Tag Archives: Mark Twain

In the Archives: Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate” (1879)

Tracy Wuster

To “celebrate” the Iowa Caucuses, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.”  In light of the sometimes depressing spectacle of the primary season, it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor.  Here it is, from June 1879:

Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens politics president Obama RomneyI have pretty much rkde up my mind to run for president. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me, I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the Battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer, because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be, “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.”

These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

Engraving based on an 1879 photograph.

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Happy Birthday, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Not you, Mark Twain.

 

Tracy Wuster

November 30, 2015 will be celebrated as the 180th birthday of one Mark Twain—novelist, humorist, and all around American celebrity. I, for one, will not be celebrating.

You see, I recently finished up a book about Mark Twain, and I know, for a
fact, that Mark Twain was born on February 3, Wuster Mark Twain American Humorist1863. Or thereabouts. No one knows for certain, but that is as certain as we can be, so that is enough.  And not so much born, but created, or launched…inaugurated…catapulted…

That means that this February 3, 1863 will be Mark Twain’s 153rd birthday, which is not that fancy of a number, but it is getting up there for someone still so famous as to have people writing books about him—and more importantly, people reading books by him.

Sure, everyone knows that “Mark Twain” was really the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Even early in his career, almost everyone knew that, often using the names interchangeably, as most Americans still do. Not as many people know the names Samuel Clemens used an abandoned before creating Mark Twain: “Grumbler,” “Rambler,” “Saverton,” “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab,” “Sergeant Fathom,” “Quintus Curtis Snodgrass,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh.” Selecting “Mark Twain” was clearly a wise choice, although the name would have had a second, nautical meaning for many nineteenth century folk.

Samuel Clemens mixed up the use of his given name and his chosen name—making the whole distinction a mush of confusion that is either a bonanza of psychological material or, alternately, meaningless. For most people, I would guess the distinction is meaningless trivia, which is fine. I’m just happy people still know and read books by Mark Twain. But, I for one, will still grumble when people wish Mark Twain a “Happy Birthday” each November 30th, and I will still try to correct them by pointing out that the “Mark Twain” they refer to really was born—or created—on February 3rd, 1863.

But what does it matter?

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Remembering John Crowe Ransom

John Crowe Ransom  April 30, 1888 – July 3, 1974

John Crowe Ransom
April 30, 1888 – July 3, 1974

This distinguished thinker from Pulaski, Tennessee  was a poet, essayist, editor, and professor known for both depth and levity.

He is considered to be a founder of the New Criticism school of literary criticism. As a faculty member at Kenyon College, he was the first editor of the widely regarded Kenyon Review.

Ransom‘s lighthearted writing has been compared to that of Voltaire, Swift and Twain––ironic wit, sense of incongruity, mock-pedantic language used to wonderful effect.

Below are a three of his humorous poems.

                    Blue Girls

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.

                                       — John Crowe Ransom
                 Worship

I know a quite religious man
Who utters praises when he can.

Now I find God in bard and book,
In school and temple, bird and brook.

But he says God is sweetest of all
Discovered in a drinking-hall.

For God requires no costly wine
But comes on the foam of a crockery stein.

And when that foam is on the lips,
Begin then God’s good fellowships.

Cathedrals, synagogues, and kirks
May go to the devil, and all their works.

And as for Christian charity,
It’s made out of hilarity.

He gives the beggar all his dimes,
Forgives his brother seven times.

‘I love the rain,’ says thirsty clod;
So this religious man of God.

For God has come, and is it odd
He praises all the works of God?

‘For God has come, and there’s no sorrow,’
He sings all night–will he sing to-morrow?

— John Crowe Ransom

 

                   The Lover
I sat in a friendly company
And wagged my wicked tongue so well,
My friends were listening close to hear
The wickedest tales that I could tell.
For many a fond youth waits, I said,
On many a worthless damozel;
But every trusting fool shall learn
To wish them heartily in hell.And when your name was spoken too,
I did not change, I did not start,
And when they only praised and loved,
I still could play my secret part,
Cursing and lies upon my tongue,
And songs and shouting in my heart.

