Mark Twain, an individual experience of his views on prejudice, inequality and privilege”

What follows is a slightly modified version of a recent talk that I gave on “Mark Twain, an individual experience of his views on prejudice, inequality and privilege”  Furthermore, this is not a short read.


Sometime about age 10 or 11 I had an experience that I remember like hearing of President Kennedy’s assassination or watching a second plane fly into the world trade center.  I was invited to the birthday party for Richard Organ, a grade school classmate.  Richard’s mother did something that I had never experienced to that point; she gave everyone who came a present.  I don’t remember what I gave Richard, but I remember mine perfectly.  I got The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

I was by that age an avid reader and devoured the book.  My mother then bought me The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  While I read the book as an eleven year old boy – a boy’s adventure story – I realized that there was something special about that book.  And, I greatly identified with Huck Finn.

Between the years 1947 and 1960 I lived in the same house in a stable neighborhood just outside of the north side of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and within sight of Van Buren, Arkansas across the Arkansas River.  Across the road from our house was number five on a nine-hole public golf course.  Past that galf course were the Arkansas River “bottoms”.  I ran barefoot each summer through that area, poled a raft along a slough lined with willows, bull frogs and cottonmouth water moccasins and, along with other kids, built a log cabin, set trot lines in the river, picked sand spurs from our feet and beggar lice from our clothes and lived what we thought to be the best life possible.

Arkansas River at

Van Buren, Arkansas

Fort Smith to left, Van Buren to right

My mother, brother and I went to church in Van Buren, and on Saturdays the neighborhood kids walked across the golf course to the highway and across the river to the Bob Burns Theater for the Saturday matinee movies.  At the upper end of Main Street we watched a farrier shoe horses, and a blacksmith make the shoes.

I went to public school for 12 years in Fort Smith.  We’ll get back to Fort Smith in a bit after I talk about another river kid, Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Sam, as his family called him, was the sixth of a gaggle of kids born to John and Jane Clemens.  John was a serious, ambitious man who never smiled.  He worked variously as a shopkeeper. Lawyer, judge, and land speculator.  Jane was a woman who laughed easily and entertained the family at night by story-telling.

Born in Florida, Missouri in 1835, Sam moved with the family when he was four to Hannibal, Missouri, a booming riverboat stop with a population of a thousand.  To put things in perspective, riverboats were the 747s of the day and brought passengers ashore three times a day to spent money producing both a successful merchant class and a violent underworld.  By age 10 Sam had seen two men murdered; a cattle rancher killed by a local man, and a slave struck in the head with a piece of iron.

For all of his ambition John Clemens was fairly unsuccessful at everything.  He died unexpectedly when Sam was 12 leaving the family destitute.  At age 14 Sam went to work setting type at the Hannibal Courier, for which he was paid, “a meager ration of food”, and a couple of years later he worked for Orion, his older brother, who had The Hannibal Western Union newspaper, as an editor and occasionally as a journalist.

Sam, however, had bigger plans.  At age 20 he began study to be a riverboat pilot, and in two years was licensed and working.  Steamboat pilots were about equal in relative pay and prestige to commercial airline pilots today.  Sam’s future seemed set and then the Civil War broke out.  Immediately there were blockades on the Mississippi and Sam was left without work.

Missouri was one of the most divided states in terms of allegiance to Union or Confederate causes and Sam joined an Irregular, Volunteer Confederate Unit that disbanded in two weeks  Sam did not see combat, but was again unemployed.  He did the only reasonable thing.  He left for California in search of gold.

After a year of prospecting in California, and then around Virginia City, Nevada, the site of the famous Comstock Silver Lode, Sam had nothing to show for his efforts, had spent all of his riverboat savings, and went to work as a journalist for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise.  For the next four years Sam worked for that paper and it was here that Sam Clemens became Mark Twain.

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, published under the nom de plume, Mark Twain, won him national and international recognition.  The book was even translated into French.

Twain, it seems, was a combination of his parents.  On one hand he was a story teller who had a keen insight into people and the human condition, and on the other he had the ambition of his father.  He fretted about being a Westerner.  At that time in our nation’s history the wealthy and the culturally elite directed what was acceptable and possible from a few places in the East; New York, Boston and Connecticut.  Sam Clemens’ ambition led him east where he married Elizabeth “Livy” Langdon, the daughter of a New York coal merchant.

Clemens Family at Quarry Farm

The couple lived first in Buffalo, New York and then in Hartford, Connecticut.  It was while in Hartford that Livy’s sister gave Sam Clemens a study atop a hill at Quarry Farm near Elmira, New York.  The study was a marvel.  It was octagonal with glass on all sides.  There was just enough room for a sofa and writing desk, and it was designed to feel like the pilot house on a paddlewheeler. It was at Quarry Farm that Twain wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It”, “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

Mark Twain’s bibliography is extensive, but a few works give us some ideas about his views on fairness and justice.

