- The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate Bushwhacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature by Joe B. Fulton
Ernest Hemingway once claimed that, "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." Mark Twain convinced the reading world that there was something unique about American literature and, more important, that it was worth reading. He helped Americans laugh at themselves, and he has caused them to squirm in self-conscious reflection. His work has been praised, banned, and burned yet readers still struggle to understand the "real" Samuel Clemens whom the world knows as Mark Twain.
Joe Fulton, professor of English at Baylor University, has published a number of works on Twain but this is his first detailed analysis of Clemens and the Civil War era. In two hundred well-argued pages of text, Fulton uses America's quintessential war to help readers understand America's quintessential writer. Fulton argues that too many scholars have "whitewashed" Clemens's youth in the slave state of Missouri and that they have wrongly assumed that Twain's "devotion to the Confederacy had always been lukewarm or even nonexistent." Fulton reminds us that the "reconstruction of the South was a process rather than an event . . . that spanned decades and was quite traumatic" (x-xi). So, too, he notes, was Mark Twain's reconstruction from defender of slavery and soldier for the Confederacy to the champion of racial equality as the "Lincoln of our literature."
Organized into five sections, Fulton's work analyzes Twain's Missouri and Civil War years, time in Nevada, satirical development in San Francisco, intense reconstruction from 1866 to 1869 in Washington, D.C., and reconstructed years from 1870 to his death in 1910. Fulton engages the wealth of Twain scholarship and proves that despite all of this attention, we still know too little about America's favorite writer. Even David Rachels's Mark Twain's Civil War—despite being a superb collection of Twain's Civil War-related writings—failed to answer how the man who was appalled [End Page 397] by the social status of free blacks in antebellum New York came to demand, at great personal risk, racial justice a few decades later. Similarly, writers like Hal Bush have recognized Twain's "conversion" process, but few have taken the time to carefully study and explain it like Fulton does in this book.
The seeds of Twain's reconstruction, Fulton argues, were always within him and grew into Clemens's lifelong war against hypocrisy. "The more elaborate and inflated the language, whether in defense of the sacred cause of slavery in his youth, the sacred cause of Unionism in the Nevada Territory . . . the sacred cause of the police [in San Francisco], or the sacred cause of anything," Fulton explains, "the warier Clemens became that the speaker was trying very hard to conceal something" (115). Part of his conversion process also had to do with his youth in Missouri. The Show Me State was, as Terrell Dempsey argued, "a peninsula of slavery in free territory" (7). Fulton parallels this by arguing that, "Sam remained a border-stater at heart and always retained the blessing and the curse of seeing the world from all sides" (157).
Fulton demonstrates this first in Twain's brief period in uniform, which lasted about two weeks as a lieutenant of Confederate militia. When the chaos that defined wartime Missouri came to define his unit as well, the anti-North but pro-Union Clemens abandoned the fight. Fulton argues that this action forced Twain to explain his desertion for the rest of his life, but it also cultivated Clemens's natural tendency to reject group hyperbole, which would soon appear in the Union's "hypocritical orthodoxies of triumphalism" (49).
In his chapters on Twain's life in Nevada Territory and San Francisco, Fulton shows how the frustrations of social, economic, and political defeat only fueled what Twain compatriot William...