Mark Twain: “The American Claimant” (1892)

“What a civilization it is, and what prodigious results these are! and brought about almost wholly by common men; not by Oxford-trained aristocrats, but men who state shoulder to shoulder in the humble ranks of life and earn the bread that they eat. Again, I’m glad I came. I have found a country at last where one may start fair, and breast to breast with his fellow man, rise by his own efforts, and be something in the world and be proud of that something; not be something created by an ancestor three hundred years ago.” (525)

As with its predecessor, The Gilded Age, Mark Twain’s The American Claimant explores the division between aristocratic England and democratic America. In one way, its plots works in an opposite direction from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In that novel an American works to overthrow the tyranny of chivalry and aristocracy. In An American Claimant, Colonel Sellers (returned from The Gilded Age with a new name) is hoping to acquire the trappings of English aristocracy, in this case an empty earldom. At the same time, the real heir goes to America as a radical leveler, much preferring the democracy of America. He changes his name and takes on a new identity, made easier with a disastrous fire which destroys the evidence of his real position. He ends up working for Sellers as a painter. The real heir, now with the name Tracy, falls in love with Seller’s daughter, who rejects his advances because she assumes he just wants her father’s newly acquired title.

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Given Tracy and his social values, there is a lot of reflection on the difference between aristocracy and democracy and its impact on society. To an obsessive reader of American literature this does not seem fresh on the surface. Of course it is indeed true that America was less bound by the trappings of status. Tracy was enamored at the changes in language. “Everybody calls himself a lady or gentleman, and thinks he is, and don’t care what anybody thinks him, as long as he don’t say it out loud.” (531) The interesting twist is that it is the American who wants to become the aristocrat and the aristocrat who is enamored with American democracy. The darker message here is that American democracy is a bit of a facade and that aristocratic pretentions are perhaps weaker. “There isn’t any power on earth that can prevent England’s thirty millions from electing themselves dukes and duchesses to-morrow and calling themselves so. And within six months all the former dukes and duchesses would have retired from the business.” (533) In effect, it would expose them as “the Duke and the King” from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Mark Twain, another photo

Mark Twain, another photo

This still leave us with the awkward desire of Colonel Sellers to pursue his aristocratic claim. This may simply be evidence of the strange American fascination with the aristocracy. For the first hundred years, Americans had their own aristocracy in the vile and disgusting Southern slaveholders. After that, they turned to foreign royalty to live out their fantasies of privilege. Is it a longing for the past? Is there a democratic aspect to this, where everyone can image that they are part of the aristocracy? (If you do not have a Cherokee princess in your family history, you can find your coat of arms by paying a genealogist enough.) Or maybe it is a final escape from failure. Like “the Duke and the King,” Colonel Sellers is a failure. By clinging to aristocratic pretentions, someone who lost the game (and in democratic capitalism we are allowed only to blame ourselves) can create a false reality. Or maybe it is just silly consumerist vanity? Or, is it that democracy—that brutal equality—just plain boring? Life in a palace is much more interesting than slaving away at a factory job.

Of course, we have Colonel Sellers is still at his old schemes. This is the fun of the novel. The best is the invention that automates swearing at sailors on a ship. Since sailors only listen to vulgar, verbally-violent captains, more timid masters could use this device to ensure their workers are properly yelled at. In a sense, the claim to the earldom is simply another of Sellers’ schemes and therefore a continuation of his failing participation in democratic capitalism.

The American Claimant is probably only read these days by the most devoted Twain followers. I found it hard to get into. Many of his other works deal with these themes equally well. If there is truth to the claim that Twain was losing his wit around this time due to his traumas with the Paige typesetter, this novel could certainly be part of that argument. But I have a question. Sellers’ failed schemes in this novel certainly were shaped by the experiences with the Paige typesetter, but they also extend from a novel written two decades earlier. Twain was both very aware of the hucksterism of the “Gilded Age.” He gave it a name. So why was he so willing to invest most of his money into one machine. Why did he send those checks month after month?

Mark Twain: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885): Disgusting Adults and a Festivus Grievance

“Poor Emmeline made poetry about all the dead people when she was alive, and it didn’t seem right that there warn’t nobody to make some about her, now she was gone; so I tried to sweat out a verse or two myself, but I couldn’t seem to make it go, somehow.” (727)

This comes from Huckleberry Finn’s thoughts after reading the poetry of Emmeline Grangerford, who died as a child. What we know about Grangerford adults—slaveholdes, murders, petty, jealous—we are somehow glad she did not grow up. Her poem, which Huck read, was about a boy who drown. Her poems were acts of selflessness, tributes. Why is it that solidarity and selflessness seems to come only from the children that Huck Finn encountered on his adventure?

Every time I read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (this is maybe the four time and the second time this year), I am struck first and foremost by how utterly disgusting most of the white adults in the story are. As for blacks, we really only meet Jim and the slaves who give refuge to Jim, while Huck is taken in by the Grangerfords. If we want to be hard on Twain, we can accuse him of infantilizing Jim by not giving him the same vile characteristics as the other adults in the book. We have two plot lines in the novel. The first deals with Huck achieving his moral autonomy when committing to freeing Jim and learning to see him as more than a plaything. The second is the series of odd adults that Huck encounters, all with their own brand of odious personal defects, some of them personal, but a great many systemic and products of the civilization they lived in.