This study was prompted by criticisms of Mark Twain over the use of the “N” word in his writing, especially that in Huckleberry Finn.

A new edition of “Huckleberry Finn” was published in 2011 in which the “N” word was changed to “slave”.  This was criticized in the press.  In 2015, Friends Central School in Philadelphia dropped The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its High School curriculum because “the community costs of reading this book in 11th grade outweigh the literary benefits”.

A look at Clemens’ writing as a whole can be used to gain an insight into the evolution of the writer’s thoughts, and give a glimpse at his growth in thoughts about prejudice and privilege. 

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), co-written with Charles Dudley Warner was justifiably panned by critics as being disjointed and difficult to follow.  The two authors each wrote their part of the book without much collaboration or editing.  However, the book was about the period of American history from Reconstruction to the turn of the 20th Century, and served to highlight the fact that, in contrast to the golden age, and despite the enormous growth in wealth, the wealth went primarily to industrialists and the middle class, and farmers and factory workers were left out.  A thin layer of figurative gold covered a large amount of dross. 

A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It (1874) was the tale of a fictitious person, “Aunt Rachel” (really the Clemens house servant Mary Ann Cord) who was asked why she had never had any troubles.  Twain states that the family was sitting on the front porch and asked this of “Aunt Rachel” because she always seemed to be happy.  He relates – I think significantly – that she was sitting on the steps below the family being the “proper place for a servant and colored” laughing at stories and kidding with the family.  “Aunt Rachel” then says, “Really, you don’t think I’ve had any troubles?”  And then relates the story of her life; how she was born, “down among the slaves” and was married and had seven children.  Ultimately, her husband and all seven children were sold at auction.  She ended up in North Carolina during the Civil War and one day a group of black union soldiers rode in and occupied the plantation.  Asked to fix food for the troops, she was preparing biscuits, and as she was pulling the biscuits from the oven she became aware of a presence, turned and looked into the eyes of Henry, her youngest child.  She concludes, “No, I hain’t had no troubles.  And no joy.”

This story which appeared in 1874 in the Atlantic Monthly seems to represent the turning point in Twain’s view of “colored” people.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and the sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) told of Tom, a middle class boy, and Huck, uncultured, uneducated and poor who lives with “Pap” his shiftless father.  Tom Sawyer is a boys’ story of adventure, the finding of a treasure from which they become rich, and the uncomfortable position Huck Finn is placed in as he struggles with ‘sivilized society”.

In Huckleberry Finn “Pap” returns from being shiftless, finds out that Huck is rich and tries to get his fortune.  Trustees at the bank prevent that.  A frustrated Pap kidnaps Huck, locking him in a cabin on Jackson Island in the Mississippi River.  Leaving out all of the details of the story, Huck teams up with Jim, Mrs. Watson’s runaway slave, and heads off down the river on a raft with Jim.

This provides Huck with his first moral dilemma, whether or not to turn Jim in, and he says, “People would call me a low down abolitionist for keepin’ mum, but it don’t matter.  I ain’t going to tell nobody, and I ain’t going back.’

Huck goes through a process of realization on the raft.  He learns that Jim has feelings, Jim has dreams, and Jim is willing to risk everything to save his wife and children.  He comes to see Jim as the most moral person he knows.  Furthermore, he comes to like Jim.  Still, when Jim tells Huck that he is ready to steal his children back, if necessary, Huck is horrified.  He had been taught that slaves were property, and stealing would send you, “straight to hell.”

Huck’s second moral decision comes when Jim is caught.  Huck writes a letter to Mrs. Watson telling her where to find Jim in order to prevent him from being sold down the river, and he resolves to return to Mrs. Watson’s care when he realizes that Jim will likely be sold anyway.  At this point he tears up the letter because, while he initially wanted to avoid civilization because he found it constricting, he now views the laws of society as wrong, and plans to free Jim.  He is ultimately successful and plans to go west where he can make up better rules on how to treat other people.

In order to understand The Prince and the Pauper we have to reflect on Sam Clemens ambition, his desire to please critics in the East, and his desire to be better known as a writer.