But when you came and looked at me,
You tried my poor pretence too much.
O love, do you know the secret now
Of one who would not tell nor touch?
Must I confess before the pack
Of babblers, idiots, and such?

Do they not hear the burst of bells,
Pealing at every step you make?
Are not their eyelids winking too,
Feeling your sudden brightness break?
O too much glory shut with us!
O walls too narrow and opaque!
O come into the night with me
And let me speak, for Jesus’ sake.

                                      — John Crowe Ransom

How Tom Sawyer Grew Up to be Hank Morgan

Jan McIntire-Strasburg

 

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are probably the most well known of Mark Twain’s characters. Bronze statues of the boys grace Schoolyard Hill in Hannibal.  Their images have been used for everything from selling paint to Norman Rockwell pictures that evoke the nostalgia of childhood. Each boy is the subject of his own novel, and although Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has stood the test of time better than Tom’s adventures, the character of Tom remains that of a charming if mischievous boy. While Huck is practical, and can improvise a workable solution to any problem, Tom’s forte is the grand effect—the spectacle. He has read all of the romance novels, and his dreams as a boy are populated by robbers, pirates, and steamboat captains who perform feats of derring-do, rescue, capture and ransom ladies and gentlemen, and ambuscade Arabs, carrying of piles off booty.

Mark Twain Tom Sawyer

Tom Sawyer, 1876 Frontispiece

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ends with this “Conclusion”:

So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly the history of a boy, it must stop here; it could not go further without becoming the history of a man…Some day it may seem worth while to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present. (TS 215)

Twain takes up the story of the boys yet again in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom’s part in this later novel is, of course, much smaller, as this is Huck’s story. Twain uses Tom to tie this second novel to the first, where Tom makes good on his plan to instigate Tom Sawyer’s Gang, and initiates the members with blood oaths. His imagination turns a Sunday School picnic into a caravan of Arabs, whom the gang intend to rout and rob. Tom then disappears from the narrative except for moments of decision in Huck’s adventures when he invokes Tom as his “authority” on how to do things with “style.” After setting up the elaborate ruse that fakes his death, Huck says: “I wished Tom Sawyer was there. I knowed he’d take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches. Nobody could spread himself like Tom Sawyer in such a thing as that” (HF 657). Huck’s appreciation of Tom’s “fancy touches” occurs in other parts of the novel as well, but Tom’s return in the Evasion chapters demonstrates a shift in Twain’s indulgent, “boys will be boys” attitude concerning Tom.

Those chapters show a Tom who creates an elaborate and dangerous (to Jim) plan for freeing the runaway slave from his imprisonment at Phelps’ farm. Huck’s plan is simple, straightforward, and to the point: “Here’s the ticket. This hole’s [window] big enough for Jim to get through if we wrench off the board” (HF 854). Tom’s reply offers the reader a glimpse of his romantic notions of escape from captivity: “It’s as simple as tit-tat-toe, three–in-a-row, and as easy as playing hooky. I should hope we can find a way that’s more complicated than that, Huck Finn” (657). Huck just “knows” that Tom’s plan will be “worth fifteen of mine for style” and “would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides. So I was satisfied…” (HF 853). The difference between the two boys is clear—Tom is all style, and Huck substance. While Tom’s escape plan works out in the end, Tom is shot and Jim very nearly hung.

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In the Archives: Mark Twain’s Infectious Jingle– “A Literary Nightmare” (1876)

Tracy Wuster

Mark Twain’s “Literary Nightmare” (1876), published in the Atlantic Monthly, represents an early example of a “viral” piece of popular culture.    The “Viral Text” project at Northeastern University is tracing 19th-century newspaper stories as they circulated, and “A Literary Nightmare” might be a unique example–being a story about a viral text–in this case, a poem–and its infectious effects, which in turn helped spread the original poem, Mark Twain’s story about it, and the very genre of poetry across the nation and, possibly, around the world.  The story even inspired a song.  And was being discussed as late as 1915.

