James Weldon Johnson, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” (1912)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was written in 1912, at a time when race relations could not have been worse in post-Civil War America. Jim Crow had been fully established throughout the South by then, lynching was commonplace, and the Chicago Race Riots would be only a few years away. As any history student knows there were two major responses to this. Booker T. Washington argued for the reduction of racial tensions through the ending of agitation for social equality, while building up the wealth and skills of the black working class. W. E. B. Du Bois wanted to fight at that moment for full social and legal equality, resting his arguments on a clear demonstration of intellectual equality. James Weldon Johnson was of the Du Bois camp. He wrote for The Crisis, edited his own newspapers in support of civil rights, and argued for social equality. At the same time, his first novel gives a third set of strategies, which were much more common and maybe—in the final analysis—more historically significant. These made up the uncountable day to day acts of resistance, interracial cooperation and community, and outright neglect of the often unwritten codes of Jim Crow. The narrator of the novel chooses one of these strategies in the end, that of “passing.” (See my posts on Charles Chesnutt for more on this.) This constituted a form of opting out. Not opting out of being black, but a refusal to accept the social laws imposed on him. That only a few could embrace this strategy does not really matter. As the novel shows there were plenty of other coping and evasion strategies.


The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—as most of you probably know—follows the early life of a light-skinned African-American, who was raised without even a full awareness that he was black, until a teacher made this clear to him in a classroom exercise. From there, his story reads a bit like Booker T. Washington’s autobiography. The narrator is talented and eager to go to college, saving up enough money for two years of college in Atlanta. Once his money is stolen by a Pullman sleeping car porter, he gives up his plans and his narrative diverges from Washington’s. He takes a job rolling cigarettes, eventually becoming the “reader” in the factory. His job was to read the news and novels to the workers. He later moves north to get involved in the ragtime culture of the city, befriending a white “millionaire” who becomes his benefactor. After witnessing the murder of a white woman by a jealous lover in the club he was working, he goes to Europe with his benefactor. After a while he feels a type of Jim Crow relationship between the two of them and he decides to return to the United States. There he witnesses a lynching, which convinces him to being passing as white. He meets a white woman and begins a relationship. It is revealed that he is passing (apparently with a subtle use of words), but she comes to terms with it and they proceed to have a happy life together.


As the final chapter shows, the narrator did not choose to pass because he felt ashamed of being black. He only felt that in the context of his lover discovering that he was passing, and then it was only temporary.

I felt her hand grow cold, and when I looked up she was gazing at me with a wild, fixed stare as though I was some object she had never seen. Under the strange light in her eyes I felt that I was growing black and thick-featured and crimp-haired. She appeared to have comprehended what I said. [. . .] When I got into the street I felt very much as I did the night after meeting my father and sister at the opera in Paris, even a similar desperate inclination to get drunk; but my self-control was stronger. This was the only time in my life that I ever felt absolute regret at being colored, that I cursed the drops of African blood in my veins, and wished that I were really white. (123)

The point being, it seems, is that the narrator was passing in order to simply evade the grotesque inequalities of American racism. My guess is that this was Johnson’s answer to arguments made by whites that passing was either impossible or the result of blacks feeling ashamed.


What was most memorable to me in this novel was the rich descriptions of everyday life among the working and non-working African-American poor. In the cigar factories we see a rich cultural life carried on informally by the “readers.” The ragtime clubs and bars of New York City created spaces for interracial cooperation in seeking out pleasure. I suppose we often make too little of this as an authentic survival strategy. But as part of the rich texture of everyday life, pleasure seeking must be seen as a crucial element of the challenge to racism. These clubs may have done more to break down the barriers of racism than all the propaganda newspapers. As we see below, there were not entirely all well-meaning. Some it seems sought to profit from mocking blacks, but even so shows the integration of everyday life was possible and I think should be looked at as part of the struggle.

Beside the people I have just been describing there was at the place every night one or two parties of white people, men and women, who were out sight-seeing, or slumming. They generally came in cabs; some of them would stay only for a few minutes, while others sometimes stayed until morning. There was also another set of white people who came frequently; it was made up of variety performers and others to delineated darky characters; they came to get their imitations first hand from the Negro entertainer they saw there. There was still another set of white patrons composed of women; these were not occasional visitors, but five or six of them were regular habitues. (66)

The Pullman sleeping car porter suggests yet another survival strategy composed of committing petty crimes, in this case victimizing black travelers as they moved in great numbers between the northern cities and the South on the railroads.

