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  • Narrating the Tennessee Land: Real Property, Fictional Land, and Mark Twain’s Literary Enterprise
  • Lawrence Howe

Most inhabitants of a democracy have property. And not only have they got property, but they live in the conditions in which men attach most value to property.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America1

Property is the fruit of labor. . . . [P]roperty is desirable . . . is a positive good in the world.

Abraham Lincoln, 21 March 18642

In the center of Roughing It, in the fortieth of the book’s seventy-nine chapters, Mark Twain gives a very prominent place to the episode of the “blind lead.” With masterfully paced suspense, he recounts the moment when he and his partner—Calvin Higbie, the man to whom he dedicates the book—examine the rock from the Wide West mine. After Higbie’s trained eye observes something suspicious, he makes a clandestine descent into the well-guarded shaft of the Wide West claim and confirms what his examination of the rock had told him. The shaft had more than one vein running through it, and the blind lead—a vein that never exposes itself at the surface and consequently is only discovered by accident—contains ore of a distinctly different character than that in the Wide West vein and thus it is not protected by the Wide West claim. In addition to the episode’s remarkable composition, drawn so artfully that it gives us Twain’s measure as a writer more than as a miner, this account alludes to peculiarities of the laws of mining rights; a special quirk of the rules of mining claims enables Twain and Higbie to stake their own claim on the blind lead, and their subsequent neglect of their responsibility to perform work on the claim within a specified period results in the loss of their rights to the claim.

Before all goes wrong, though, the two men fantasize about the opulent lives that await them. They discuss their plans to visit Europe (a trip that [End Page 4] Sam Clemens had already taken and Twain had written about in The Innocents Abroad three years before he wrote Roughing It) and the palatial houses they would build in San Francisco’s posh Russian Hill neighborhood (not coincidentally, Clemens was in the midst of building his Hartford mansion with comparable amenities at the same time that he was composing the episode of the blind lead).3 Fueled by the fantasies of his imminent wealth, Twain reports, he wrote home instructing that his share of the family land in Tennessee be sold and the proceeds donated to charity. This is the first published reference to the Tennessee land, which Twain will deploy as a crucial plot element in The Gilded Age the next year. But alas, after the disappointing loss of the blind lead, his unfolding narrative recurs to the memory of this elusive wealth, torturing Twain when other opportunities slip away from him later in Roughing It.

I rehearse this pivotal moment of expectation and disappointment because, in addition to contributing to a narrative pattern that Twain deployed over his career, it denotes a shift in forms of property ownership—from ownership of land in Tennessee to contract rights for mining valuable ore in the Comstock Lode. This shift reflects the ways in which the concept of property in nineteenth-century America was being reimagined. While this change is condensed in the blind lead episode, the text goes further to illuminate how Twain himself converted personal misfortunes with respect to different forms of property ownership into literary success, which delivered the twin rewards of money and cultural capital. Proceeding from the premise that Twain sought to cast himself as an exemplar of United States culture, I will argue that his desires for property and wealth play a significant role in his evolving self-portrait of American identity.

The overwrought though persistently motivating notion of the “American Dream” is founded on the readily assumed virtues of property ownership, which at its furthest extreme is magnified into fantasies of striking it rich. Although this phrase is attributed to James Truslow Adams in 1931, the “American Dream” is a concept with a much longer...


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