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  • The Weather in Dawson's Landing:Twain, Chesnutt, and the Climates of Racism
  • Nathan Wolff (bio)

In a hand-scrawled note to his printer, Mark Twain proposed a curious preface for his novel Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894):

To save the space usually devoted to explanations of the state of the weather in books of this kind, the author begs leave to substitute a simple system of weather-signs. The hieroglyph at the head of each chapter will instantly convey to the reader's mind a perfect comprehension of the kind of weather which is going to prevail below.

("Emendations" 206)

We do not know why this passage and corresponding symbols did not appear in the published book (Figure 1). Perhaps Twain or his editor deemed them redundant, as Twain slipped a similar witticism into his previous novel, The American Claimant (1892): "No weather will be found in this book. . . . Nothing breaks up an author's progress like having to stop every few pages to fuss-up the weather" (ix). Writing to his publisher in 1893, Twain promoted the newly completed Pudd'nhead Wilson in similar terms: "There ain't any weather in, and there ain't any scenery—the story is stripped for flight!" (Mark Twain's Letters 355). Yet the proposed preface would have added a strange, new—and, as I will argue below, important—twist on Claimant's earlier conceit. Twain instructed his printer to intersperse the symbols throughout and that it was "not necessary that they fit the weather of the [End Page 222] chapter always" ("Emendations" 206). Weather would hardly have been excluded; it would have been everywhere.


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Fig. 1.

"Key to signs used in this book." Pudd'nhead Wilson: autograph manuscript, Florence, Mar. 1893, p. [2]. MA 881. The Morgan Library & Museum. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909. Photograph: The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

This article connects Twain's plan for the descriptive absence and hieroglyphic ubiquity of weather in Pudd'nhead Wilson to the [End Page 223] novel's representation of chattel slavery and post-Reconstruction-era segregation. The narrative spans a period in which, as a growing body of scholarship has demonstrated, the "scenery" of slavery profoundly shaped both black subjugation and resistance.1 A crucial facet of slavery's environments, meteorological conditions regulated the rhythms of plantation labor, with extreme weather taking a brutal toll on the bodies of enslaved people.2 In the after-math of the Civil War, continued restrictions on black mobility, credit, property ownership, and political power extended the landscape of slavery into a new geography of Jim Crow oppression.3 Sustained imbrications of race and space have led Katherine McKittrick to propose that critics and historians must contest the apparent superfluity of quotidian scenery: "the landscape, our surroundings and our everyday places, the vessels of human violence, so often disguise . . . important black geographies" (xi). Bringing backgrounds into the foreground reveals the racial underpinnings of political-ecological geographies in the mid-nineteenth century and in slavery's aftermaths.

Twain's lighthearted depiction of weather as a drag on efficient narrative, and his repeated boasts of making do without it, might lead us to suspect that Pudd'nhead Wilson obscures the geographies of race. By drawing on work at the intersection of critical race studies and the environmental humanities, however, I argue that the novel's weird weather—everywhere and nowhere, crucial and dispensable—highlights and even contests the geographic erasure McKittrick opposes. This becomes clearer when weather in Twain's fiction is considered alongside Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman (1899), which consistently foregrounds the ways "weather" and "scenery" functioned materially and discursively to constrain and occasionally sustain black agency both before and after the Civil War4

As I will show, weather appears across Twain's and Chesnutt's work in a range of forms. Weather is often mere background. But it is also a nonhuman force that sometimes has very human (and inhumane) effects on black characters. In dialogue, weather serves for Twain and Chesnutt—as it would for anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski—as the paradigmatic topic of chitchat, or what Malinowski termed "phatic" speech.5 Finally, weather is a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 222-248
Launched on MUSE
2018-05-04
Open Access
No
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