restricted access Imperial Triangles: Mark Twain's Foreign Affairs
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Imperial Triangles:
Mark Twain’s Foreign Affairs

This essay argues that the national identity of Mark Twain, his “Americaness,” was constructed out of the materials of his earliest involvement with the international expansion of the nation, beginning with his trip to Hawaii in 1866 on journalistic assignment. In Hawaii, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Twain found an uncanny resonance between slavery and colonialism which he used to explore his own divided past and to refashion himself as a figure of national consolidation.

Hawaii and the Americanization of Mark Twain

In the beginning of his travel book, Following the Equator (1896), Mark Twain reminisces, while anchored offshore from Honolulu, about his first trip to the islands 30 years earlier, a visit that could be said to have launched his career as a writer. In 1866, he recalls, he met a young American couple who “had among their belongings an attractive little son of the age of seven—attractive but not practically companionable with me, because he knew no English. He had played from his birth with the little Kanakas on his father’s plantation, and had preferred their language and would learn no other” (47). The couple soon left the island for upstate New York, where the boy quickly forgot his original [End Page 237] language and learned English. Twain visited the family when the boy was 21 and had become a professional diver by trade. A passenger boat had recently gone down in a storm and the diver later descended to investigate the wreck. As he entered the cabin, “something touched him on the shoulder, and he fumed and found a dead man swaying and bobbing about him and seemingly inspecting him inquiringly. He was paralyzed with fright. His entry had disturbed the water, and now he discerned a number of dim corpses making for him and wagging their heads and swaying their bodies like sleepy people trying to dance. His sense forsook him, and in that condition he was drawn to the surface” (48). Put to bed at home, the diver would enter delirious states for hours on end, and what interests Twain is that while they lasted “he talked Kanaka incessantly and glibly; and Kanaka only” (49).

This tale about the uprooted diver can be read as an allegory of Twain’s career: the story of Samuel Clemens, the young white artist who was cut off from his connection to his original language of the slave-holding South by the Civil War and by his later move east, and the story of the treacherous self-divisions he endured to recover his past by writing of prewar slavery. This personal narrative of internal dividedness, however, is made possible by the triangulation with the site of Hawaii, as both external geographic space and internalized symbolic location of origins, language, loss, and memory. What is the significance of Twain projecting a highly condensed personal narrative onto the seemingly remote setting of a young American boy raised on a sugar plantation in the Sandwich Islands, whose cross-cultural background erupts in delirium?

Hawaii, I will argue, functioned in Twain’s writing and career as a kind of imperial unconscious of national identity, an unconscious rendered geographically and linguistically. While Twain consciously returned to memories of Hawaii with increasing nostalgia throughout his career, it also had a much more unsettling presence, or absence, as the text that cannot be written, a location of origins that can never be recovered, a forgotten language that possesses him only at the risk of break down. Like the “Lost Land” of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hawaii became the locale not only of what Renato Rosaldo has called “imperialist nostalgia” for what the imperialist has himself destroyed (Rosaldo 108) but also the site of what Ernest Renan called the necessary “forgetting” which “is a crucial factor in the creation [End Page 238] of a nation” (Renan 11). Most necessary to forget, for Twain and for his nation, was the intimate connection between American slavery and American expansion in the consolidation of a national identity in the aftermath of the Civil War.

This is not a story of influence; I...