The poem presented the key example of “horse-car poetry” that enjoyed a brief vogue as popular doggerel.  A discussion of the phenomenon of “horse-car poetry”  was printed in Record of the Year, A Reference Scrap Book: Being the Monthly Record of Important Events Worth Preserving, published by G. W. Carleton and Company in 1876.  The story, beginning on page 324, details how a New York rail line posted a placard on fares that became a poetic sensation, leading to Mark Twain’s use of the lines in his story.  The phenomenon of “horse-car poetry” then, according to the Record of the Year, spread to other cities and countries, causing an “epidemic” that aroused passions and even violence.  The Record of the Year contains one story of a woman literally possessed by the sketch, reading in part:

The danger of Mark Twain's viral text...

The danger of Mark Twain’s viral text…

The entire scene is worth reading at the link above.

Mark Twain’s  extended comic sketch details  the hypnotic, yet meaningless, power of humorous writing to infect one’s mind like a virus.  Entitled “A Literary Nightmare” (February 1876), Twain’s piece starts with a verse of poetry:

“Conductor, when you receive a fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,

A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,

A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare

CHORUS

Punch, brothers punch with care!

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

These lines, the narrator “Mark” writes, “took instant and entire possession of me.”  For days, the only thing in his mind are the lines of verse—they keep him from his work, wreck his sleep, and turn him into a raving lunatic singing “punch brothers punch…” After several days of torture, he sets out on a walk with his friend, a Rev. Mr. ——- (presumably his good friend Rev. Joe Twichell).  After hours of silence, the Reverend asks the narrator what the trouble is, and Mark tells him the story, teaching him the lines of the jingle.  Instantly, the narrator puts the verse out of his mind. The Reverend, on the other hand, has “got it” now.

You can read the sketch in its entirety below.

 

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The Trouble Begins at Nine?: Mark Twain, “A Speech on Women,” and Blackface Minstrelsy

“Trouble,” as I may have said once or twice, was Twain’s trademark.

On 11 January 1868, Mark Twain was asked to give a speech (printed in full below) responding to a toast at the Washington Correspondents’ Club.  The toast: “Woman, the pride of the professions and the jewel of ours.” 

John F. Scott, ed. New York:  Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868.

John F. Scott, ed. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868. Collection of the author.

The speech was well received and widely re-published in newspapers — and also in an 1868 book called Brudder Bones Book of Stump Speeches, and Burlesque Orations, which contains a variety of humorous speeches and sketches from the blackface stage, variety houses and the lecture circuit, all indiscriminately mixed together.  Twain, though, is given special recognition in the text, being referred to as “the celebrated humorist.” 

While Twain was initially tickled both by his speech and its coverage in the press — and even sent a copy to his own mother, who apparently loved it — he later worried about whether the speech was too vulgar in places.  In the various reprints, it would seem that some editors agreed with him, as they omitted bits here and there.  Their choices are interesting.

The Washington Star version (13 January 1868), for example, mildly says that Twain “responded” to the toast.  It omits an off-color reference to wives cuckolding their husbands and bearing others’ children and an appreciative tribute to Eve in the pre-fig-leaf days.

Brudder Bones, on the other hand, offers that Twain “was called upon to respond to a toast complimentary to women, and he performed his duty in the following manner.”   The book changes that “manner” a bit, by striking the final, conciliatory paragraph that puts all “jesting aside” with a toast honoring each man’s mother.  Brudder Bones also omits Twain’s stated desire to “protect” women, apparently not seeing this as necessary or appropriate, or perhaps funny.  Like the Star, the minstrel show version omits the reference to women’s infidelity and the children that arise from it, but reprints in full the appreciation of Eve, which celebrates female beauty and sexuality.

