Twain vs. Chesnutt

In 1904, Charles Chesnutt claimed the Race Problem has been a lasting impediment deeply rooted in American history "which will probably continue to vex us as long as the Negro in this country exists in the public consciousness as something distinct from the ordinary citizen, and whose rights, privileges and opportunities are to be measured by some different standard from that applied to the rest of the community" (letter to Robert Anderson, September 18,1904). As a realistic solution, Chesnutt proposed giving Negroes Equal Rights, while recognizing racial intermixing, the joining of whites and blacks to produce ‘mulattoes’ (i.e. the
merge of both races rendering them equal), as the ideal solution to eradicating racial prejudice in the Nation. However, the whites used biology to make a differentiation between the two races through blood by giving an abstract or social idea a concrete or biological form, which resulted in the birth of the Miscengenation Laws. These laws aimed to preserve property in the white race, prevent upward social mobility of blacks via marriage, and most of all, maintain the domineering power (derived from slavery) over the blacks in the name of national identity. Agreeing with Chesnutt’s works, Mark Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson as a whole, advocated that a person’s race is determined by one’s environment and society, and not by blood or skin color. However, upon closer examination, Twain strongly contradicted his initial claim by portraying "Tom" as an unsuccessful ‘white’ person because of the "one-drop" of black blood that tainted him. Therefore, in the face of this biological racism, Twain challenged Chesnutt’s claims on the formulation of a race via the study of two "twin" characters, "Tom" and "Chambers" conducted in his novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Initially, it appeared as if Mark Twain intended to write a novel that coincided with Chesnutt by having Roxy switch the virtually identical babies –the white baby , "Chambers" with her black baby with 1/32 of tainted blood, "Tom" – and having the babies raised in opposite races social conditions. Upon first glance, the results agreed with Chesnutt’s hypothesis that environment did play strong role in shaping racial prejudice. For instance, "Tom" treated his mother as an inferior because he was raised with that white attitude. While he was passing as a "white" he led a successful life like John Warwick did in Chesnutt’s House Behind the Cedars. He enjoyed all the white privileges such as: good food and clothing, a fine house, wealth, property, and most important, received excellent education. Meanwhile, "Chambers" received the inferior treatment that was actually meant for the real Chambers, "Tom got all the petting, Chambers hot none. Tom got all the delicacies, Chambers got mush and milk, and clabber without sugar. In consequence Tom was a sickly child and Chambers wasn’t. Tom was "fracious" as Roxy called it, and overbearing; Chambers was meek and docile" (Twain, 41). The last line of the quote is very interesting, "Chambers was meek and docile" implies that such unfair treatment tamed the unruly black slaves. It was not in their "blood" to be weak, but the unequal upbringing of whites and blacks made them as such. Later on, Twain contradicted himself by the following exclamation through Judge Driscoll, "You cur! You scum! You vermin! Do you mean to tell me that the blood of my race has suffered a blow and crawled to a court of law about it?" when Twain implied that "Tom" is weak because of the black blood in him (Twain, 96). Moreover, when "Tom" got into the bad habit of gambling, one could argue that because "Tom" was spoiled he turned into that rotten gambler. However, the more logical argument was Twain changed his mind and started turning him into a bad person.

This change of heart in Twain’s point of argument suggested that it has something to do with the disorder that follows the babies trading places and passing as "white." This deception of "Tom" wearing a white mask led to dangerous outcomes like when he disguised himself as a woman and committed color-related crime like robbery and murder. Consequently "Tom" was sold down the river, back to the starting point where he was destined to go before the switch that had given him a chance at a promising future took place. Similarly in the House Behind the Cedars, Rena who was "unsuccessful" at passing as a white, was forced to go back home to Pateysville, where she was happy as a black woman until John showed up and tempted her to tasting white life. Like Tom did in Twain’s novel, a murder was committed by a white man who dressed up like a slave (Sandy) in Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition.

