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American Literature 72.1 (2000) 117-152

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“I Want a Real Coon”:
Mark Twain and Late-Nineteenth-Century Ethnic Caricature

Henry B. Wonham


In one of Mark Twain’s more fanciful variations on the theme of ethnic caricature, he imagines himself as a cholera germ injected into the blood stream of a “hoary and mouldering old bald-headed tramp” named Blitzowski, who “was shipped to America by Hungary because Hungary was tired of him.”1 In accordance with the standard periodical representation of Eastern European immigrants, Blitzowski is “wonderfully ragged, incredibly dirty”; “he was born a thief and will die one”; “his body is a sewer, a reek of decay, a charnel house, and contains swarming nations of all the different kinds of germ-vermin that have been invented for the contentment of man” (436) (fig. 1). As an immigrant among these “swarming nations,” trapped within the diseased body of an immigrant, the narrator “Bkshp,” who also calls himself Huck, enjoys a unique perspective on the physical constitution of the human individual:

To my exquisite organ of vision all this spacious landscape is alive—alive and in energetic motion—unceasing motion—every detail of it! It is because I can see the individual molecules that compose it, and even the atoms which compose the molecules. . . . Nothing is ever at rest. . . . [E]verything is alive, everything is raging, whirling, whizzing, day and night.2 (447)

In a Socratic exchange with his more experienced microbe friend Franklin, a yellow-fever germ, Bkshp slowly grasps the significance of his atomist insight into the nature of individuality, concluding that “two individuals combined, constitute a third individual—and yet each continues to be an individual” (453). Every perceived unity, according to this microcosmic fantasy, unravels in a multiplicity of separate [End Page 117] individualities at some more elemental level of analysis. The natural man, figured as an immigrant tramp, illiterate, “unspeakably profane,” perfectly lacking in the refinements of civilization, and, like Pap Finn, covered in mud, fails as the ne plus ultra of human degeneration because “Blitzowski” is simply a name for thousands of “swarming” individuals who are themselves mere composites of an infinite set of atomic and subatomic particles (436). According to this fluid conception of human identity, individuality is necessarily either a performance or a sham, and the individual is always a showman or a con artist.

Twain did not consistently take this position on the nature of the self. When another ragged vagabond of immigrant origin, Huck Finn, appeals to the voice “away inside,” it speaks to him in a natural idiom, implying that a moral foundation exists somewhere beneath the accumulated layers of “training” that threaten to disguise the self almost beyond recognition.3 King Arthur also confirms the existence of a gentle, sympathetic, and expressive core of identity when, despite his seemingly insurmountable arrogance, he cries involuntarily at a scene of human suffering among some commoners of his realm in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Hank Morgan later declares hopefully: “There it was, you see. A man is a man, at bottom. . . . Yes, there is plenty good enough material for a republic in the most degraded people that ever existed—even the Russians; plenty of manhood in them—even in the Germans.”4

Twain was never as certain as Hank Morgan that “at bottom” a man is a man, nor was he even convinced that a “bottom” exists to support the problematic conception of human individuality. What is certain is that ethnic caricature, with its competing impulses toward the substantiality or insubstantiality of the self, provided Twain with an essential vocabulary for addressing his ambivalence in fiction.5 Whether one detects traces of a stable self among the degraded Russians or discovers evidence to the contrary in the circulatory system of a Hungarian tramp, the exaggerated ethnic image is a testing ground for assumptions about the nature of individuality in the context of late-nineteenth-century anxieties over a changing social and economic landscape. As a writer, Twain possessed other resources—such...


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pp. 117-152
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