One more part of this book is important for anarchists to consider. It is easy to see in the porter’s actions reason to mistrust each other and see the difficulty of solidarity, but the gambling halls that the narrator visited early in the story paint another picture, that of a sort of baseline communism. When the narrator won, the social pressure to share his winnings was overwhelming. By the end of the night he had little of winnings left. Most had been given out in the forms of drinks or covering others bets. While it seems he was taken advantage of by a room full of his peers, another analysis of this could be that you see the customers at the gambling den forming a collective socializing both profits and losses. In that system no one (except maybe the gambling hall) will come out rich, everyone will get an enjoyable evening and no one will entirely lose their shirt.

In my final judgment, I will say that The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is still about the nature of the decision to being passing—a common theme in Harlem Renaissance literature—but it is also paints a rich picture of social life among the excluded.

Zora Neale Hurston: “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942)

What I had to swallow in the kitchen has not made me less glad to have lived, nor made me want to low rate the human race, nor any whole sections of it. I take no refuge from myself in bitterness. To me, bitterness is the under-arm odor of wishful weakness. It is the graceless acknowledgement of defeat. I have no urge to make any concessions like that to the world as yet. I might be like that some day, but I doubt it. I am in the struggle with the sword in my hands, and I don’t intend to run until you run me. So why give off the smell of something dead under the house while I am still in these tussling with my sword in my hand? (765)


Dust Tracks on a Road is Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography written mostly in 1941. This date is important because she consciously removed much of her criticism of American imperialism after the Pearl Harbor attacks. What we end up reading is a slightly self-censored account of Hurston’s life and times. There are voluntary excisions and the edition in the Library of America has much of her earlier version. I will take a look at what she has to say about America’s place in the world later.

The autobiography is lively and interesting throughout. For me, what makes this work so interesting is the tension throughout between mobility and community. Hurston was clearly of the black South in this way. For all the clichéd images of the black South as rooted in towns, confined by Jim Crow, after slavery mobility became a way of life, not just for those who moved North but within the South as well. Hurston’s father was one of these wanderers, looking for new opportunities (and often new women). Yet at the same time, he settled in Eatonville, one of the first all-black towns in the South, a prime example of black self-rule. We imagine that Hurston’s interest in black autonomy was inspired in large part by growing up in such a community. Hurston’s life was full of this same need for community and companionship frustrated by an opposing need to explore the world, seek out new opportunities, and develop her abilities. Whether it was going from job to job in her youth, fleeing her step mother, or escaping an ill-conceived marriage Hurston was often on the move. I wonder if her ability to navigate the world was based on her foundation in the strong community of Eatonville. As we see again and again in American literature, individual freedom and the enduring community are really two sides of the same coin.


The strong sentiment throughout the book if Hurston’s dedicated individualism. She was quite conscious of his this individualism was becoming more difficult to maintain in the face of an emerging black rights movement in America. She speaks of this tension from time to time in the book, especially in a chapter “My People! My People!” In this chapter she talk about her love of black people, but also what she saw as their failing, including that of the educated black middle class, who she accused of trying to find their place in white America. I wonder if much of this attitude comes from that fact that her childhood was largely in an all-black town. She lived there until she was thirteen, so she did not experience the day-to-day discrimination and violence that so many others experienced. Here is a bit of what she had to say about this:

Light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole. God made them duck by duck and that was the only way I could see them. I learned that skins were no measures of what was inside people. So none of the Race clichés meant anything anymore. I began to laugh at both white and black who claimed special blessings on the basis of race. Therefore I saw no cures in being black, nor no extra flavor by being white. I saw no benefit in excusing my looks by claiming to be half Indian. In fact, I boast that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief. (731)

She concludes by getting right too it. “Our lives are so diversified, internal attitudes so varied, appearance and capabilities so different, that there is no possible classification so catholic that it will cover us all, except My people! My people!” (733) What is only slightly hidden under this is that once you get rid of that quest to find a voice of the people, you are left with that individualism and the claim we seem to come to is that it was only possible given a strong community solidarity.

Dust Tracks on a Road is in roughly three parts. The first five chapters deal with Hurston’s childhood and the emergence of her curiosity about literature, writing and folklore. This awakening in her mind is her major focus in these chapters, along with the history of her father and his arrive in Eatonville. The next five chapters deal with her education and the maturation of her career. She got a late start due to poverty and the need for work, but through the help and inspiration of some important teachers and thinkers her career took off and she began her field work on African-American folklore. The final five chapters deal with different topic such as Hurston’s views on religion, race, love, and literature.