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The first adult we meet is the Widow Douglas who quite selfishly took on the job of “sivilizing” Huck. If we trust Huck’s narration (and why wouldn’t we as hopefully good and moral people), the Widow Douglas sees like the state. She does not abuse Huck physically, but she does work hard to crush his freedom and creativity while regimenting his life. Her job is to prepare Huck for work, a criminal act of murder if there ever was one. Remember that Huck preferred living with his physically abusive father who periodically locked him in a room. (“it warn’t long after that till I was used to being where I was, and liked it, all but the cowhide part. It was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books nor study.” 647–648). When pap takes Huck back to his cabin, the Widow Douglas uses the power of the state to steal him back. Huck’s wishes are not consulted by either adult. Douglas’ sister, Miss Watson is Jim’s owner. We have no reason not to believe that Douglas does not sustain the paternalistic ideas toward blacks and children that ran through slave society. (See my second post on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for more on Huck’s attitude toward life with the Widow Douglas.)

robbers

Of course, even if Huck marginally preferred the physical brutality of pap to the moral and mental abuse of the Widow Douglas, pap is utterly disgusting. He is after the money Huck earned in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, steals the little that Huck has on hand to drink, beats Huck, and locks him in a room while he is gone. He is also thoroughly racist and resents any blacks with even a smidgen of education or status. In a two-page rant he dwells on a free black who could vote.

Let me add a Festivus grievance at this point. The Wikipedia entry for Huckleberry Finn (the character, not the novel) has a significant section on the impact of pap’s alcoholism on Huck. It is well sourced. I guess someone was going to write a silly psychological profile of Huck Finn especially, but I was surprised to find one that utterly missed the point that Huck is the freest and most moral character in the novel. Instead, these scholars have focused on how Huck was mentally, intellectually, and morally damaged by being raised by pap. I do not want to defend abusive drunk parents, but instead point out the stunning resilience of children in the face of the violence of the adult world. Below is the really stupid part, which suggests that some of Huck’s best qualities are a result of the violence he experienced at home.

“Huck is regarded as “vulgar” and “lawless” by Mark Twain. These characterizations of Huck coupled with his constant lying and his absurd schemes, such as faking his own death, are examples of Huck’s externalizing behavior. Pap’s alcoholism coupled with the absence of Huck’s mother ultimately attributes to Huck’s extreme externalizing behavior. Huck‘s experience of a lack of warmth and sensitivity from his mother was only exaggerated by her complete absence due to her death. Huck’s situation is more severe than many other COAs because he was entirely deprived of warmth and sensitivity from his mother Huck’s lying, stealing, and absolute disregard for the rules are also clear examples of his externalizing behavior. Huck ultimately fakes his own death and runs away from his village to escape his father as a result of how poor of a role model he sees his father to be.”

So as part of my Festivus airing of grievances I call for an end of psychological profiles of fictional characters using assumptions derived from our contemporary therapeutic culture. (This is the second time I posted this bit from Against the Logic of Submission, but people keep going to therapy.)

Huck fakes his own death to escape his bind. Either he must stay with his father or return to the Widow Douglas. This begins his rafting adventures on the Mississippi. He hides out on an island and meets up with Jim, who ran away from Miss Watson because of suggestions that she will sell Jim south. (Another odious adult for you.)

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Along the way they encounter a series of groups, the first three of which are a gang of robber and murders stealing from a steamboat that ran aground, the feuding and violent Sheperdsons and Grangerfords, and the duo of confidence men the Duke and the King. Since Huck and Jim will spend most of the time with the Duke and the King, we can close with a study of their character. They are rather ridiculous, but no less so than the people they are able to con. We read with disbelief that their able to sustain their schemes as long as they do. Their first trick that we experience involves convincing Jim and Huck that they are heir to the Duke of Bridgewater and Louis XVII. I found this interesting because we have two con artists who take advantage of the democratic capitalism of the antebellum period, but also sustain a façade of inherited privilege. In any case, Huck sees through them right away, but does not mind playing along. They put on shows of bad Shakespeare and later a vulgar show called “The Royal Nonesuch.”

The Duke and the King practicing

The Duke and the King practicing

In their own words, they choose whatever will make them money. “Jour printer, by trade; do a little in patent medicines; theatre-actor—tragedy, you know; take a turn at mesmerism and phrenology when there’s a chance; teach singing-geography school for a change; sling a lecture, sometimes—oh, I do lots of things.” (744) Their first scam to make money after being with Huck and Jim is to put on a revival, ending with donations for a missionary venture to Asia. In a way, there is some play involved in the Duke and the King’s efforts (I think the professionalization of careers limits us too much), but in the end they are looking to take advantage of everyone they can. At one point they even sell Jim. While on the surface they appear as interesting playmates, they also turn out to be characteristic of the worst aspects of antebellum American civilization.

Enjoy a Christmas smoke; live like Huck

Enjoy a Christmas smoke; live like Huck