Topic 54A – Humour: mark twain. Henry james and cosmopolitanism

Topic 54A – Humour: mark twain. Henry james and cosmopolitanism

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, in 1835. Florida was at that time a village consisiting of log cabins. It also was a frontier village. His father was a merchant and a local magistrate. When Samuel was four, he and his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi river. From the first moment, this river and the lands and people surrounding it, exerted a powerful fascination on Samuel, which he would describe vividly in his novels Tom Sawyer, Life in the Mississippy and the Adventures of Huckelberry Finn. In this sort of trilogy, twain makes a realistic portrait of the river, and the people and life related to it.

When he was twelve, his father died, and he was apprenticed to a local printer. He soon left Hannibal and went eastward, working temporarily in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinatti, … His intention was to get to South America, but in New Orleans he meets a veteran steamboat pilot, to whom he apprentices and spends 4 years working his loved Mississippy.

In 1861 the Civil War breaks and the traffic in the Mississippi becomes impossible. Twain briefly joined the Missouri militia, and then goes west to the newly opened territory of Nevada. After a short period of prospecting for gold, he wrote reports to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise.

In 1864 he breaks an anti-duelling law and is forced to flee to California, where he kept working for several local newspapers, with reasonable success. Then, for the first time in ten years he heads east and New York.

Now in his thirties, Samuel had seen and done a great deal in a comparatively short life. By this time he had won a repute as a reporter and article writer.

In 1867 he travels to Europe, and from there to Palestine. From this travel he will obtain the material for The innocents abroad. It deals with a group of Americans travelling in Europe.

In 1870 he marries the daughter of a rich industrialist, and the couple settles in Buffalo.

It is in this period when Mark Twain gets success as a novel writter. Tom Sawyer is published with a great acceptance, It would follow Huckelberry Finn, for which Mark Twain was attacked for presenting bad example to youth.

In 1894 his business ventures collapse. In a period of 14 years, from 1896 to 1910, year of his death, his wife and two sisters die. The posthumously published The mysterious stranger, would reflect the bitterness and tragedy of life, which his writings had always had, but now without the sweet coat of humour on it:

It is all a dream –a grotesque and foolish dream- nothing exists

I´d like to discuss some points of this brief biographical account.

I have said that Mark Twain was born and grown up in frontier towns, Hannibal and Missouri. The word frontier has very concrete and characteristcal connotations in the northamerican context.

In Norhamerican history, the concept of frontier has always referred to the border of colonization, and not, as in Europe, the political border. The first frontier was marked by the limits of the 13 primitive colonnies (Massachusets, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York, the Carolinas, Virginia, Connecticut, Maine, Delaware, Maryland, Georgia, Pennsylvania). The origin of these colonnies was the puritan pulse of the first settlers, who flew from England, European, civilized, conventional to meet a new world, wild, pure, primitive. With time, life in the colonnies settled down, nature was tamed and transformed in cities, the mud is replaced by pavements, and working clothes by european costumes. It is no longer a new world. Huckelberry gives us a very graphic image of how civilization can take away the real taste of life:

In the house of the Widow Douglas everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends, things get mixed up,the juice swaps around, and the things go better.

Oppositely to this view of nature as something that must be tamed and that civilization has to get rid of, for Huckelberry is something attractive, full of mistery, that one has to decipher: an owl announces that somebody has dead, birds say that it is going to rain, the wind whisper things that Huck can´t understand. Huck fears and respects nature. The passage in which nature shows his power in a strongest way is the precious passage of the storm, described by Huck who presences it from a cave.

The frontier would be progressively pushed westward. The far west soon would consider the colonies as the land of civilization, in the same way the first colonnies looked at Europe in the first times.

The escape westward, looking for a still new world, wild and untamed, was the option for many people who had the hope of beginning a new life adventurers in search of gold, as Mark Twain, homesteaders (homestead act gave the indian land almost for free to those who would attempt the west adventure). For decades, in the Northamerican history, going west was a possible option, for those dissatisfied with what surrounded them. Thus, the frontier experience, the continuous advance always Westward, becomes a myth in the northamerican cultural history. A cycle appears whose paradigm is more or less the following:

Present insatisfaction-desire to change-travel-new settlement


This is a cycle of renovation, a possibility to be born again in a new world. It is significant that from the first, many american cities have the word NEW in their names (new York, new hampshire, new jersey, new england, new orleans).