TroubleAtNineBut for Twain enthusiasts and scholars, Brudder Bones also includes another item of interest.  It is well known that Twain advertised his lectures with various versions of the phrase “The Trouble Begins at Eight.”  And his favorite blackface minstrel troupe, the San Francisco Minstrels, also used variations of the same phrase to advertise their shows for almost two decades, an association Twain seemed to enjoy — and certainly never complained about.  Brudder Bones, though, confirms that both Twain and the San Francisco Minstrels likely had an earlier source for that particular phrasing.  The 1868 book includes a sketch written and performed by blackface minstrel, entrepreneur, and promoter Charley White —  De Trouble Begins at Nine, as played at the American Theatre, 444 Broadway.  This theatre burned to the ground on 15 February 1866, according to theatre historian George Odell (VIII.84).

So . . . the trouble actually began at nine — nine to ten months before Twain’s inspired first use of a variation of the phrase.

And now, let’s take a look at the mild trouble Twain stirred up about women at the Correspondents’ Club, trouble that he felt that “they had no business” reporting “so verbatimly.”  For those who appreciate Twain’s later 1601, this “trouble” will seem tame indeed, but it does have its charms:

**********************************************************

A Speech on Women by Mark Twain

Washington Correspondents’ Club, 11 February 1868

MR. PRESIDENT: I do not know why I should have been singled out to receive the greatest distinction of the evening — for so the office of replying to the toast to woman has been regarded in every age.  [Applause.]  I do not know why I have received this distinction, unless it be that I am a trifle less homely than the other members of the club.  But, be this as it may, Mr. President, I am proud of the position, and you could not have chosen any one who would have accepted it more gladly, or labored with a heartier good-will to do the subject justice, than I.  Because, sir, I love the sex. [Laughter.] I love all the women, sir, irrespective of age or color. [Laughter.]

Human intelligence cannot estimate what we owe to woman, sir. She sews on our buttons [laughter], she mends our clothes [laughter], she ropes us in at the church fairs — she confides in us; she tells us whatever she can find out about the little private affairs of the neighbors ; she gives us good advice — and plenty of it — she gives us a piece of her mind, sometimes — and sometimes all of it ; she soothes our aching brows; she bears our children — ours as a general thing.  In all the relations of life, sir, it is but just, and a graceful tribute to woman to say of her that she is a perfect brick.[Great laughter.]

Wheresoever you place woman, sir — in whatever position or estate — she is an ornament to that place she occupies, and a treasure to the world.  [Here Mr. Twain paused, looked inquiringly at his hearers and remarked that the applause should come in at this point. It came in. Mr. Twain resumed his eulogy. Look at the noble names of history!  Look at Cleopatra! — look at Desdemona! — look at Florence Nightingale! –look at Joan of Arc! –look at Lucretia Borgia! [Disapprobation expressed. “Well,” said Mr. Twain, scratching his head doubtfully, “suppose we let Lucretia slide.”] Continue reading →

“A University Course” on the Value of Satire in a Crazy World

Life, fundamentally, is absurd.  Every day we encounter opinions, actions, experiences, or events that make us wonder whether we are crazy, whether the world is — or whether there is sanity to be found anywhere.

Satire provides a vehicle for holding such contradictory world views in simultaneous suspension — a way of shifting the ground to contain the uncontainable, to allow the simultaneous expression of unresolvable and sometimes ambiguous opposites.  While some argue that students struggle with recognizing satire or analyzing it successfully, I think that the struggle is more than worth it — and I find that once students move away from the idea that there is one right answer, they truly enjoy the power of satire to open their minds to new possibilities, uncertainties, or perspectives, without the overwhelming despair that sometimes comes from a “serious” or “straight” presentation of difficult material or moral conundrums.   As I have argued in a previous posting, the power of satire lies not in its unambiguous moral target, but in its propensity to force us to make a choice about what that target (or those targets) might be.  To both force critical thinking and allow us to laugh painfully, or laugh it off — if we so choose.  Because sometimes, laughing is the only way that we can keep moving, keep functioning in an upside-down world.

