- The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate Bushwacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature by Joe B. Fulton
Joe B. Fulton has written several books about Mark Twain, each devoted to a particular area of the writer’s life: The Reverend Mark Twain, a study of theological form in Twain’s writings; Mark Twain in the Margins, a study of his marginalia; and Mark Twain’s Ethical Realism, a Bahktinian-influenced genre study. The Reconstruction of Mark Twain examines Twain’s evolution from his initial sympathies with the Confederacy to his later liberal Republicanism. Fulton focuses on the Civil War and its aftermath, from Twain’s brief and inglorious stint in a Missouri militia supporting the Confederacy to his association with the Mugwumps, Republican dissidents of the 1880s organized to resist their party’s presidential candidate in part, according to Fulton, because they felt the party had failed to live up to its promise to pursue civil rights for freedmen. Throughout, Fulton argues, Twain’s Missouri origins—his coming to adulthood in a border state with strong ties to the South and to slavery—gave him a border mentality that could understand both sides of an issue. His border sensibility enabled Twain to maintain his cultural identity as a southerner even while he took on the political viewpoints most commonly associated with the north.
There is much of value in this book, especially as regards the contexts of Twain’s writings and the sources Fulton used to research them. Fulton has profitably mined Twain’s journalism, culling articles from San Francisco’s Alta California and Daily Evening Bulletin, Sacramento’s Daily Union, and Nevada’s Virginia City Daily Union and Territorial Enterprise, among others. He also quotes Twain’s contemporaries on contemporary events and their significance. He deftly handles contextual information that fleshes out Twain’s positions: for instance the 1863 origins of the word “miscegenation” and the word’s significance within the politics of Twain’s furtive departure from Nevada, as well as Twain’s writings in the aftermath of Lincoln’s [End Page 234] assassination. In all this, there is a tremendous amount of information to be learned from this book.
I wish I could be as happy with Fulton’s use of the information, especially the relationship he makes between Twain’s own politics and the contexts he sketches. The strain is evident in the writing itself: when Fulton is creating a historical backdrop his writing is clear and fluid. When he switches to Twain, however, it is often muddled and repetitive, with very little “reach” beyond the immediate horizons of the point he is trying to make. For instance, he uses “Mark Twain on the Colored Man,” Twain’s report on a July 4th parade that included African Americans, as part of a discussion of national celebrations in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination. Satirizing the racism of contemporary reporting, Twain suggests that the African Americans marchers were arranged according to color gradations, the most light-skinned marching first, “then glooming down . . . to the fell and dismal blackness of undefiled and unalloyed niggerdom” (108). Fulton argues that Twain used offensive language deliberately, and he notes that Twain’s “continuum” of marchers “argues against white versus black,” but he does not comment further on the passage. He thus misses a chance to lay claim to a scholarly gold mine: first, the passage is an early demonstration of Twain’s fascination with parades: not only with what the arrangements of parades can say about human groupings but also Twain’s peculiar descriptive mode—words and rhythms here appear in Twain’s descriptions of parades as late as “The Stupendous Procession” (1901) and the closing chapters of the manuscript known as #44, The Mysterious Stranger. Second, it also shows him already aware of the instability of “race” in black/white America, especially the idea of racial purity. Since Fulton has already discussed miscegenation, it would seem he would pick up on these issues, but he does not.