The travel is adapted to that older myth of the travel from innocence to experience which has its roots in so many stories from the story of Jonah and the whale. Going down the river, from Hannibal to Cairo (the point of the river where it becomes more wild and caudaloso), Huck acquires experience, from the duke and the king, from the shepherdson family, (Huck falls in love with one of the daughters of the family), from the death of his father. His journey begins with an adopted moral, learned, and sui generis:

Pap said it was no harm to borrow things, if you meant to give them back.

The widow said borrowing was only a soft name for stealing.

Jim said that pap was partly right and the widow was partly right.

So we decided to drop some things into the river and keep the others.

From this borrowed moral, through friendship, he will build his own one. This process of learning will culminate with his sentence I will go to hell (to save Jim). Huck is forced to think by himself, and oppose his good nature heart to puritan conventions, natural law to man-made law.

The two worlds that coexisted in America until the end of the industrial revolution, are present in Twain´s novels. Huckelberry Finn, the boy who refuses to be civilized by the Widow Douglas, and helps the slave Jim to flee up the Mississippi is the character who embodies the spirit of the frontier:

The widow Douglas took me for her son……….but it was rough living in the house all the time,……so when I couldn´t stand it no longer, I lit out.

I got into my old rags,….. and was free and satisfied.

In Huck, the opposition puritanism-life in the west, is not portrayed maniqueously. The story is filtered through the innocent eyes of Huck, which makes us in a sense sympathize with the Widow Douglas, Aunt Polly, and even the judge Thatcher. Beyond their defects and conventionalisms they are good people, and so they are seen by Huck.. On the other hand, Huck´s father, deeply anti-puritan and wild, is not presented as a model to follow.

The same happens with the question of racism is seen in a very realistic way, proper of somebody who knows the reality of slaves in one given place in one given time. Twain doesn´t make a reflection on the abstract concept of slavery. He presents us what a boy like Huck, would think of slaves like Jim. Huck, tom, and even Jim himself, consider the black race an inferior one. There are a lot of comentaries about it. Even Jim:

He allowed we where white folks and knew better than him,

Of course they were lest cult, than white people, since nobody had taught them to write. However, the niggers are in the book the depositary of that hidden, no written culture of legends, superstitions, traditions. Jim has a different type of knowledge, which is recognized by Huck:

Jim knew every kind of signs

In this new western environment, newspapers begin to appear (Overland Monthly, san francisco) on which writers as Bret Harte or Mark Twain, give birth to new types, characters, models, tales in which typical characteristics of the Northamerican west appear. These types are the people that puebla Twain´s Mississippi novels, the families Shepherdson and Grangerford, obstinately in war, the loafers, the duke and the king, (tricksters, mesmerists, phrenologers, actors, card players), Church preachers…

It is in this context where the american humourism appears. It is significant that It is significant that almost every man of literary tendency who came into contact with those pioneer conditions became a humorist. Artemus Ward, Orpheus C. Kerr, Bret Harte and Petroleum Nasty:

Western humour is a distinct product. The fight in the frontier was so desperate, that to take it seriously was to surrender. It is the freshest and wildest humour imaginable, but there is tragedy behind it.

The humorous stories would begin to circulate from mouth to mouth, modified, adapted, and a repertory of sketches would progressively be formed. Twain´s Mississippi novels, are a collection of these sketches, spread through the conducting line of the plot, and mixed with powerful descriptions of sceneries, places, and people. Some of these sketches, are original, others took from this stock-in-trade of the Southwestern humourists, as the garbling of Shakespeare in Huckelberry. Also in his travel novels he practished this humour:

When the group is by the sea of Galilee, a boatman demands an exorbitant fare to cross them to the other side, and one of the pilgrims remarks: now I understand why Jesus walked¡¡

In the case of Twain, this context is concretely Nevada. It is clear that Twain found the way of life in Nevada profoundly repugnant, as we can see in his diaries and letters. American humourism is explained in Twain´s How to tell a story: humorous story must be told gravely, in a purposeless, innocent way, and he differentiates this humourism from the European comic and witty stories. Huck is narrated through this point of view, through the innocence of Huck himself. An instance of this:

The widow called me poor lost lamb, and she called me a lot of other names, but she never meant no harm by it.

Through this innocence, and with this purposeless humour, puritan hypocrisy is portrayed. When the Widow Douglas prohibits Huck to smoke, he tells us that

She took snuff too, of course that was all right, because she done it herself.