Prince and Pauper Is a moral tale set in the 1500s in London and Westminster.  It is written in the language of the time, early modern English.  This setting and language gave the tale an aura of antiquity and classicism; both of which were desired by the Eastern Elite.  Furthermore, in the tale both rich and poor, powerful and powerless have troubles, but they also have those who envy them for some aspect of their station.  The Prince, Edward Tudor, envies Tom Canty’s mobility and freedom.  Tom Canty envies the Prince’s steady diet, fine clothes and the fact that no one would ever dare beat him.  The Prince finds that all of that mobility comes at the price of being hungry, physically abused, taunted by neighbors when he claims to be the Prince, and escapes to eventually return to the palace.  Tom discovers that as Prince he is effectively in a prison.  In the end The Prince realizes the degree to which the poor are mistreated and changes several laws to protest the poor.

This tale, I believe, served to salve the conscience of the upper crust readers sparing them from feeling empathy for the poor, because – as miserable as the poor might seem – the wealthy needn’t feel responsible because they, the elite, had their own problems.

An essay, published posthumously, titled, The United States of Lyncherdom, examined a lynching of three black men following the rape and murder of Gazelle Wild.  In that essay the actions of the lynch mob is explained as being the result of “herd mentality” in which men will behave in ways that they would never behave alone.  Mark Twain stated that the nation was not yet ready for the thoughts in that essay and stuck it in a drawer.  Whether he was opposed to hanging isn’t clear, but he was clearly opposed to being hung without a fair trial.

It appears clear from the whole of Twain’s writings that he was offended by the injustice imposed by the whims of fate as it applied to race or class. 

Perhaps the clearest indication of Twain’s thoughts on slavery comes from a quote by his daughter, Clara:

“Our Civil War was a blot on our history, but not as great a blot as the buying and selling of Negro souls.”

—quoted by Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch in letter to New York Herald Tribune, November 19, 1941

There are several problems associated with quoting Twain.  He has been misquoted. A lot.  Also, he was a master of sarcasm, and some have quoted his sarcastic quotes to use as arguments for some things he clearly did not believe, or against things that he did.

As an example, an article on “A True Tale…” said, in effect, we don’t really know who “Aunt Rachel” was, and she may have been nobody since Twain wrote that everybody lies.

Twain did write a lot about lying, and his quotes taken out of context might sound as though he played fast and loose with the truth as he said things like, “The lie, as a virtue, a principle, is eternal; the lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man's best and surest friend is immortal.”

- "On the Decay of the Art of Lying"

However, he also wrote, “The glory which is built upon a lie soon becomes a most unpleasant encumbrance. ... How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!”

- Autobiographical dictation, 2 December 1906. Published in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2 (University of California Press, 2013

Sage Stossel of the Atlantic wrote, “Twain submitted the manuscript for this piece with the following note: “I enclose … a ‘True Story,’ which has no humor in it … I have not altered the old colored woman’s story except to begin at the beginning, instead of the middle, as she did—and traveled both ways.” The woman in question was Mary Ann Cord (rechristened “Aunt Rachel” here), the cook at his sister-in-law’s farm in Elmira, New York.

In a PBS Ken Burns special on Mark Twain the opinion was that Aunt Rachel really was Mary Ann Cord, and it was Twain’s realization of the failure of Reconstruction that prompted Twain to go to the Mississippi and sail up and down the river reflecting on what to do with “Huck Finn”.  It was after that that in 1884 he totally revised the novel and published it.

Samuel Clemens seems a paradox.  On one hand he joined the Confederacy.  On the other he wrote Huckleberry Finn.  What it seems may have happened is that Mark Twain’s enlightenment grew over time and his behavior reflects that.  He seemed to be appalled by the inequity of birth and sought to neutralize that inequity in his own life, not by leveling the playing field for all, but by striving to be one of the elite. But then he wrote as one who thought that the law ought to apply to everyone equally, and everyone should be allowed to achieve what they might.

Did Mark Twain affect the course of civil rights in this country?  It’s hard to draw a straight line.  He may have been one voice among many who did.

It does seem that freed blacks had a great deal of opportunity immediately after the Civil War, thanks to Reconstruction that vanished thanks to the KKK and similar organizations.

I recently became aware of one of those stories.

Remember that I grew up In Fort Smith, Arkansas.  Fort Smith is on the Arkansas-Oklahoma line, and at the time of the Civil War and Reconstruction Oklahoma was The Indian Territory.  I heard many stories as a child from old men who were alive when Judge Isaac Parker presided over the Federal Court at Fort Smith.  Many suspected of being criminals escaped prosecution by fleeing into the Indian Territory, and Judge Parker would issue warrants for their arrest and trial.  I heard stories of Judge Parkers, “Try ‘em today and hang ‘em tomorrow” approach to the law.  I heard colorful tales of outlaws like Cherokee Bill and Belle Starr, and the James gang, but not much about the Marshalls who rode into the Indian Territory to arrest them.

Ten years ago, or so, I became aware of a project to build a U.S. Marshall Museum in Fort Smith.  That museum will finally open in 2019.  As I read about the project I had a few surprises.