Although Hurston is most well-known for her study of black folklore and her novels about black life, she was inspired in her youth by folklore around the world. She was given texts by some white teachers passing through. It created for her an image of the ideal individual. It seems that this fed into her overall promethean individualism. “In a way this early reading gave me great anguish through all my childhood and adolescence. My soul was with the gods and my body in the village. People just would not act like gods. Stew beef, fried fat-back and morning grits were no ambrosia from Valhalla. Raking back yards and carrying out chamber pots, were not the tasks of Hercules. I wanted to be away from the drabness and to stretch my limps in some mighty struggle.” (596–596) The power of this folk literature is its ability to dream of the absolute limits of human potential. Unfortunately, for Hurston and for many others, it caused a great isolation that could only manifest in a bold individualism. (For the less creative it manifests in social awkwardness, Internet trolling, and other horrendous modern vices we need not get into.) “A cosmic loneliness was my shadow. Nothing and nobody around me really touched me. It is one of the blessing of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.” (598)

One of the more important moments in her life was the time she spent with a dramatic troupe. It is yet another example of how community and solidarity were simply the reverse side of wandering and individualism. Detached from communities, they formed a tight-knit society on the move. Her experiences there match the tension in her father’s own life, between rootlessness and his settlement in Eatonville.

I saw thirty-odd people made up of all classes and races living a communal life. There were little touches of professional jealously and a catty crack now and then, but let sickness or trouble touch any member and the whole cast rallied around to help out. It was a marvelous thing to see. There were a few there from good families and well-to-do homes who slept in shabby hotels and made meals on sandwiches without a murmur. From what they said and did, you would think they were as poor as the rest. (664)

The wandering troupe seemed to abolish class distinctions within their own community.

I want to leave this with a look at one of the chapters that did not make it into the final text, “Seeing the World As It Is.” This was the original final chapter, but was cut due to editors opposition to her international commentary. This must have had something to do with the outbreak of World War II, but I wonder if the editor would have been so insistent that Mark Twain remove anti-imperial commentary from his autobiographical works for the same reason. The deleted chapter provides a much more focused and direct attack on “Race Solidarity,” which she saw as a presumptuous attempt to unify black people’s thinking and political perspectives. In addition she finds the leaders who promote “racial solidarity” (she calls them “Race Men”) are odious and opportunistic. There are some unfortunate aspects to this, such as her insistence on rejection of worried about the past. This seems to contradict the evidence she provides in Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, both of which show how history does have an impact on how people see their place in the world. Poverty played a role in Hurston sitting out the 1950s for sure, but we see here that she concerns about a struggle based on “racial solidarity.” Although her opinions almost certainly emerged in the context of a an all-black, self-governing community her cultural upbringing was interracial, indeed global.

The rest of the deleted chapter “Seeing the World As It Is,” attacks US hypocrisy in the international arena. We can understand almost at once why it could not appear in print in 1942. “The Unite States being the giant of the Western World, we have our responsibilities. [. . .] But there is a geographical boundary to our principles. They are not to leave the United States unless we take them ourselves. Japan’s application of our principles to Asia is never to be sufficiently deplored. We are like the southern planter’s bride when he kissed her the first time.” (791) She associates the Nazi conquest of Europe with colonialism, showing that Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” are as hypocritical as the Wilsonian demand for national self-determination. In the end, the “four freedoms” were a form of white privileges. Pearl Harbor was long enough ago that I think we can safely read this chapter for what it was, an obvious declaration of the reality of the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, something well known now.



Zora Neale Hurston: “Mules and Men” (1935): Part One

Mules and Men is a beautiful work by the later Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, consisting of her ethnographic work in Northern Florida, near a sawmill town. Her contribution in this work consists mostly of collecting a significant amount of African-American folklore, but by combinging the folklore and stories with the stories, dialog, and interactions of the people who gave the stories, she enriched the narrative and shows how these stories (many of which now have a permanent place in Americana) emerged from social relations. She collected these stories beginning in 1928, but would not see them published until 1935. She was thus, not collecting these tales as part of the Works Progress Administration projects to collect oral histories of former slaves. Her original funding was private.


