 February 1875 letter to Charles Warren Stoddard in which he mentioned that Twichell was taking him:

to have a 'time' with a most jolly and delightful Jesuit priest who was all through the war with Joe. . . . I sent the Padre word that I knew all about the Jesuits, from the Sunday-school books and that I was well aware that he wanted to get Joe and me into his den and skin us and make religious parchment out of us after the ancient style of his communion since the days of good Loyola, but that I was willing to chance it and trust to Providence.

Clearly he had come to recognize the absurdity of the anti-Catholic propaganda he had imbibed as a child. 

After Clemens himself developed a friendship with O'Hagan, he changed his attitude not so much to the Roman Catholic church as an institution, but rather to individual practitioners of Catholicism, and most especially to individual Americans of Irish ancestry. True, he never did stop telling jokes that depended on stereotypes of the Irish, but these stories tended not to be so cruel or belittling as were his earlier remarks. In Life on the Mississippi, for example, he could tell the story of the seller of “some cheap literature,” a venerable Irishman with a benevolent face and a tongue that worked easily in the socket . . . . He was a good deal of a character, and much better company than the sappy literature he was selling. A random remark, connecting Irishmen and beer, brought this nugget of information out of him: —

“They don't drink it, sir. They can't drink it, sir. Give an Irishman lager for a month, and he's a dead man. An Irishman is lined with copper, and the beer corrodes it. But whiskey polishes the copper and is the saving of him, sir.” (Chapter 23)

As told by a man who loved whiskey, who loved good tall-tales, and by a humorist who knew how to make himself the butt of a joke, Mark Twain's depiction of this Irish salesman is not necessarily disparaging. It certainly does not have the contemptuous ring of the early letters, but instead seems to show admiration of the Irishman's talents as a humorist. It is difficult to imagine a humorist, even today, not making some of his jokes about ethnicity, but how those jokes are made tells the story of the humorist's attitude. Perhaps the most compelling proof that Clemens's anti-Irish sentiments cooled considerably over time is in his decision to make Tom Sawyer's Irish ragamuffin side-kick, Huckleberry Finn, into a hero. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we first see Huck as the village pariah, ostensibly because he is the ignorant and dirty son of the town drunkard, but his Irish name suggests a second reason, or, rather, by the stereotype of the day, it suggests a cause for the ignorance, dirt, and drunkenness. That Clemens would make Huck into a minor hero in this book, with the Welshman and his sons endorsing Huck's reformation and vouching for his innate good-heartedness to the widow Douglas and the rest of the town, suggests that Twain is already showing a more catholic view of Americanness by 1876. Not, apparently, content with simply rescuing Huck from his outsider's status, Twain then turned, in the sequel to Tom Sawyer, to making this son of a drunken Irishman the protagonist of his most ambitious and important novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. To have made such a decision, Clemens must have mastered the “nativist” attitudes of his youth.