Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, and the Politics of Literary Anti-Racism

Sandra Gunning

in Rape, Race, and Lynching

Published in print February 1997 | ISBN: 9780195099904
Published online October 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780199855100 | DOI:

Series: Race and American Culture

Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, and the Politics of Literary Anti-Racism

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The chapter discusses responses of African Americans and American whites to the racialized and gendered discursive patterns of nineteenth-century white supremacist fiction. The author focuses on how two novels can easily be read in opposition to white supremacist fiction—namely, Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) and Charles W. Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition (1901). Both argue in their respective novels that black/white sexual contact was a custom long upheld by whites themselves and that the real cause of violence along the color line was the white struggle to determine the rights of citizens according to race. Twain's novel embodies a struggle between black and white families and it is on the terrain of race and family that Pudd'nhead Wilson loses its battle with white supremacy over the structuring of American racial identity, property ownership, and civil rights. In the process, Twain reaches for metaphors of malignant blackness similar to those subsequently developed and exploited by Thomas Dixon. Chesnutt's novel articulates a plot that depends on the metaphor of twinning as a means of exploring regional and racial discrimination. It was written with a view to reforming black social conditions by addressing white racial attitudes. Both Pudd'nhead Wilson and The Marrow of Tradition offer radical and complex indictments of post-Reconstruction white supremacy, using the very terms that radical racists erected for their arguments. As members of a politically and racially diverse triptuch, Dixon, Twain, and Chesnutt are engaged in a fierce struggle to define black/white male heroism, and thus exemplify a traditional disclosure on lynching centered around figurations of black or white male criminality.

Keywords: Mark Twain; Pudd'nhead Wilson; Charles Chesnutt; Dixon; racists; white supremacy

Chapter.  14473 words. 

Subjects: Literature

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