Hurston’s introduction reveals some important background about why she thought it was so important to preserve these stories. Much of this may be obvious to us now. She realized that she was talking about collecting the cultural heritage of an exploited people who were told repeatability that their voice was not important to the nation. When she introduced her project, her subjects asked her with disbelief, why would anyone want to read about those “lies” (which is the term they used for this folklore). As Hurston writes: “The best source [of folklore] is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest. They are the most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by. And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive.” (10) She also cuts right to what she sees as the major motif in the lore she documented: the ability to outsmart superiors and the fluid nature of social relations. This, naturally, is not really an accurate description of race relations in early 20th century America or life in slavery (where many of these stories emerged), but it suggests a deep attitude of resistance and a value that challenged the hypocritical hierarchies in American democracy. She summarizes: “I thought about the tales I had heard as a child. How even the Bible was made over to suit our vivid imagination. How the devil always outsmarted God and how that over-noble hero Jack or John—not John Henry, who occupies the same place in Negro folk-lore that Casey Jones does in white lore and if anything is more recent—outsmarted the devil. Brer Fox, Brer Deer, Brer ‘Gator, Brer Dawg, Brer Rabbit, Ole Massa and his wife were walking the earth like natural men way back in the days when God himself was on the ground and men could talk with him.” (10–11) The fact that she has to introduce John Henry directly suggests how internalized this folklore became to Americans since the 1930s.


As James Scott suggests in The Art of Not Being Governed, there is a great power in oral cultures, an advantage that literate cultures do not have. It is actually suggested in the quote in the last paragraph. Literature cultures, Scott suggests, are bound by the texts they create. Members of literate cultures are blinkered by what they wrote down, often centuries earlier. Sure, they can reinterpret, but oral cultures are much freer to adapt texts to the new conditions. For many of the stories we read in Mules and Men, their direct use as a mental survival strategy in slavery is clear. Masters are mocked, their oppression and violence explained, and the people at the bottom of the system are able to prove their worth and turn the tables. One may even suspect that the ruling class in the old South was foolish to prevent slaves from reading, because by keeping most of them illiterate, they forced them to create their own narratives of Christianity, a much more liberating narrative.

The fact that the narrative is contested is not even that important, because it becomes the fuel for social interactions. Hurston narrators a humorous (but apparently serious) disagreement about why alligators look the way they do. We are given three different stories, each building off the last as story tellers try to improve on the last speaker. This series began earlier with discussions about other animals. Story telling (and adapting or improving on stories) was a part of community building. This is missing in cultures that share stories through the ages through books. (Yes, the library really is to quiet sometimes.)

There are many stories that can be enjoyed in this volume (around 70). There are several important motifs I came across in the book. Since these stories are liquid there is not a single analysis of any one theme, so I will not attempt to provide it here. There are some tensions pointing in certain ways but many of these have variations. The most important theme running through most of the stories has to do with shifting the nature of hierarchy. Someone on the top of a natural or artificial hierarchy is undone by someone below them. Whether it is a slave outsmarting a slave owner, a woman getting the best of a man, or even men fooling God, we find that these stories challenge social divisions, class, and caste. As a corollary to these we are often presented with bosses or masters as manipulative, corrupt, foolish, or naive. This turns the tables on the hierarchy in another way. Often this narrative is replayed in the animal kingdom.

Mules and Men should be more widely read and appreciated. I suspect that most people know Zora Neale Hurston for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and never get the chance to come across this beautiful work. In the second half of my coverage of this Mules and Men, I will talk about what she has to say about voodoo in the second part of the book and perhaps come back to some of the folklore.


James T. Farrell, “Young Lonigan” (1932)

It was just a well, because he wanted to slip around to the can and have a smoke before he joined the folks out in front to be told he looked so swell and all that boushwah. Inside the damp boys’ lavatory on the Indiana Avenue side of the building, he leaned against a sink and puffed away, absorbed in the ascending strands of smoke. He wondered if it was really a sin to smoke, and told himself that was all bunk. (35–36)


It is time to take on Studs Lonigan. Studs Lonigan, one of the important figures in Great Depression-era literature, was the creation of 28-year-old James T. Farrell. Farrell was from a working class Irish immigrant family in Chicago. He has this in common with his most well-known literary creation. I cannot say for sure how much of what happened in these novels is autobiographical, but it seems likely that much of it was drawn from life. Studs was born around the same time Farrell was. They both attended Catholic grade school and liked to play baseball. While Farrell lives a long life as a productive writer, Studs dies young and worn out from a squandered life. As with Frank Norris, we are not given a simple morality tale. Like Norris’ Vandover, Studs is a product of his culture and environment. We can blame both for individual bad choices, but we would be misreading these texts to avoid appreciating the role of fate. Farrell clearly appreciated Norris, who is quoted at the beginning of the first novel about Studs Young Lonigan. (“A literature that cannot be vulgarized is no literature at all and will perish.”) Perhaps Studs Lonigan reflects this vulgarization of naturalism.


