Monday, July 16, 2012

Mark Twain on whiteness

     I came across a curious passage in Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court a couple days ago, while on the road.  The book itself is interesting set of contradictions, between its embrace of the terror of the French Revolution, and a blind acceptance of evolutionary progress.  I suspect that this rich set of symptoms have been written about quite extensively, but, to be honest, it's not really in my field of study.  However, I thought I would present one of the more interesting passages within the text, although without much commentary.  Historically, the notion of 'whiteness' or white privilege has its origins in the work of W.E.B. DuBois, however we can find a fairly crude version of the hypothesis in Twain's 1889 work, or perhaps more specifically, it poses the problem that DuBois offers a solution to, why did 'poor whites' support the 'slave-lords', rather than those in a similar, although worse condition?  Twain captures the structures of privilege and rank within the feudal society of the 7th century, arguing that these hierarchical structures hold the entire structure in place, but the analogy is never made explicit in the text, left to the reader to make the connection.  As a matter of fact, in the passage below, Twain implies that the structure had been abolished with the Civil War, something Twain should have known better about given the results of the compromise of 1877, which ended the Reconstruction, and the terror that came afterwards.  Nonetheless, the passage is certainly evocative, and gestures towards the fact that DuBois' insight was in response to a long history of inquiry, which has its origins, in a certain sense, to the work of Montaigne and others.

  " I was just expecting he would come out with that. For a moment the man and his wife showed an eager interest in this news and an impatience to go out and spread it; then a sudden something else betrayed itself in their faces, and they began to ask questions. I answered the questions myself, and narrowly watched the effects produced. I was soon satisfied that the knowledge of who these three prisoners were had somehow changed the atmosphere; that our hosts' continued eagerness to go and spread the news was now only pretended and not real. The king did not notice the change, and I was glad of that. I worked the conversation around toward other details of the night's proceedings, and noted that these people were relieved to have it take that direction.

     The painful thing observable about all this business was the alacrity with which this oppressed community had turned their cruel hands against their own class in the interest of the common oppressor. This man and woman seemed to feel that in a quarrel between a person of their own class and his lord, it was the natural and proper and rightful thing for that poor devil's whole caste to side with the master and fight his battle for him, without ever stopping to inquire into the rights or wrongs of the matter. This man had been out helping to hang his neighbors, and had done his work with zeal, and yet was aware that there was nothing against them but a mere suspicion, with nothing back of it describable as evidence, still neither he nor his wife seemed to see anything horrible about it   

     This was depressing -- to a man with the dream of a republic in his head. It reminded me of a time thirteen centuries away, when the "poor whites" of our South who were always despised and frequently insulted by the slave-lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were yet pusillanimously ready to side with the slave-lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of that very institution which degraded them. And there was only one redeeming feature connected with that pitiful piece of history; and that was, that secretly the "poor white" did detest the slave-lord, and did feel his own shame. That feeling was not brought to the surface, but the fact that it was there and could have been brought out, under favoring circumstances, was something -- in fact, it was enough; for it showed that a man is at bottom a man, after all, even if it doesn't show on the outside."
     --Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

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