Another point that Twain and Chesnutt made by the twin or double imagery was the idea of what was on the outside was not necessary reflective of what was on the inside of a person. For example, Twain illustrated this through the Italian twins who did everything inseparably except one was a former murderer and the other was not. Chesnutt ilustrated the contrast by carrying the symbolism to the physical house description level in the novel, House Behind the Cedars. Once again, he was reinforcing the power of environment and culture over the belief of blood and nature in determining a race black or white. For instance, in Patesville, "the house stood on a corner, around which the cedar hedge turned, continuing along the side of the garden until it reached the line of the front of the house. The piazza to a rear wing, at right angles to the front of the house, was open to inspection from the side street, which, to judge from its deserted look, seem to be but little used," was situated in an aristocratic manner like George Tryon’s estate is located on the Hill (8). In comparison to the rest of its neighborhood homes, the exterior of the house implied it belonging to a white person; when in reality, it belonged to the same race as its black neighbors. Hence, the color of the outer skin of the house deceptively masked the true tainted inhabitants inside, just like mulatto’s light skin color masked their tainted blood running within them.

Yet, Twain disclaimed this contrast of the outside being a deceptive disguise of the interior of a person with the introduction of fingerprints in his novel. Twain’s argument here is the bodily evidence was reliable in determining a race while the fluidly "blood" factor could be a deceptive racial dog-tag. Wilson demonstrated this idea by asking, "Valet de Chambre, Negro and slave –falsely called Thomas a Becket Driscoll –make upon the window the fingerprint that will hang you!" (Twain,164). Twain was suggesting here that there was a physical bodily proof that could associate a person with their racial identity while the social marker ‘blood’ was too abstract to concretely label someone black or white.

In The Marrow of Traditions, the doubles imagery of the sisters, Olivia ("white") and Janet ("black"), supported the idea that race was determined by one’s environment that was determined by the color of one’s mother. If you were born to a white woman like Olivia, you led a privileged white life. If you were born to a black woman like Janet, then your identity was stolen by your white sister and you were left nameless. However when recognition comes for one’s color, the black woman had a huge price to pay. Janet paid heavily "now, when this tardy recognition comes…it is tainted with fraud and crime and blood, and I must pay for it with my child’s life!" (Marrow of Tradition, 746).

In contrast, Chesnutt’s stories illustrated ‘passing as white’ as sometimes the acceptable and a necessary thing to do as in the short story "The Virginia Mammy." In that story, Clara refused to marry the white Dr. Winthrop until she knew for sure her family lineage was from a good white family. Disregarding or perhaps turning a blind eye towards the strong resemblance to her black Mammy, Clara believed everything the mammy told her, including the fact that she (Clara) was from one of "the first families of Virginia" (Conjure Tales, 131). Even if it meant lying to her ‘daughter’ and allowing her to lead a happy and prestigious life as a white person.

Nevertheless, in Twain’s book, the explicit reference to the one-drop-of-black-blood in Tom by Roxy far outweighed any other evidence in the book that illustrated race was socially sculpted and otherwise. As Roxy said, "It’s de nigger in you, dat’s what it is. Thirty-one parts o’ you is white, en on’y on epart nigger, and dat po’ little one part is yo’ soul" (Twain, 109). The fact that race is connected to his soul taints him and hinders his white self for life. "Tom" has no morals and no courage, as suggested by his "uncle" and unknowingly makes a reference to his "black blood" as the cause of his dark character. Even when "Tom" found out about his true heritage, his attitude changed "for days [Tom] wandered in lonely places, thinking, thinking, thinking but not "the main structure of his character" (Twain, 75). Although Twain in his novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson, played the devil’s advocate by forcefully arguing that blood determined a race, both Twain and Chesnutt aimed to advocate the same principle –race was environmentally created and not determined by one’s "blood."

Bibliography:

Chesnutt, Charles W. Conjure Tales and Stories of the Colorline.

Chesnutt, Charles W. The House Behind the Cedars.

Chesnutt, Charles W. The Marrow of Tradition from Gates, Jr. Henry Louis, ed. Three Classic African-American Novels.

Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson.

This is the work of Rashmi Chidanand
Read more about Chesnutt and his contemporaries
Return to Chesnutt Literary Web Home Page
About the Chesnutt Library Web