Studs Lonigan’s life is told over the course of three novels, written between 1929 and 1934, and published between 1932 and 1935. They probably should be read together. Farrell has already seen the novels published as a single trilogy in 1935. I can imagine Studs becoming a kind of nostalgic working class figure for the Great Depression generation, even as it works as a warning against self-aggrandizement and reckless squandering of potential. I would want to read both at the same time. Studs’ more attractive and heroic moments (even if they are few) suggest the idealization of the working class experience, so common in New Deal-era literature. The metanarrative, of improper self-confidence and wasted potential is actually the story of the entire nation.

The story of Young Lonigan covers around one year in the life of Studs Lonigan. It begins with his imminent graduation, at the age of fourteen, from a Catholic grade school in Chicago. He begins to plan to attend high school but has no clear idea of what he wants to do. (Of course, his mother wants him to prepare for the priesthood.) Instead of going back to school, he just sort of drifts into a new group of friends who spend much of their time just hanging out, smoking, drinking, and fooling around with girls. This boredom leads to episodes of ethnic and racial violence and antagonism. The climax of the novel involves Studs’ participation in anti-Semitic intimidation. By the end of the novel, Studs has moved to the wrong side of the tracks.

Young Lonigan is also a story of generational conflict, education, and the struggle between the individual and the institution. Since these themes are all combined, I want to discuss it as a single unit and suggest it as a way to approach the text from a libertarian perspective. To start with, Studs’ parents have hopes for him, but are aware that their own life does not present much of a good model for them. For this reason, they entrust the local Catholic schools to set Studs on the right path. Education is clearly presented here a moral corrective much more than as a cultivator of autonomy and critical thinking. “Old Man Lonigan” himself was familiar with the streets but in his older age sees it as a warning and the reason for educating Studs through the church.

And the old gang. They were scattered now, to the very ends of the earth. Many of them were dead, like poor Paddy McCoy, Lord have mercy on his soul, whose ashes rested in a drunkard’s grave at Potter’s Field. Well, they were a find gang, and many’s the good man they drank under the table, but . . . well, most of then didn’t turn out so well. (16)

We quickly learn what a waste the investment in education was, if the goal was to set Studs to the correct moral path. One suspects that the teachers know this was well as anyone, which is why the priest devotes his graduation speech to a final plea to the students to evade Satan’s clutches. (If Catholic education worked as a moral correction, we suspect this would not be necessary.) If anything, the children learned to have only contempt for their teachers. Much of their education seems to involve learning how to evade the regulations of the school. Smoking seems to become one way that these young men express their independence from the lessons they were taught in school.

Just another cover

Just another cover

Another tension between the individual and the institution is seen in how central the community is to the thought of Studs’ parents. They are clearly very concerned with how the neighbors look on their son, his actions, and what he becomes. At a more vulgar level, they seemed to care that neighbors might think they were cheap if they did not send Studs’ to high school. Education for the Lonigan’s is almost completely detached from utility and is mostly about image.

We should not be surprised that Studs choses the streets over the schoolhouse. This is, in fact, the more practical and natural path. Indeed, this may be a general problem in mass education. It has never been explained to me why everyone is better off going to school. It seems each career and each regional context would have its own educational needs. For some, the street provides a more useful education than does the schoolroom. Studs’ choice to abandon his education for a rather unfortunate circle of friends is not strictly speaking irrational. It was rather the practical choice, given his choices as a working class, second-generation immigrant, youth. Yet, while it may have been the moral practical and natural of the two choices, we need to ask why Studs was given only two choices. I am not calling for massive dropouts of students, but questioning why the choice we give many working class urban youth is between the street and boring, irrelevant classrooms.

We learn just how tragic this limited choice was by the end of the novel. Studs’ education does not really end when he commits to the street. One thing he learns is racism, which he takes up by the end of the novel. We are not sure how much he really likes picking on local black and Jewish youth. He is likely parroting what his peers do and say. But how is that different from the classroom?