In the late spring of 1923, W. E. B. Du Bois found himself in such a place.  About six months earlier, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill “died” in the Senate, the victim of a filibuster and a deeply divided nation, after four years of Congressional debate and re-working of the bill in committee and on the floor of the House.  The bill had been introduced by Congressman Dyer of Missouri in 1918, and its defeat was marked that spring by a lynching in his home state, the communal and extra-legal murder of James T. Scott in Columbia, Missouri.  Scott was an African American employee of the University of Missouri, and the lynching was noted nationally for the presence of students — and particularly, 50 female students — though reports state that none of them actually “took part,” but were spectators.  While Du Bois had often responded to previous lynchings with a trademark sarcasm and satirical outlook, the defeat of the Dyer Bill and the lynching of Scott seem to bring a new level intensity to his satire — a satire marked by both despair and desperate hope.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois's opening salvo.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois’s opening salvo.

The cover of that June’s issue offers no clue as to the intensity of the subject matter on its opening page.  The drawing is peaceful, a mother and her daughter with flowers against an open and non-threatening backdrop of hills, trees, and sky.  It is an intimate moment, and the mother frankly and calmly returns the spectator’s gaze, while the little girl seems off in her own thoughts, undisturbed by the watcher.  The title of the magazine, The Crisis, jars a little, its meaning in opposition to the peaceful, domestic feeling of the artwork.

But that moment of dissonance becomes cacophony when the page is turned, revealing a scathing and brilliantly, horrifically, and shockingly funny satire entitled “A University Course in Lynching,” penned by W. E. B. Du Bois.

The page is clearly marked “Opinion” in bold letters rivaling the title of magazine, Du Bois opens the editorial by proclaiming that “We are glad to note that the University of Missouri has opened a new course in Applied Lynching.  Many of our American Universities have long defended the institution, but they have not been frank or brave enough actually to arrange a mob murder so that students could see it.”  He notes that the lynching of James T. Scott took place in broad daylight and that at least 50 women were in attendance, most of them students.  Du Bois goes on to satirically praise the University’s efforts in a style that recalls Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”:  “We are very much in favor of this method of teaching 100 per cent Americanism; as long as mob murder is an approved institution in the United States, students at the universities should have a first-hand chance to judge exactly what a lynching is.”

He describes the case in brief detail, stating that “everything was as it should be” for a teachable moment.  Scott “protested his innocence” against that charge that he had “lured” and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl “to his last breath.”  The father has “no doubt” of Scott’s guilt, but “deprecates” the violence of the mob.  What Du Bois does not say here was that the girl’s father, an immigrant professor at the University, actually tried to speak up and stop the lynching, but chose to be silent when the crowd threatened to lynch him as well.  Du Bois concludes:

Here was every element of the modern American lynching.  We are glad that the future fathers and mothers of the West saw it, and we are expecting great results from this course of study at one of the most eminent of our State Universities.

Suddenly, this little girl and her mother are in a different world.

A world upside-down.  A world in which communal murder is officially condoned, due process is suspended, and lynching is not a phenomenon of a wicked South, but of the West.

My students notice different things every time I teach this satire.  Partly because Du Bois’s piece also mentions a lynching at the southern University where I teach, my students often focus on that aspect, on the power of the satire to enlighten them about history they did not know, history that hits close to home.  This week, however, my students focused Continue reading →

Heteroglossia and Dialect Humor: Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral

Jan McIntire-Strasburg, Executive Director–American Humor Studies Asociation

Humorist employ many different stylistic techniques in order to incite thought-provoking laughter in their readers.  Once such is Mikhail Bahktin’s concept of heteroglossia.  As Bahktin used it, this term refers to a linguistic play of different forms of a language from different races, classes or genders that highlights difference.  While such use does not always result in humor, it is an excellent way to do so.  Juxtaposing the dialects representing upper and lower classes, for example, can result in humorous misunderstandings that highlight the differences between the two classes in education or experience, and demonstrate the difficulties of effective communication between the two.  The elements of contradiction and surprise that result from such conversations often invoke laughter.

