Mark Twain: Pushing for a Different South?

Mark_Twain_by_Abdullah_Frères,_1867

This week, we’ll begin our study of a novel (Pudd’nhead Wilson, 1894) by the extraordinary Mark Twain.  Probably best known—at least outside the USA—for his phenomenally important work, Huckleberry Finn (the C20 US novelist William Faulkner—another southerner, like Twain— called it the first Great American Novel, and also added that all subsequent US literature derives from this novel), his importance for us in this course is also related to his position as a sort of cultural spokesperson for conflicting views on issues of slavery in the southern states.  

There are many reasons why his work continues to attract attention. Some of those include Twain’s keen interest in regionalism, emphasising the particularities of the world of the southern US states partly as a means of recording the rapidly vanishing worlds of that place and time. This involved, among other things, the use of the vernacular—in opposition to a more standard form of US English—attesting to a rich variety of linguistic registers that are vital and earthy in ways that a standard dialect can never hope to be.

Many of Twain’s characters are highly significant pointers to the way in which he chooses to symbolise aspects of the southern states. Often, in stark counterposition to the genteel society that represents the governing class, many of these are innocent, unworldly, unsophisticated and uneducated. But they can also be honest, forthright, open and fair, and far more ‘genuine’ than the socially accepted gentlefolk who see themselves as social superiors. This, incidentally, implicitly sets up a comparison between northern politeness and manners and southern directness. The idea often expressed in this way is that the South is more down-to-earth and uncomplicated. Except it’s not at all. For of course there are undercurrents—as we see in Pudd’nhead—of racism, inhumane treatment, terrible prejudices and personal tragedy that obliges mothers to give up their children (with all the attending miseries that this will bring). 

Much of this, of the various characters’ trials and difficulties, and their varying conclusions, can be read as an allegory of the South in its struggles to rise again from the Civil War.

Finally—and most controversially—in a great deal of Twain’s writing, there is the issue of slavery, with a great deal of critical attention being given to debating whether Twain is complicit with it by apparently accepting it sometimes apparently humorously as part of genteel southern society, or whether is he is actually suggesting through a delineation of its consequences and the ways that it is still so deeply rooted in people’s lives, that it is an evil against which we still very much need to be on our guard?

In other words, perhaps Twain’s work (and Pudd’nhead in particular, as far as we are concerned) can be read as an allegory of the exploration for a different kind of South,  a socio-political discussion about the very nature of the ‘new’ South that was emerging from the ashes of the US Civil War. 

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