Apart from this pulse to leave civilization and go west, there is another fact that shapes the economy, history, society of the country, and that is reflected in literature: the civil war. Although the concrete causes of the war were the abolition of slavery and the customs imposed on imports, as well as the election of Lincoln as president in 1861, a deeper lecture of the conflict presents us a confrontation between two very different ways of life:

The south represents the old America, rural, the patriarchal organization of the great plantations. The North, the new America, industrial, with its emerging proletarian class. Each world is related to a series of folk-lore elements, the hateful “yankees”, without class, the legendary “southern men”, gentlemen, somewhat crazy, of which some characters of Faulkner, are unforgettable paradigms.

After the surrender of the southern army in Appomatox, followed a period of reconstruction, characterized by the restitution of the seceeding colonies to the constitutional anti-slavery frame, and the corruption of the administrations in the south states, runned by northern men, who are depreciatorily called carpetwaggers, or scalawags. After this period, the industrial revolution would make the most of an abundance of raw materials, cheap inmigrant work labour, technologic advances (light bulb, telegraph, telephone), and the railroad to transform an agricultural country in an industrial one. This revolution would bring about horrible consequences: explotation of workers by the so-called robber barons, industrialists who made an empire in years, and whose methods to subdue the workers and to influence in the political life were brutal and corrupt, dehumanization of working class, genocide of the indians.

From the reaction to these evils, it arises another important characteristic of one of the trends of the northamerican literature, which gives it its greatness, from the first times to nowadays. Its lucid and critical power towards the historic reality surrounding it. The genocide, exploitation, the barbaritis of the robber barons, the corruption, gangsterism, the fraud, on which the American prosperity settles, are denounced by the northamerican intellectuality, and built valuable literary works to show their critics. It is valid from the times of the puritans, who try to erase a past with which they disagree to the protest literature of the XX.. This trend has Twain as one of its representants.

On the other hand, all the anti-intellectual northamerican tradition, of a large part of a middle class bourguessy and well-thinking, is based exactly on the opposite, a device of self-defence, of refusing to see what is unpleasant and nasty. This context is where we have to place Henry James. The most significant exponent of this kind of literature, is Horace Alger jr., who fed the myth of the good guy, well thinking, but poor, who through work and perseverance, gets success and wealth and who even becomes, why not?, president of the nation. The genteel bourguesy, would look at europe cult, old, with literary tradition in search of an environment to create northamerican culture, and also as a model for clothes, customes, entertainments, etc, and considering all the american as barbarian, primitive and ESTERIL.

So we have the two traditions that characterize the literary and social scenery of american literature: the genteel tradition, whose point of reference is Europe, and which is represented in literature in writers as Henry James, and the frontier tradition, represented by writers as Mark Twain.

How is all this context and trends reflected in Twain and James works?

The characters of Tom Sawyer and Huckelberry Finn are examples of characters who live between these two worlds. They have to submit themselves to the obligations of society, go to school, to church, obey to Aunt Polly, and in general behave like civilized persons, and not like what aunt Polly calls “a barbarian”. Instead of this, their hearts are more attracted to a freedom, to a wilderness embodied by the slave Jim and his friend, the vagabond child Huckelberry Finn.

The literature of the frontier, tries to find the american roots and identity, which the genteel literature tries to avoid and replace with European references. Twain´s novels, specially Tom Sawyer, Huckelberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi, are full of old traditions, and superstitions which were usual, as Twain explains in the preface for Tom Sawyer, among the boys and slaves of the West, in the time in which the story developes. An example is the nigger Jim, who, as Huck says he knew every kind of signs. Of good look, bad luck, (the thing that brings worse luck in the book is to kill a spider).

In a realist attempt to capture the frontier reality as it is, without disguises, Twain makes his character speak in a number of diallects, in Huck, the Missouri negro diallect, the South Western dialect, the ordinary Pike-County dialect, and four varieties of this last.

What gives its greatness to the character of Huck is his moral election when he choses to hide Jim instead of giving him back to his owner.

What we find is a contraposition among goodness of heart, and what the puritan society and its conventions call good. Huck has to chose between the morality he has been taught, and what he feels towards Jim, and what his friendship orders. He thinks that if he saves Jim, he would go to hell, but down inside he loves too much the poor Jim to give him back to his owner. He finally choses to go to hell, and he saves Jim.