Mark Twain makes excellent use of this linguistic play in “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” a short sketch in his travel book, Roughing It.  Miner Scotty Briggs’ Washoe slang and poker analogies are incomprehensible to the Eastern minister he is trying to convince to officiate at Buck’s funeral.  The minister, in his attempts to understand Briggs’ request are equally confusing to the miner.  The minister’s “clarifications” are long-winded and employ theological vocabulary well outside of Scotty’s experience.  Thus for the space of several pages, the reader is treated to the experience of watching (hearing) two men groping toward an understanding of each other.  Since the reader already knows what is required, she is free to enjoy laughter at the expense of both the formal, highly educated minister and the slangy Western miner.

Mark Twain Rouging It Buck Fanshaw's Funeral

Such laughter can, and often does, result in humor for entertainment purposes only.  But in Twain’s case, the laughter engendered by Scotty and the minister also highlights major differences in Eastern and Western life in nineteenth century and the clash of two cultures within American borders.  He demonstrates through the dialog a wide gulf in value systems and invites the reader to take a side—should we favor the minister who, though well educated, comes off as stuffy and superior, or should we instead value Scotty’s more homey and practical view of life on the frontier?

Mark Twain Roughing It Buck Fanshaw's Funeral

These insights are all available to us as we read Twain’s sketch, and because regional dialects comprised a large part of nineteenth century writing, Twain’s contemporaneous readers would have had no trouble discerning the meaning or recognizing the humor.  However, contemporary readers, unused to the idiosyncratic spellings and pronunciations often find this kind of reading slow going, and the “translation” that must take place can affect how readers interpret the humor of the sketch.  The sound recording below, because it offers the opportunity to hear rather than see the dialect, allows for a 21st century “reader” to avoid the difficulties of reading through the dialect, and lets the humor come through.  Thus it frees the reader to think about what is said instead of spending time deciphering the text itself.  For students who are inexperienced readers of dialect, this freedom is necessary to understanding.  For experienced readers of Twain and dialect, hearing the text enhances the fun of it.

Sound recordings can make excellent teaching tools to demonstrate the concept of heteroglossia by showing them how it works in practice instead of telling them how it works.  This recording of “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” is one example of how we can use sound to enhance teaching humor to undergraduates.  It is also a great way for Twainiacs and humor scholars to entertain themselves.

See also an audio recording of the piece from Harry E. Humphrey in 1913.

The American Humor Studies Association welcomes teaching resources for their website. Please contact us at wustert@gmail.com

Jim’s Dilemma

Your pa, he says to me that I need to come and help you understand why he had to go away, why he had to join the Missouri Colored Regiment.[i]  Says I was good at explaining and good at leaving my own self, and so I might as well be the one.  But you knows what your pa’s doing, don’t you?  You knows that he joined up so’s you all be free when he come back.  That’s cause you listen good, child.

Your pa, he never did understand, though, about why I went away.  Never did let me tell the whole story.  Always said I loved that white boy better’n him.  Never did understand.  But that’s my fault, I reckon.  Or maybe that’s just the way it goes.

Ole missus, that’s Miss Watson as was, she moved in with her sister, see?  And I hads to go with her; didn’t have no choice, though that meant I was 20 miles or more from your nanny and your pa and your aunt ‘Lizabeth what as died before you was born, 20 miles instead a just a few.  Used to come see them most every night, but after that—  Johnny—your pa—had to be the man of the house whiles I was gone—much as slavery lets you to be a man.  But love that white boy more’n him?   Huhn!  I tell yah—first words I says to that white boy, I says

 “Name’s not ‘nigger,’ boy.  Name’s Jim.  And I lay I’ll teach you to know it.”  Those was the first words I said to him.

Huh?  You’re right.  Told you, you’s a smart boy, and I admit it.  Them’s the first words I thought when that little white trash moved in and got dressed up in all the fancy clothes and done called me out my name though he just crawled right outten a hogshead his own self.  What I said aloud was “Yassuh, young massa?”  Man’s gotta know where the corn pone comes from.  It’s a tough world, it is, child, and don’t you forget it.

