- Mark Twain's "Remarkable Achievement":Effacing the South for Northern Audiences
Mark Twain embarked on his "Twins of Genius" lecture tour in November of 1884. He toured alongside George Washington Cable, promoted as a "distinguished Southern novelist" and a kind of serious sidekick to the humorist Mark Twain, billed as "a reader of his own fun."1 Both had new novels to promote—Cable's Dr. Sevier (1884) had recently been published, and Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was due out in December. During the tour Cable recited selections from Dr. Sevier and his popular novel The Grandissimes (1880) and sang Creole slave songs. Twain read from a variety of his publications, but most consistently performed "Tom and Huck's Remarkable Achievement," comprised of excerpts from what we now refer to as the "Evasion" chapters of Huck Finn. Newspaper reviews of the "Twins'" performances describe Cable's tendency to hold his audience spellbound while he imitated Creole dialect onstage and Twain's ability to arouse a "roar of laughter" through his portrayal of Jim, the slave character in Huck Finn. In this paper, I will examine the role of each author—Twain as the funny twin and Cable as the serious one—and argue that this pairing effaced Twain's connection to the south. The lecture tour's intentionally ironic name, "Twins of Genius," did not merely highlight the men's distinctions, but exaggerated those distinctions to the extent that Twain and Cable were cast as each other's antithesis. Therefore, anything associated with Cable— Creole culture, Jim Crow laws in the south, and the Confederate army—seemed contrary to Twain's onstage persona. Furthermore, I contend that the "Twins of Genius" tour was instrumental in establishing Twain's reputation as an American humorist by distinguishing him from Cable, his southern sidekick. It was this tour that shaped Twain's reputation, not as a local color novelist, but rather as a great American writer whose reputation H.L. Mencken best characterized as "the most noble figure America has ever given to English literature" (157).
Cable's essay, "The Freedman's Case in Equity," was published during the tour and further emphasized the distinction between Twain as an American author and Cable as a regional personality. In the essay, Cable, a Louisiana native, incited controversy with his call to do away with the "purely arbitrary superiority of all whites over blacks" (412). Letters to editors began pouring into southern [End Page 67] publications like New Orleans's Times-Democrat, one of which questioned Cable's status as a true "son of the south." Cable's controversial stance on racial equality, published in the popular Century Magazine and circulated among national audiences, was surely on the minds of those gathered at the lecture halls to watch the "Twins of Genius." By contrast, Twain never spoke directly about his stance on the freedman's status while on tour, but his performance of the Evasion chapters of Huck Finn subtly hinted at his feelings about citizenship and the freedman's autonomy in the South. Performing Jim's role as the freed slave who remained in slavery because he "allowed [they] was white folks and knowed better than him; so he was satisfied and said he would do it all just as Tom said," Twain demonstrated the need for both white and black Southerners to disabuse themselves of notions of racial inequality (309). However, Twain's performance proved problematic, as evidenced by multiple reviews that remark on audiences' uproarious response, and by Twain's remark to Cable, "I am demeaning myself. I am allowing myself to be a mere buffoon. It's ghastly" (Railton, "Touring"). The audiences' misrecognition of Twain's intent in performing Jim's plight, versus Cable's clearly-stated, published views on the freedman's equality, served to solidify Twain's role as a witty American writer and Cable's role as a controversial southern figure.
While the debate over the freedman's status became more vicious in the South, Twain and Cable toured the North, performing their minstrel-like act that alternated between romanticizing and satirizing the African American for northern audiences. Newspaper reviews indicate that the Twins...