Frank Norris: “Vandover and the Brute” (1895, published in 1914): Part One

This blog has been quiet for a week or so. The reason for this is that I was stricken with a fairly nasty sore throat early last week. Following that was the “Sunflower” student protests in Taiwan, which occupied my attention. Finally, I started reading Henry David Thoreau’s books, starting with A Week and found that I needed more time to fully understand and appreciate it. So after a reboot, I picked up my Library of America volume of Frank Norris’ novels, which I love. This was not an unfortunate refocusing. I have long wanted to do a series on industrializing America, covering the period from 1880 until the Great Depression. This period contains some of my favorite American writings, including the great (and in my opinion underappreciated) Frank Norris.

frank Norris

Frank Norris

Frank Norris died tragically young at 32. Despite his youth he left a fairly impressive body of work of four novels, the last of which was published in 1914 (over a decade after his death), although was written while he was at Harvard. I will start with this novel, Vandover and the Brute, since it appears first in the volume and was the first novel he completed. Published during his life were three other novels: McTeague, The Octopus, and The Pit. These last two made up the first two novels in an incomplete trilogy surrounding the production, sale, and consumption.  The Library of America chose not to include The Pit, so we are left with just these three novels and some of his shorter non-fiction work. We will have to manage.

Vandover and the Brute is a quite rich and entertaining novel about an artist who graduates from Harvard but through bad habits and ill-luck is driven into poverty. On the surface, it is a reverse Horatio Alger story and reads as a morality tale. Certainly Vandover shares some of the blame for his decline, but I would like to suggest that he is not entirely at fault. He wrestled with demons, but Norris is not so simple of a writer to blame the “beast” alone for Vandover’s fall. He was also destroyed by the society around him, its expectations and its pressures. Norris wants us to sympathize with Vandover, which makes it difficult for us to take him as a lesson in what not to be. In this post and the next, I would like to argue that Vandover’s “beast” is as much an invention of Vandover’s society as it is a real thing. It becomes, for outsiders and often for Vandover, the scapegoat for his failure. Unwilling to accept the social causes of his poverty, he looks inward and blames his beast. The reality is, even had Vandover totally suppressed these negative characteristics, he would have been defeated.


Some of the context of Vandover’s decline was inherited. He was raised with the false sense of wealth. Vandover’s father was a lawyer who was able to use to the system to create the false facade of wealth, an all too common strategy in Gilded Age America. He took two mortgages on various properties. The first to purchase the property, the second to buy another property. Thus he created a chain of rental units, heavily mortgaged. As long as the interests payments were less than the rents, he was able to provide for himself a nice monthly income. Making little effort to pay off the loans, he ensured that this wealth would always be fragile. In fact, it was really a near criminal act. It did allow Vandover to grow up in relative luxury and allowed him to pursue his art.

Vandover was a talented artist and could have started his career right away, but he want to Harvard as expected by his father and colleagues. He also sustained an appreciation for vulgar passions, but again this was largely a product of his peer group. It is not clear he got much pleasure from smoking, drinking and playing around with girls. His more authentic pleasures came from his work as an artist and his never-ending work on his masterpiece, a portrait of a wounded soldier fighting a final losing battle with a lion. He approached the vulgar side of life with almost intellectual curiosity.

When he returned from Harvard, Vandover fails to take responsibility for his life by getting a job as an artisan painter. His sense of entitlement and the very real support from his father lead him to pursue his masterpiece, even though it means he never is able to create for himself an independent foundation of his life, like many of his friends do. This keeps him in a more juvenile life, where the “brute” is more alive.

Gradually Vandover allowed his ideas and tastes to be molded by this new order of things. He assumed the manners of these young men in the city, very curious to see for himself the other lower side of their life that began after midnight in the private rooms of fast cafes and that was continued in the heavy musk-laden air or certain parlours amid the rustle of heavy silks. Slowly the fascination of this thing grew in him until it mounted to a veritable passion. His strong artist’s imagination began to be filled with a world of charming sensuous pictures. (21)

Vandover has a strong desire to be part of society, unfortunately, he lives in a world in which community is being rapidly degraded by industrialization. What is left is the stuffy, banal middle class culture that is expected of him but does not very much interest him, and the culture of the cafes and other public amusement, full of cheap liquor and cheap sex. He floats between the two with relative ease. His disaster comes when he seduces a well-off girl, Ida, at one of these low-brow parlors. When she becomes pregnant, she kills herself and Vandover is subtly accused of seducing Ida in her death notice. He is unable to handle the moral burden of his guilt. Never before has the life of the “brute” faced such consequences. His response to this is actually quite fruitful for him and allows him to spend part of his life more authentically, but it requires leaving home and taking a long trip on a passenger ship.

