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Mark Twain on Slavery
TWAIN ON SLAVERY From his biography by Albert Bigelow Paine
  • [Speaking about his mother]
    "Kind-hearted and compassionate as she was, I think she was not conscious that slavery was a bald, grotesque, and unwarranted ursurpation. She had never heard it assailed in any pulpit, but had heard it defended and sanctified in a thousand. As far as her experience went, the wise, the good, and the holy were unanimous in the belief that slavery was right, righteous, sacred, the peculiar pet of the Deity, and a condition which the slave himself ought to be daily and nightly thankful for."

    Yet Jane Clemens must have had qualms at times--vague, unassembled doubts that troubled her spirit. After Jennie was gone a little black chore-boy was hired from his owner, who had bought him on the east shore of Maryland and brought him to that remote Western village, far from family and friends.

    He was a cheery spirit in spite of that, and gentle, but very noisy. All day he went about singing, whistling, and whooping until his noise became monotonous, maddening. One day Little Sam said:

    "Ma--[that was the Southern term]--,make Sandy stop singing all the time. It's awful."

    Tears suddenly came into his mother's eyes.

    "Poor thing! He is sold away from his home. When he sings it shows maybe he is not remembering. When he's still I am afraid he is thinking, and I can't bear it."

    Yet any one in that day who advanced the idea of freeing the slaves was held in abhorrence. An abolitionist was something to despise, to stone out of the community. The children held the name in horror, as belonging to something less than human; something with claws, perhaps, and a tail.
From My Mark Twain by William Dean Howells
  • The part of him that was Western in his Southwestern origin Clemens kept to the end, but he was the most desouthernized Southerner I ever knew. No man more perfectly sensed and more entirely abhorred slavery, and no one has ever poured such scorn upon the second-hand, Walter-Scotticized, pseudo-chivalry of the Southern ideal. He held himself responsible for the wrong which the white race had done the black race in slavery, and he explained, in paying the way of a negro student through Yale, that he was doing it as his part of the reparation due from every white to every black man. He said he had never seen this student, nor ever wished to see him or know his name; it was quite enough that he was a negro. About that time a colored cadet was expelled from West Point for some point of conduct "unbecoming an officer and gentleman," and there was the usual shabby philosophy in a portion of the press to the effect that a negro could never feel the claim of honor. The man was fifteen parts white, but, "Oh yes," Clemens said, with bitter irony, "it was that one part black that undid him." It made him a "nigger" and incapable of being a gentleman. It was to blame for the whole thing. The fifteen parts white were guiltless.

    His people like the rest were slaveholders; but his father, like so many other slaveholders, abhorred slavery -- silently, as he must in such a time and place. If the boy's sense of justice suffered anything of that perversion which so curiously and pitiably maimed the reason of the whole South, it does not appear in his books, where there is not an ungenerous line, but always, on the contrary, a burning resentment of all manner of cruelty and wrong.

    He was the first, if not the only, man of his section to betray a consciousness of the grotesque absurdities in the Southern inversion of the civilized ideals in behalf of slavery which must have them upside down in order to walk over them safely. No American of Northern birth or breeding could have imagined the spiritual struggle of Huck Finn in deciding to help the negro Jim to his freedom, even though he should be forever despised as a negro thief in his native town, and perhaps eternally lost through the blackness of his sin.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
21 September 2004


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