The boy weren’t so bad, though, as white folks go.  Fact is, I believe he had a good heart in there when it weren’t messed up and confused.  He told some of the story round about here, when that Tom Sawyer would let him talk.  And Huck, he told the truth so far as he could, I guess.  As he says, we all gots some stretchers in us.  But he was the only white man I ever know that even tried to keep his word to old Jim.  Only white man I ever know that thought a word was a something to keep, when talking to a black man.  Most of them’d sooner lie than look at you.  But you know, they don’t really like looking now, do they?

Huck, he weren’t so bad, though.  And he did try.  But with a dad like his’n and that Tom Sawyer always raisin’ Cain and messing with his head, calling him chucklehead when he got a fair point an’ such truck as that.  Huck never had no chance.  But he tried, and I got to give him credit for trying.  He was a good boy, take it all in all.

I done told you the story lots a times, about the time I runned.[ii]  Had to.  You know that.  The devil he got in me.  And old missus, she got scared.  Was gonna sell me down to Orleans, she was.  Never woulda seen your pa or ‘Lizabeth again.   I lit out mighty quick, made a good plan, too, but there’s people everywhere, on account of they thought Huck done been killed.   They was crawling all over both sides of the river.

I took my chance in the dark—you knows the story—how I hid in the driftwood, then latched onto the raft.  I needed to get far away, and I knowed it.  Heard all day from where I was hiding in that cooper’s shack about how Huck‘s killed on the Illinois side.  Knowed oncet they realized I was gone, they’d blame me for it.  Ridden by witches and with the devil’s own coin, they’d never believe it weren’t me, and they’d know I’d lay for Illinois.  Where else a man going to go?   It’d be like that black Joe in Boone County what killed that white trash with de axe, or that Teney in Callaway that they said killed that woman.[iii]  I’d never a seen the inside of a jail.

But I didn’t have no luck.  When the man come toward me with the lantern, there weren’t no use for it; I struck out for the island.   Had to lay low, ‘cause they was hunting Huck, and pretty soon, they was hunting me, too.  Couldn’t get much to eat.  Knew I needed to swim for the Illinois shore afore I was too weak from hunger, but they was hunting too hard.  And push come to shove, I kept thinking ‘bout your pa, and about poor little ‘Lizabeth, and somehow I couldn’t leave.  My head was just a busting and so was my heart.  Lit myself a fire to keep warm, made sure it didn’t smoke, but I kept seeing ‘Lizabeth’s eyes looking into mine.  Wrapped the blanket round my head to shut them out, but that didn’t make no matter.  Finally done fall asleep, though.

First thing I saw when I wakes up was that there dead white boy, big as life.  Thought he was a ghost at first, I did, come to haint old Jim, who only tried to help him when his pa come back.  Old Jim, who never told the missus bout all the times he sneaked out in the night to cat about.  Slaves never have no luck—you remember that, child—it’ll save you lots a disappointment in this life.  But no ghost ever blim-blammed like that, and so I knowed it was really him, his own self.  That child could talk the hind leg off a donkey, he could.  I kept quiet and let him run on, thinking mighty hard.

He had a gun, see.  And people thought he was dead.  Or was that just one a him and Tom Sawyer’s jokes again?  It weren’t the first time white folks thought they was dead, though this’d be the first time a body had cared that Huck was gone, first time in his whole life.  But there he was with a gun, a-chatterin and a-jammerin on.  Was he a-hunting me?  Hunting old Jim after he had his lark and made folks think he was dead?

Then he busts into my thoughts.  Tells me to make up the fire and get breakfast, just like he owned me.  That boy playing me, I thinks to myself, but I gots to know.  Maybe he’s just a-hunting.  So I axed him some questions, and found out he been there since the night he was killed.  So whatever he’s a-playing at, he ain’t a-hunting old Jim.  I tells him I’ll make a fire if he’ll hunt us up something for to cook on it.