Rooster Cogburn, the Marshall portrayed by John Wayne in “True Grit” rode out of Fort Smith.  The Lone Ranger character was based on one of the most famous of the U.S. Marshalls, Bass Reeves.  I began looking for pictures of those deputies, if they existed.  I expected, based on portrayals in the Western movies I had watched as a boy that they would all look like John Wayne or Gary Cooper.

What I found was somewhat different.

Francis Boardman “Pistol Pete” Eaton

“Pistol Pete” Eaton had a lazy eye and should not have been able to hit anything, but he is said to have had an incredible accuracy with a pistol which he did not aim, and to be equally adept with either hand.


"Heck" Thomas (lower left) with another deputy, two court officials and two Osage scouts.


Bynum Colbert

U.S. Marshall



Bass Reeves


Bass Reeves is in the view of most the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.

He often used an Indian scout to help in tracking.

He was a master of disguise, and sometimes arrested outlaws single-handedly without using a gun through subterfuge.

He carried silver coins that he gave away, possibly the inspiration for the silver bullet.

He rode a white horse.

Bass Reeves life very nearly parallels that of Mark Twain in time; 1838-1910.  He was born a slave to Colonel George Reeves and served the Colonel during the Civil War.  He escaped – possibly as a result of a fight over a card game during which he beat the Colonel up – there Is no authentic record.  He escaped from the war in Texas into the Indian Territory where he became fluent in Creek, Seminole and Cherokee.  He may have fought for the Union, records to corroborate that are lacking.  Following the war he went back to Van Buren, Arkansas where he was born and farmed.

One of the U.S. Marshalls learned of his linguistic skills and hired him as a scout.  In little time he became the first black U.S. Marshall in the Indian Territory.  Prior to taking his oath of allegiance Bass Reeves’ mother is said to have taken his arm and said, “Bass, you remember God out there in Indian Territory. Though you may have a badge and a gun, you are not God. He is the just Judge of the world, and don't you take over his job. Bring'em in alive and turn them over for their proper punishment.”  Bass did over a thousand times.

He apparently could not read, but memorized the names of the men on the arrest warrants he was given and kept them all straight even when he had a number to fill.  My favorite story is one of his being given warrants for the arrest of two brothers who had a reputation for violence.  Reeves rode deep into southwest Indian territory, gathered a posse of about 30 men and got to within half an hour’s ride to the brother’s mother’s house where they were staying.

Shedding his fancy clothes – he was known as a natty dresser – he gathered some old clothes, tore them, intentionally became really dirty and disheveled and walked to the ranch house.  He was greeted by the mother who was suspicious.  Reeves told her that he was being chased by a posse, needed water and something to eat and thought that he might partner with her sons.  She took him in and fed him and when the boys got home Reeves introduced them to his plan.  They all got drunk – except Reeves – and while they were sleeping he tied them up and then marched them back to the posse.  The mother followed on foot cursing him for two miles and then went back home.

In Costume?

The U.S. Marshalls museum in Fort Smith, Arkansas is slated to open in 2019.

U.S. Marshall Group Picture

Bass Reeves lower left


Why tell this story?  First, Bass Reeves success is in part due to his personality, bravery, intelligence and confidence.  It may also have been a product of Reconstruction.  By the time I heard the stories segregation and racial prejudice had ended not only those opportunities, but had also buried the stories.  It took Civil Rights legislation to restore opportunity, and to unearth black history.  Secondly, Bass Reeves lived and farmed in Van Buren, the town I could see across the Arkansas River.  I had never heard of him until recently.

Twain was right.  Reconstruction was a failure for many reasons.  Whether Twain’s writing did anything to make young readers aware of that is an open question.

To give some evidence of the influence of genes, and the power of the civil rights movement, Bass Reeves great grand-nephew, Paul Brady, retired as a Federal Court Judge.

Judge Paul Brady

Statue of Bass Reeves

Outside the Marshall's Museum

Fort Smith, Arkansas

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Comment by Maui Surfer on September 11, 2018 at 9:57pm

The vast majority of the USA's societal problems stem from the complete ignorance of the hoi polloi all the way up to the so called educated, of pretty much everything about Reconstruction to the Nadir. This is why I am a neo abolitionist, until we teach the lies, whitewashes, and revision bullshit out of the whole mess completely we will never be a real country, and, not doing it prevents us from addressing the genocide of the indegenous population. These two very very very intentional lies are literally killing us.

Separately, if anyone wants a dose of the Hawaii of old, described about as accurately as a haole could, reading Sam's Letters from Hawaii is highly recommended, here's a sample:


In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf- bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express-train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.

S. Clemens


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