I will end for now at this point with the conclusion that Vandover’s pliable nature helped nurture the “brute.” It must be added, however, that Vandover is not so unlike many of us, eager for community. The early industrial city was destroying the communities that Vandover’s father grew up in. Some certainly thrive in the social Darwinian world that industrialism produced. We will see in the second half how one of Vandover’s friends is able to successful take advantage of this situation. I suspect that most of us are closer to Vandover, and face with terror the unrelenting loneliness of the world we live in. Cheap amusements fill in that hole in our lives.

Mark Twain: “Tom Sawyer, Detective” (1896)

“You bet. Some day there’ll be a big reward offered for them—a thousand dollars, sure. That’s our money! Now we’ll trot in and see the folks. And mind you we don’t know anything about any murder, or any di’monds, or any thieves—don’t you forget that.” (768)

Surprisingly, the last of the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn novels written by Mark Twain—Tom Sawyer, Detective—is not entirely superfluous. It is an extremely short novel (around 60 pages) covering Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn’s trip to the Phelps farm, sometime after the events of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This was the location where they freed Jim. The plot centers on three brothers, the Dunlap. Jubiter Dunlap is Silas’ farm laborer. Jack Dunlap is a convict escaped from jail and stole some diamonds from his ex-partners. Brace Dunlap is a more established man in the community but no dear friend of Silas. Tom and Huck first get involved in this mess when they begin to aid Jack in evading his former partners. When Jubiter goes missing, Silas gets accused of murder and is put on trial.


Indeed, Silas confesses to striking Jubiter. Perhaps this is to surprising in a slave society build on terror and violence. Of course, such violence only became a legal issue of import when a free man was harmed (women and slaves were not so protected by the law). “He [Silas] said Jubiter pestered him and aggravated him till he was so mad he just sort of lost his mind and grabbed up a stick and hit him over the head with all his might, and Jubiter dropped in his tracks. Then he was scared and sorry, and got down on his knees and lifted his head up, and begged him to speak and say he wasn’t dead.” (785) Jubiter only fled the scene, but it does show the true character of Silas and the nature of rural slave society in antebellum America.

The final chapter shows Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as detectives, trying to prove that Silas did not murder Jubiter. He did this before in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a witness, but he is closer to Silas’ lawyer in this novel, suggesting once again that Tom’s future is in the adult world of law, profit, and capital. I opened this post with a quote by Tom discussing the financial boon he could look forward too, if the duo played their cards right.

The resolution of the case is revealed by Tom at the trial. Jubiter came back to town, unable to talk and in disguise. The murdered man was Jake Dunlap, who was killed by his ex-partners for the diamonds, and his body was made up to look like Jubiter. Brace Dunlap used the murder as a way to get revenge on Silas for not allowing him to marry the young Phelps girl. In the end, Tom gets the reward for the missing diamonds and splits his financial windfall with Huck.

We see the return of several of the themes of the Tom Sawyer novels, such as the odious nature of the adult world, the violence implicit in the search for wealth and power, and the potential of vernacular understandings. Although Tom does seem to be growing up into his future role as a rich lawyer (or something akin to that), he still depended on Huck for solving the mystery and gained information through an understanding of the community from the perspective of the gutter. Lost in this (as in Tom Sawyer, Abroad) is the strong discourse on freedom that were in the earlier books in this series. Huck is important as a narrator and his is still humorous and fun to read, but he is more of a foil for Tom, giving him someone to talk to and at times correct. In both of these later Tom Sawyer novels, Huck makes few autonomous choices. This is in sharp contrast to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he confronted deep moral questions.

For me, the most tragic element of this novel is the growing gravitas of Tom Sawyer, seen in the final court scene. The child who tried to get out of going to school, fought neighbors, and played pirate is slowly dying. Any future novels in the series must be about Tom finding a career. As for Huck, by not following through on his wish to go West, he really does not have a place in the world. But there are signs in this novel and in Tom Sawyer Abroad that Huck is being slowly civilized. This is all very sad.

