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Bob Gill <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 6 Oct 2008 10:50:32 -0400
text/plain (38 lines)
I wanted to get people's opinions on something that's intrigued me for
years. In a letter in the Chicago Republican on Aug. 23, 1868, Twain
described a visit with Capt. Ned Wakeman in Panama -- the first time he'd
seen Wakeman since his trip from San Francisco to the isthmus a year and a
half earlier. The letter concludes with this:

"The old gentleman told his remarkable dream, and about hanging the negro in
the Chincha Islands, and about his perilous cruise in a buggy, and about his
voyage to the Monkey Islands, and the entertaining legend of the rats of
Liverpool, and a good many other pleasant bits of history, and then we bade
him good-bye, at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, and rowed away again."

Wakeman was known as a teller of tales, and this seems to be a catalog of
some of his best-known stories, a list that would've been familiar to people
who knew of Wakeman. (Though you have to wonder how many of them would've
seen a Chicago paper.) Twain used most of these himself in some form or
other: the dream as Capt. Stormfield's Visit to Heaven, the buggy cruise as
a rough draft in his notebook, and, I believe, the stories about the Monkey
Islands and the rats of Liverpool in other letters.

The one that particularly interests me, though, is the note about "hanging
the negro in the Chincha Islands." In chapter 50 of Roughing It, Twain tells
the story of Capt. Ned Blakely -- a pseudonym for Wakeman, as everyone seems
to agree -- but in that story, Blakely is NOT "hanging a negro," but hanging
Bill Noakes, a white hooligan who had killed Wakeman's black cabin boy.

So did Twain change Wakeman's original story, turning the captain from a
black man's executioner to his black companion's avenger? If so, I see that
as an interesting indication of his emerging awareness of racial issues. He
was fond of Wakeman, but by 1872 he wasn't comfortable with having the hero
of his tale lynching a black man. At least that's how I tend to see it.

Of course, it's possible that the brief note about this story in the August
1868 letter was just a mistake, and Wakeman's own story was pretty much the
one in Roughing It. So I wonder, does anybody else have an idea about this?

Bob G.