Mark Twain & Whiteness

The many meanings of a color

2010 marks the 175th anniversary of Sam Clemens’s birth, the 100th anniversary of his death, and the 125th anniversary of the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now’s as good a time as any to contemplate the man who seemed to have been born in his white suit — indeed, to notice his special connections with that color.

Mark Twain made white clothes famous, though he was preceded in this bit of fashion by the American painter James McNeill Whistler who started wearing a white suit in Paris about a decade earlier. Like television actors typecast as grandees (Ricardo Montalban, for example) or fossilized versions of Southern aristocrats (Col. Sanders, for instance), Twain made the white suit his trademark late in life when he was a white-haired author moving in a world of plutocrats with silver motorcars and steam yachts. You might call this the sartorial version of White Privilege.

About this same time — in his dotage and after the death of his beloved daughter Susie — Twain developed a special fondness for little girls. He sought them out wherever he was — in New York or the Connecticut countryside, or while vacationing in Bermuda–and would soon assemble a troop of “Angel Fish,” as he called them, to regale and take on pony rides. Whatever this might reveal, it seems to have had the approval of the girls’ parents and been entirely innocent. In fact, perhaps to emphasize that innocence, Twain asked his young companions to wear their hair in braids and dress in white to match his own spotless apparel — viz. to dress in white pinafores.

It is as if, in his senior years, Twain sought in real life the company of that familiar figure in fiction of Nineteenth Century America–the Virgin in White, often synonymous with the White Virgin. The most famous of these was Little Eva, a juvenile character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and described by Harriet Beecher Stowe in this way: “Always dressed in white, she seemed to move like a shadow through all sorts of places, without contracting spot or stain.” Clemens and Stowe, incidentally, were next-door neighbors in Hartford, Connecticut; Clemens occupied his famous steamboat-like mansion and Stowe lived a stone’s throw away in a modest bungalow financed by the sale of the aforementioned Cabin.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, of course, the famous bestseller that challenged slavery on the eve of the Civil War; indeed, Abraham Lincoln referred to Stowe as “the little lady who started the big war.” When Twain later published his own “Tom” book, he was nowhere as courageous as his Hartford neighbor in his treatment of race. Instead, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer takes a nostalgic look at the Good Old Days before the War and the few African-Americans who have cameos in the book seem to have wandered away from a minstrel show; we should add that Injun Jo fares little better and is scarcely distinguishable from the scalping stereotypes of pulp fiction and almost as unacceptable when he is believed to be a “tawny Spaniard.” In truth, the issue of color appears in a straightforward way at only one point in the novel: in the memorable scene where Tom persuades his friends to whitewash the fence.

Twain’s sensitivity to issues of race developed over time and didn’t appear in print until nine years later in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There, you will remember, Huck goes against his “conscience” to help a runaway slave escape; in that book we have (as Lionel Trilling observed) “America’s most eloquent argument against racism”–despite, we might add, the occasional boneheaded school board forbidding its use in the classroom. This consciousness about race continued to expand in the succeeding years when Clemens would, for example, subsidize the first African-American student admitted to Yale’s Law School. Indeed, he would have found our era’s notion of “affirmative action” too timid; given the institution of slavery, what was due black citizens, he felt, was nothing less than reparations.

Besides a sense of injustice, Clemens’ sympathy for African-Americans was driven by fellow feeling. If we can add one more permutation to our meditations on Twain and Whiteness, that feeling of kinship arose because he was “poor white trash” (a term that in Clemens’ time signified the hardscrabble folks living on Tobacco Road). Because of his father’s poor investments and persistent bad luck, Clemens grew up poor; as he often said, his family was little better off than their impoverished black neighbors, except by virtue of their color. There is something of that in Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and his Puddn’head Wilson.

In any event, it was a great leap from barefoot child in backwater Missouri to the man in the white suit living in a Hartford mansion, after he married Livy Langdon (from a wealthy family in upstate New York) and began socializing with swells like William Dean Howells as well as other Boston Brahmins. Now that he was moving in high society, his wife and Yankee friends concluded that what Clemens needed was a “makeover”; among other things, he was persuaded to give up his western string ties and become gentrified in a hundred other ways. Clemens always claimed they “whitewashed” him — finding yet another way to ring changes on this color that haunted him.

Originally given as a lecture to the Friends of the Library, San Diego State University in 2010.

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