Examining Mark Twain’s Work to Determine If He Was Racist
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 …
…rew as his friends and family died but that is to be expected. He rooted for the underdog and championed the cause of Jews, blacks, and Chinese. His treatment of the Indians is less clear cut but it is obvious that he knows America treats the Indians like they treated the Phillipinos (the same as the British treated the Boers.)
Twain developed from a writer who attempted to instill compassion in American’s less privileged classes. Near the end of his life he seemed to have given up on mankind after recognizing cyclical trends in history. During the last ten to fifteen years a melancholy Twain condemned, yet called for compassion, all of mankind, which he saw stuck in a terrible and unsolvable predicament. He realized that the white slave master was stuck in the system that the black slave was and that the Civil War created more problems then it solved. At the very end he wished for release. He called death “the gift that makes all other gifts mean and poor (Neider 375).” He resigned himself to the vision of a heaven full of unrecognized heroes and colored angels (McCullough 129-188). This is not the vision of a racist, but one of an eminent, open-minded, and remarkable human.