Mark Twain: “Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Tale” (1894)

“Tom had long ago taught Roxy ‘her place.’ It has been many days now since she have ventured a caress of a fondling epithet in his quarter. Such things, from a ‘nigger,’ were repulsive to him, and she had been warned to keep her distance and remember who she was. She saw her darling gradually cease from being her son, she saw that detail perish utterly; all that was left was master–master, pure and simple, and it was not a gentle mastership, either. She saw herself sink from the sublime height of motherhood to the somber deeps of unmodified slavery. The abyss of separation between her and her boy were complete. She was merely his chattel, now, his convenience, his dog, his cringing and helpless slave, he humble and unresisting victim of his capricious temper and vicious nature.” (939)

Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson is the last of his great Mississippi writings and turns out to be an important reminder of the brutality of slavery and the absurdity of Jim Crow segregation. The novel came out two years after Homer Plessy was arrested for purchasing a train ticket for a white car in New Orleans. Plessy was 1/8th black and could easily pass as white. Mark Twain must have been influenced by this case of attempted “passing” when he wrote Pudd’nhead Wilson, which takes the concept of passing in order to show how ridiculous the color line was and how easily it could be shattered, but also how destructive and vile it could be.


The plot of the novel centers on a slave in the Driscoll household, Roxy, who has a child on the same day as her master’s wife. The two children look similar. Roxy’s son is 1/16th black. After being threatened with being sold “down the river,” and broken away from her home and family, she decided to switch the babies. Her son grew up as a white man named Tom and became Roxy’s master. Growing up white in a slave society ensures that Tom grows up into an odious person. He goes into debt and murders his uncle, blaming some Italian tourists. During the trial, the title character, a brilliant lawyer who gained a reputation as a town idiot for a poorly constructed joke, exposes the truth through the study of fingerprints. Tom is revealed as a black slave, the property of the Driscoll family. In order to repair their losses, they sell the former master, now slave, “down the river.” At the same time, they resort the rightful Driscoll heir, despite having been raised as a black slave all of his life.

How one is raised, in respect to hierarchical institutions, matters a great deal in the formation of values. I recently saw a talk about a study that showed that even when playing a rigged game of Monopoly, the winner became progressively more arrogant and indifferent to others. We have no way of knowing how Tom would have grown up if he stayed a slave, but we can guess that he would have been like Chambers, the real Driscoll son, raised by Roxy. As one of the chapter-leading quotes from “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar” states: “TRAINING is everything. The peace was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” (941) Twain’s point seems to be the foolishness of the color line, especially when enforced with Jim Crow laws. A more radical claim at the time than today, but worth remembering when we feel eager to condemn others for not sharing our values. There are reasons people have warped perspectives of justice or are incapable of empathy. We need to crush those institutions that cultivate people who behave indifferently to each other.

Another theme of the novel is the utter brutality of slavery. At the turn of the last century, a couple decades after the failure of Reconstruction, slavery was being presented by white historians and Confederate apologists as a benign, even progressive institution. Twain was one of the few voices remembering slavery as it was. The threat of being sold “down the river” was a threat to maintain control and discipline enslaved men and women, but it was also part of the psychological torture masters used. Before Roxy decides to switch the children, she thought about murder as a preferable solution to being eventually sold to plantations in the deep South. In the face of this slaves had some means of resistance. They could steal. This was the cause of the initial threats to sell the slaves to the South. Roxy would later use blackmail to extort money from her master (in reality her son). Still, as the final pages remind us, this resistance has little force against the legal power of masters to violently destroy families.

A third important theme in the novel is the falsehood of perceptions and image. Wealth and status are presented as fictions. If a slave can become master, and a master become a slave, just by changing hats, it is not clear where the ownership of wealth really is. The wealth and power that the elite control is ultimately just a piece of paper, enforced by courts and law. In this story, the courts begin investigating a murder but eventually turn it into a property transaction. “They rightfully claimed that ‘Tom’ was lawfully their property and had been so for eight years; that they had already lost sufficiently in being deprived of his services during that long period, and ought not to be required to add anything to that loss; that if he had been delivered up to them in the first place, they would have sold him and he could not have murdered Judge Driscoll; therefore it was not he that had really committed the murder, the guilt lay with the erroneous inventory.” (1056) This is the perverse logic of property. I suppose all the crimes of corporations can be just as easily ignored and turned into a source of profit for someone.

A great, morally significant novel.