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Sharon McCoy <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 31 Jul 2006 10:48:25 -0400
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Dear Camy,

I've loaned someone my copy of _Life on the Mississippi_, so I can't check
the context or tone of the statement you mention, but Twain wrote many other
things that indicate you should take the statement with a grain of salt, a
dash of irony, and understanding that this was a question he struggled with
his whole life.  How could people he knew as "moral," people he loved and/or
respected, treat other human beings as they did?   And if he admitted their
brutality, how could he still love them (and himself) or respect them?

It's a question we all face, I think.  We've all known and loved people who
we find have morally reprehensible beliefs.  How we cope with the
contradiction is something that makes Twain's writings continually relevant.
Remember that, for Twain (as for some of us even to today), this includes
his mother and father.

In terms of what Twain himself said about slavery in Hannibal, the evidence
is contradictory and gives evidence of his struggles with the question:

In "From Bombay to Missouri," in _Mark Twain and the Damned Human Race_, for
example, he writes about seeing a servant in Bombay struck:

"The native took it with meekness, saying nothing, and not showing in his
face or manner any resentment.  It carried me back to my boyhood, and
flashed upon me the forgotten fact that this was the *usual* way of
explaining one's desires to a slave.  I was able to remember that the method
seemed right and natural to me in those days, I being born to it and unaware
that elsewhere there were other methods; but I was also able to remember
that  those unresented cuffings made me sorry for the victim and ashamed for
the punisher. . . ." (244)

You'll note that even here, Twain seems to assume that the appearance of
meekness means that the beatings were actually "unresented."  Elsewhere, he
offers different views on this, but I think what he's trying to convey is
that they didn't really know another way, or believe another way was

He continues:

"My father had passed his life among the slaves from his cradle up, and his
cuffings proceeded from the custom of the time, not from his nature.  When I
was ten years old I saw a man fling a lump of iron ore at a slave-man in
anger, for merely doing something awkwardly--as if that were a crime.  It
bounded from the man's skull, and the man fell and never spoke again.  He
was dead in an hour.  I knew the man had a right to kill his slave it he
wanted to, and yet it seemed a pitiful thing and somehow wrong, though why
wrong I was not deep enough to explain if I had been asked to do it.  Nobody
in the village approved of that murder, but of course no one said much about
it."  (245).

Could he be serious when he wrote the lines in _Life on the Mississippi_
about never seeing a slave "mistreated"?  At time, possibly.  Would he have
been serious about it all his life?  I think not.

In terms of what slavery was like in Hannibal, I would strongly second
Gordon's recommendation to read Terrell's book.  My own research took me
into many of the same primary sources he used, and his book is well-written
and accurate.  Its impact on our understanding of Twain's work has only

Hope this helps a little.

Sharon McCoy