On the other hand, Huck and Tom, considers, Jim himself, that blacks are inferior to whites, that they can´t think as whites, and, that they are not persons, but animals Tom Sawyer: when I want to steal a nigger, or a melon, or a Sunday-school book…

Paradoxically, it evidences more clearly the puritan hipocrisy and lack of values: Huck, according to what has been taught, is a racist, but he frees Jim. The European bourguesy, and the genteel class, was abolitionist, but, would they go to hell to save a nigger?


We have already talked of that New England bourguesy, European like which conform, in literature what we know as the genteel tradition. This tradition is embedded in the north american romantic movement, in its more sentimentalism more edulcorado, more “popular” (nothing to do with Poe´s romanticism), made from easy sentimentalism and not deep feeling. The genteel tradition is formed by a group of namerican writers which elaborated a set of traditional norms in literature, society and morality. These rules put all the emphasis on correction and conventionality. These writers refused to portray the American life with a minimum of realism, hiding themselves in sentimentalism. This is more serious if we have into account that we are in the US of the Gilded Age and the reconstruction, of corruption, fraud, robber-barons, and genocide of the expansion westward. They also proposed the mental discipline and order instead of the free flowing of feelings. This principles are in agreement, essentially, with the Victorian mentality that predominated in England in those times. These writers have their reference in Europe, (all the opposite to the search of self identification of the country of Twain, Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, Poe).

There are several characteristics that conform the genteel spirit:

Sentimentalism: good and bad characters (opposite to the dealing of Twain with racism and puritanism), happy ends, exotic settings…


Aspects of the daily life: architecture, decoration, dressing

Hipocrisy related to sexuality, and to charity: the great industrialists and business men make their fortunes through exploitation and fraud, and give a small part to charity.

Paradoxically, the aparition of Darwinism promotes both the naturalism (so opposite, of Jack London, Sinclair?, etc), and the justification of this descontrolated growing. Economic success would be the result of the struggle for life. Only the strong and powerful can survive.

In this context, the narrative of James (and also of Howells), forms part of the tradition, but it is also a shy reaction, a small change towards realism inside the movement itself, leaving at least the edulcorated, and sentimentalistic romantic trend.

James´ point of view is realistic in that he portrays reality more or less as it is, without edulcoration, in a detailed and objective form, but the question is, which is the reality portrayed? The high middle class of New England, their likes, way of life, problems, prejudices. The method of observation is realistic, the result is not.

From the beginning, Europe was the real environment in which James grew up as person and writer. He is contemporary of Mark Twain. During his childhood and youth, his family moves continuously from one city to another, always with Europe as an ideal goal, spending months, two, three years most in every place: England, Switzerland, France, Germany, New York, Boston. His education is completed by means of institutrices, degrees of Latin, laws, painting, mostly in Europe, since his father thought that the US couldn´t provide him with a good education.

In 1876, when he has been publishing tales and articles for 8 years, he establishes in England definitively. In 1915, a year before his dead the English government gives him the English nationality.

From the first time, he becomes the conscious interpreter of Europe for his American fellows.

His characters are usually men or women who face a new environment, and forced to act in a way for which their experience offer no precedent.

This situation is that of Americans in Europe: The american, the portrait of a lady, the ambassadors, daisy miller.

Chidren in the adults world: The pupil, What Maisie knew

Artist in a society that can´t understand him, and that even uses him:

The death of the lion, roderick hudson, the author of Beltraffio, the lesson of the master

In some cases, they are innocent victims, they face the situation involuntarily: What Maisie knew, the pupil

Other times, it is their indiscrection or imprudence what takes them to suffering: The american, the jolly corner

All these characters have an element in common: they have a deep natural goodnesss and a developed intelligence.

These characters, good and clever, will react in a more or less suitable way, and his behaviour will provoke a counter reaction more or less violent, but that will always cause suffering and pain.

The only exit for this situation in which the character is in clear disadvantage with respect to his antagonists is the destruction:

Death of the lion, Roderick Hudson, Pupil, Turn of the screw, Daisy miller, The wings of the dove, What maisie knew (what dies here is the innocence).

For all of them, the possibility of learning through experience, always means the lost of innocence.

During the 1880s, is painful for Henry James. He loses his father, his mother and a younger brother. After some novels which turn out to be failures both for critics and public, he writes some plays for the stage, which also become a failure. Henry James reflects his pain and desillusion by means of his supernatural tales. Here, the new and hostile environment is that of the supernatural: Sir Edmund Orme, The turn of the Screw.