Mark Twain: Staunch Confederate? Once Upon a Time, 150 years ago, Baylor Professor Says

June 7, 2011

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When scholars sparred recently over one professor's decision to ditch the "n-word" and replace it with "slave" in a revised edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one issue was never in question: that Twain spurned racism.

But what scholars have overlooked is the bone -- or rather, bones -- Twain had to pick with the Union, despite his speeches celebrating Abraham Lincoln's call for racial justice, said Dr. Joe B. Fulton, an award-winning professor of English at Baylor University, in a new book published during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War's beginning.

What Twain witnessed during and after the Civil War turned him into a skeptic of "truth, justice and the American way" for the rest of his life, says Fulton in his latest book, The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate Bushwhacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature.

"The war was the defeat of everything Twain had grown up believing," Fulton said. "While he was growing up, he had learned from the pulpit that slavery was 'right, righteous and sacred.'"

Twain, whose given name was Samuel Clemens, grew up in Missouri in a slave-holding family. He served as a second lieutenant in a Confederate militia for two weeks, and his desertion led many to describe his loyalty to the Confederate cause as halfhearted. However, Fulton noted the desertion may have been prompted by fear of hanging or confiscation of family property -- a threat made to militia members by the Union, which controlled central Missouri.

But Fulton said that while Twain "mustered in and blustered out of the war early," he used that experience to champion southern culture and values in writings in the 1850s and 1860s. Even in a 1901 speech celebrating the anniversary of Lincoln's birth, although he said he did not regret the result of the war, "We believed in those days we were fighting for the right -- and it was a noble fight, for we were fighting for our sweethearts, our homes, and our lives."

Scholars criticized the revised edition about Huck Finn's adventures as whitewashing classic literature that reflected the language of its time -- but they themselves have whitewashed Twain's southern-leaning writings in the 1850s and 1860s, Fulton said.

"That's partly because they're difficult to locate, scattered in dozens of books and never reprinted," Fulton said. He uncovered the writings in archives, but "honestly, I didn't know what to do with the pieces of the puzzle. I think many scholars have glossed over them because they are uncomfortable with them. They don't fit in with the image of the mature Twain."

While Twain's use of the n-word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, provided a scathing look at racism, Twain's use of the term in writings in the 1850s and 1860s was to irritate Union supporters. It worked: The governor of Nevada called him a "damn secessionist."

"Twain was a Southern sympathizer then and comfortable with that word," Fulton said.

Twain even wrote a parody of a poem written in mourning of President Lincoln's assassination, criticizing it not only as bad poetry but also because it compared Lincoln to Christ.

But after the war, Twain was "angry at the North for the destruction of the South, angry at his upbringing and angry at the hypocrisy of the Union," Fulton said. "He was mourning the South, guilty about the South he grew up with and angry at the American government for using idealism to destroy the South -- but then not honestly reconstructing the South or the North."

While living in Nevada and California in the 1860s, Twain witnessed horrific treatment of Chinese immigrants and was further disillusioned by American imperialism in Cuba and China in the 1890s.

"I think that's what turned him into a satirist for the rest of his life," Fulton said.

Fulton said he has been intrigued by Twain since he was 8 and his older sisters gave him a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

"My childhood wasn't that different from Twain's characters," he said. "I grew up near the Wabash in Berne, Ind., while Twain's characters grew up near the Mississippi River. But Berne was a sleepy little town, and it had a lot in common with the 1800s. I fished for catfish, but I did not wear a straw hat."

Fulton won the 2010 Jules and Frances Landry Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Southern Studies. He also is author of The Reverend Mark Twain and Mark Twain in the Margins.

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Assistant Director of Media Communications, (254) 710-3321

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