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Terrell Dempsey <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 19 Jan 2002 11:00:02 -0600
text/plain (97 lines)
Just took the time this morning to visit the PBS web site after Vicki read
the Hannibal section and pointed out to me that it is the "white-washed"
version of Young Sam, complete with a link to the Hannibal Boyhood Home. The
site claims to be where folks can find the truth about Mark Twain.
    The Truth about Mark Twain.
    Knowing how many young people use the computer for research, I am
concerned about the tone of the site regarding Sam and Hannibal. Please
excuse the rather utilitarian approach to Twain's art in this letter, but I
want to address but one aspect of teaching Huck.  This is the premise that
Huck is a liberating piece of literature and that Twain can provide a model
for students.  It appears to me that those pursuing this premise are going
to have to explore Sam's personal transformation -- not present a model of
Sam as someone who was born a sensitive soul free of the prejudices of his
culture.  Assuming that I understand the premise of this school of
thought -- and Lord knows I'm not frequently accused of understanding much
of anything -- we are going to have to reconsider the Tom Sawyer persona and
its place in the lexicon.
    I found it rather curious that the PBS site includes the later writings
of Twain where he is reflecting back on Uncle John Quarles's farm and good
ol' Dan and how much he loved them black folks. The following from the
autobiography is included : "It was on the farm that I got my strong liking
for his race and appreciation of certain of its fine qualities. This feeling
and this estimate have stood the test of sixty years and more and have
suffered no impairment. The black face is as welcome to me now as it was
    The PBS folks cropped Sam Clemens's letter of August 24, 1853 to just
the first two paragraphs including only the cute and impudent Sam.  The site
omits "When I saw the Court House in Syracuse, it called to mind the time
when it was surrounded with chains and companies of soldiers, to prevent the
rescue of McReynolds' nigger, by the infernal abolitionists.  I reckon I had
better black my face, for in these Eastern States niggers are considerably
better than white people."  I am thinking of course also of the August 31
letter with Sam's rant about "trundle-bed trash" and "Niggers, mulattoes,
quadroons, Chinese" which he refers to as "human vermin."
    Sam Clemens most certainly had the vast ocean of his experience with
African Americans in his home, in the printing office of Joseph Ament and in
Hannibal at large. Sam Clemens certainly had no liking for or appreciation
of African Americans prior to 1861 beyond the patronizing racism of slave
culture.  Prior to that time, to be blunt, he considered African Americans
greasy, lazy, dishonest, dangerous, occasionally loyal, humorous, prone to
malapropism, and certainly okay for the occasional release of the
reproductive impulse. In short, his thoughts on the subject were pretty damn
ugly to anyone whose name doesn't show up on the Klanwatch list.
    Please forgive me, but I know little about Sam after 1861. He changed
after this date. I don't know when. If there is utility in the life of
Clemens regarding race, it is in his transformation.  We are going to have
to look honestly at the boyhood.
    Quarles's Farm is merely a Twain device. The farm is a red herring. It
has been exceptionally successful -- one writer has recently described it as
a place of a "rough sort of intimacy between the races, if not outright
enlightenment."  If you want to appreciate the hyperbole of  the farm, read
Raymond Blathwayt's interview with Sam in 1891.  In a humorous performance
filled with exaggeration and self-deprecation, he inflates the farm into a
"plantation" and bumps Uncle John's slave holdings from 6 in 1840 and 11 in
1850 to 40 or 50 slaves! But no mention of Uncle Dan'l in that performance.
Though no one would take any of this fluff seriously, it has somehow been
footnoted into the library of Twain truths.
    The farm allows Twain to have the Tom Sawyer youth intact.  The farm
exonerates Hannibal. It cleanses Twain's immediate family. It is the alibi.
    Alibi?  I am an attorney, you know.
     For modern Hannibal, Quarles's farm has been perfect.  Florida,
Missouri is mostly bub-bubbling under Mark Twain Lake. The Quarles's
homestead is gone. There are no Quarles descendants around Hannibal. We can
point our finger to the west and shake our heads like the French police
captain in Casablanca. We are shocked! Shocked! There was slavery going on
    I am troubled about what to do with Tom for my own utilitarian reasons.
I am trying to decide how the story in Hannibal should be told. It has to
change. How do we keep the fun and mirth, but have the substance and the
truth at the same time? The real childhood  -- with the financial hardship,
the deaths of siblings, the omnipresent racism of slave culture, the having
to go to work at age 11 or 12 -- is fairly bleak. But the themes that you
literatti and academinistas are so fond of exploring have their genesis in
the murky pre-creation waters of this wonderfully contradictory spot. There
has to be a way.
       Maybe we need to put Tom Sawyer on the shelf for a while when we are
considering Sam and just give it a rest.  We can pull him down later for
another read.
    There you go, another perfectly good hour wasted on a Saturday morn -- I
missed Car Talk. But in any event, regarding the teaching of Huck, you
cannot teach Twain as a liberating life without looking honestly at what he
was liberated from.  This PBS site isn't it.
----- Original Message -----
From: "Tony Verhulst" <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Friday, January 18, 2002 11:57 AM
Subject: on the PBS web site

> In case you haven't seen it:
> Tony