- The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate Bushwhacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature
Historians have always had a penchant for reading Mark Twain, teaching his work, and discussing him with their literary peers. In turn, when literary scholars writing about Mark Twain, such as Joe B. Fulton, use evidence to contextualize him, they contribute to our historical understanding. In his new book, Fulton focuses on an intriguing historical question: how did Mark Twain, a southerner born and bred, become known and accepted as the "Lincoln of our literature"? The famous phrase was coined by Twain's best literary friend, William Dean Howells, in a short biographical tribute after Twain's death. It encapsulates a sense of Twain as a writer who criticized the dehumanization of African Americans and attempted to "emancipate" his fellow Americans from their romantic illusions and futile stereotypes. Most scholars accept this claim (some with qualifications), even if Twain's use of the "n" word has fanned controversy among the public at large.
Fulton's question is especially incisive because the majority of Twain scholars tend to gloss over the incontrovertible fact that Samuel Clemens believed in slavery and white supremacy. As Fulton repeatedly tells his readers, Twain thought this ideology was "right, righteous, sacred" (93). Neither Twain's exposure to slavery in childhood nor his adolescent contact with free blacks in the North changed his belief in the "rightness" of southern race relations. What provoked his evolutionary conversion was the Civil War. Readers of this journal recognize that such a conversion did not inevitably come from the war, and Fulton's book does not underestimate the complexity of the change Samuel Clemens underwent. [End Page 113]
Fulton charts that change, primarily through Twain's public writing, during the crucial period between 1861 and 1869. He is the first scholar to solidly document the political and social evolution of Mark Twain from southern sympathizer to a champion of the ideals of the radical wing of the Republican Party. As such, his book might be used as a case study for historians who have understudied the "evolutionary conversion" of some southern whites to a stance of sympathy for, and even empathy with, black Americans during and after the Civil War.
Twain, as he trumpeted in an 1885 article titled "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed," enlisted in the Confederate cause in Missouri as a member of the Marion Rangers, a ragtag Confederate militia that he left after two weeks in the field because he was, in his words, "'incapacitated by fatigue' through persistent retreating" (15). Fulton spends most of one chapter contextualizing and analyzing Twain's essay, one of the most neglected masterpieces of antiwar literature in the American canon. Fulton does a masterful job of placing it into historical context and in doing so underscores Twain's satirical genius and his astounding literary courage. In a classic reconciliation strategy, Century Magazine, which published the essay, set out to publish battle narratives by Civil War officers in an effort to celebrate the patriotism, nobility, and heroism of both sides of the war. Twain's piece, though, highlights the fear, lack of discipline, ignorance, and self-indulgence of boys playacting as soldiers and killing men who never fired a shot at them. Twain unapologetically advertises his "cowardice" and "desertion" after the killing, mocking the celebratory patriotism at the heart of Civil War memory. Fulton does not ask what Twain would have had his countrymen do to free American slaves if there had been no war. Twain's enormous respect for the generalship of Ulysses S. Grant may suggest that his antiwar stance was more literary than literal: what he hated and attacked was the romanticizing of war.
Twain spent almost all the war years in Nevada and California. Fulton does an outstanding job of assessing Twain's political evolution in his western newspaper writing. Most commentators have either ignored Twain's politics or ascribed to them a quick turnaround...