I was expecting him to come back with some squirrel or some mud-turkles or such truck, or maybe a rabbit iffen I was lucky, and I hoped he had a knife with that gun, but I looked round for a sharp stone, just in case.  When he come back, he come back with all kinds of stuff, a catfish and sugar and bacon and coffee and dishes, if that don’t beat all.  I was set back something considerable, ‘cause I knew right away what it meant.  Continue reading →

Ask a Slave: The Exasperating World of Teaching Tourists about American Slavery

ask a slave

Tourists say the dumbest things. They travel the globe ostensibly to learn and to gain experiences so that when they return home they can do so as more well-rounded and informed human beings. Well, that’s the dream anyway. Tourists are always out of place, they are often pretending to be (much) smarter than they are, and they carry with them a sense of entitlement–all of these factors set them up to be perennially funny as objects of ridicule. Few things are funnier than ignorance, but when it combines with arrogance, then a wonderfully silly comic star is born: the American tourist, a figure of derision for about hundred and fifty years now.

Mark Twain as Full Dressed Tourist

It was Mark Twain who first popularized and perfected the American tourist, in his best-selling The Innocents Abroad in 1869, a narrative of a bumbling five-month tour–America’s first pleasure cruise–across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean Sea to see the “Old World.”  He later built on that persona in other travel books like A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). Twain captured the perils of tourism in many ways, but one of his most effective and hilarious shticks was to mock the inherent ignorance and arrogance of tourists simply by reporting what they said.

Tourists say the dumbest things. Just ask Azie Dungey, an actor who, while looking for stage work in the Washington D.C. area, found roles, as she puts it, playing “every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Carline Branham–Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid.” Readers here may be too timid to ask this: Is that THE Martha Washington, President George Washington’s wife? Yup. History is fun. Ms. Dungey, during the energy and optimism infused into the presidential election of 2008 and throughout President Obama’s first term, Azie Dungey supported herself by playing a slave who served the first, first family. American irony at its best.

Her role is as “Lizzie May,” a fictional character drawn from Ms. Dungey’s experiences performing as a slave woman at George and Martha Washington’s home named Mount Vernon, now a popular tourist site. And her forum is Ask a Slave: The Web Series. The short sketches recreate many of the questions that tourists posed to Ms. Dungey over the years. Ask a Slave is promoted as “Real Questions, Real Comedy.” It will make you cringe.

Ask a Slave Banner

When tourists reveal their ignorance and arrogance, we have what is called in the profession “a teachable moment.” A traditional method of trying to encourage a learning process is called the Socratic Method, named after Socrates that famous smart guy from ancient Greece. He is dead now. The method involves getting people to ask questions and from the answers to encourage more questions and thereby lead to the gathering of knowledge–and, from that process, achieve the gaining of wisdom. Or something like that. Tourists all over the United States (and the world, for that matter) are often encouraged to ask questions of their guides. At many historical sites, guides are often complemented by historical re-enactors to create “living history.” It is an appealing bit of stage craft.  “All of history is but a stage, and we are merely reenactors and tourists.” Shakespeare wrote something along those lines. I just updated it.

But when the questions are so clueless, what’s a slave to do?

Well, the actor Azie Dungey performed her role to the best of her ability (and with much patience), but all the while she collected information, and now, as Lizzie May, she has some different answers to give. She, with the help of other members of the crew, are re-enacting those tourist re-enactments and providing the rest of us with our own funny teachable moments. The first episode immediately reveals why the online comedy series has caught fire.

Lizzie May is a significant expansion of the role that Ms. Dungey played at Mount Vernon. She is able to provide answers that would have gotten her fired at Mount Vernon, all the while maintaining a demeanor that is seemingly polite and deferential and that the original role demanded. Yet the answers are assertive and thus subversive. She thereby provides a compelling satirical voice. The resulting humor is well worth viewers’ time and offers us our own teachable moments.

Ignorance is funny. It has always been funny because it provides us the wonderful opportunity to laugh at someone else’s stupidity. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of it, so humorists can always find some facet of human behavior to exploit for laughs. When the subject matter is tied to the legacies of slavery, the humor has an unavoidable edge. One thing that the tourist questions reveal beyond their stupidity is a desperation for self-affirmation, or an almost pathological need to lessen the horror of slavery, to give many modern tourists more distance from the slaveowners and supremacists in their racial family tree. The need is understandable; the ongoing moral cowardice, however, is tiresome to say the least.


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