This essay “Twain’s Contestation of Emersonian Transcendental Manhood in
Both American and English writers in the nineteenth century often used metaphors drawn from nature in order to explore internal constructs such as subjectivity and gender—in Leo Marx’s terms, the “landscape of the psyche” (28).1 During the 1840s, especially the idea of natural landscapes as metaphorical sites for the contestation of manliness began to be found in some American and English canonical writers’ works such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Poet” (1844) and Alfred Tennyson’s
The demand for constructing masculinity through the American landscape in the nineteenth century had two interrelated reasons. The wild American nature as a means for an ideological construction in the development of national identity signified “the nation’s creative potential and moral superiority” (Cohen 73) over the effeminate civilization and the cultivated pastoral in Europe and Britain. As Paula Marantz Cohen asserts, many nineteenth-century writers including Emerson and Walt Whitman often depicted the American landscape as “vaster and purer than the more conventionally settled landscape of Europe” in order to construct it as “the hallmark of America’s authenticity and power” (73). The need for recovering masculinity through the frontier also corresponded with the increasing anxieties of nineteenth-century American males about the “control of mainstream culture” as “the stronger sex” over the increased power of women in the public sphere—e.g. education, business, politics, and movements for social reform and women’s rights (Prchal 188). Fueled by Darwinian theory that associates civilization with femininity and domesticity, the possible threat from an ‘effeminate’ civilization amplified American men’s desire for a ‘primitive’ masculinity in its connection to the ‘primitive’ frontier.3
The social need for recouping masculine attributes such as ‘martial values,’ ‘competitive impulses,’ and ‘manly passion’ and valorizing them as positive traits of American manliness reached its peak from the 1870s through the 1890s within the context of the postwar reconstruction of American identity.4 Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his alias Mark Twain, was one of the late-nineteenth-century American writers who viewed the wild American landscape in the West as a place for the postbellum redefinition of American masculinity.
In this essay, I use the same approach as Johnson’s: my assumption about the connection between Twain and Emerson is based not on Emerson’s influence on Twain but on their common interest in American landscape as a site for the redefinition of manhood and masculinity.6 I examine different types of manhood in their association with nature in Twain’s
1See Lawrence 17-18; 22. Claire Lawrence argues that “the legacy of the metaphorical structure of the pastoral” in both American and Victorian landscape writings is “an exploration not only of external constructs but internal ones as well” (22). J. Hillis Miller points out, “concern for Nature is displaced by a concern for subjectivity as it may be described in metaphors drawn from the natural world” (qtd. in Lawrence 22). Lawrence also indicates, “the idea of nature as a gendered entity in which and against which manliness is tested and structured has a much force in the nineteenth-century English literature as it did in American writing of the same period” (17). 2For the connection between nature and manliness in Tennyson’s In Memoriam, see Lawrence 24-33. 3See Prchal 188-93. 4See Coulombe 48; Cohoon 89-90. 5As far as my research is concerned, Johnson’s Mark Twain and the Limits of Power: Emerson’s God in Ruins is the only book-length study on the connection between Emerson and Twain. 6Coulombe also places Twain’s obsession with masculinity within a broader context of the nineteenth-century American interest in masculine traits which traced back to Emerson and Hawthorne in 1840s and 1850s. In his treatment of Emerson’s and Hawthorne’s valorization of masculinity, however, Coulombe not only neglects to present their concepts of masculinity and manhood to compare them with Twain’s, but he also reduces the significance of the Emerson and Hawthorne’s antebellum notion of masculinity into their reaction against the feminization of authorship. Coulombe writes, “Whereas writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson had worried about writers beings viewed as feminine, Twain actively exploited regional and masculine ideals to define language and its users according to new male expectations” (48).
In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson finds some attributes of his “true man” from “the face and behavior of children, babes, and even brutes” that he defines as texts on which nature inscribes her oracles to us (95).7 The traits of infancy and the boyhood that Emerson eulogizes are wholeness, nonconformity, and nonchalance. First, Emerson differentiates the wholeness of boys’ and babes’ mind from dividedness as one of the “feminine” aspects of “cultivated” men (99). According to Emerson, cultivated men cannot be free from a “divided and rebel mind” and “distrust of a sentiment” because “[their] arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to [their] purpose” (95). The nonconformity of infancy is the second trait that a self-reliant man should have. For cultivated men, conformity is “the virtue in most request” (96). What they love are “not realities and creators, but names and custom” (96). In contrast, “infancy conforms to nobody; all conform to it” (96). In the same way, a selfreliant man “must be a nonconformist” because “self-reliance is [society’s] aversion” and “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” (96).8 Lastly, “the nonchalance of boys” (95) is what a self-reliant man needs in order to free himself from the imprisonment of his consciousness of other people’s views of him and to “pass again into his neutrality” (96).9
Emerson’s paean to boyhood resonates Twain’s characterization of Huck in
In order to justify his “wrongdoing” in helping a fugitive slave, Huck does not challenge the Southern morality for slavery by means of the Northern morality for anti-slavery. Rather, he chooses to be nonchalant about the issue of moralism and conscience by giving priority to pragmatics and convenience.
Huck’s achievement of the wholeness of his mind through his nonchalance toward social order and ethics in Southern society is analogous to Emerson’s notion of boyhood. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson contends, “independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome” (96). Like the boy in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Huck’s “independen[ce]” from and “nonconformity” to slavery, which was a both moral and lawful social custom in the antebellum Southern states, are procured by his “irresponsible” indifference to the ethical question of what is right and what is wrong and his “swift, summary way” of regaining the “wholeness” of mind by refusing to “bother no more about it” and deciding to do “whichever come handiest.”
Although the three traits of the boyhood—nonconformity, wholeness, and nonchalance— are necessary for a man to be freed from the “jail” (95) of social convention and custom, they are not sufficient for him to be an Emersonian true and self-reliant man. For Emerson, a “true” selfreliant man should be free not only from other people’s opinion about him but also from his own opinion about himself. Emerson insists, “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (98). But, how is it possible for one to be independent from others in the midst of them? Emerson’s answer to this question is also the last but most important virtue for a true self-reliant man—his absolutist and hegemonic position as the Cartesian subject at the center of the universe. According to Emerson, a true man can “trust [him]self” (95) and be independent from other people and their custom even when he is in the middle of them since, as “the center of things,” he “belongs to no other time or place” but himself (101).
While Emerson first associates boyhood with his notion of “true” manhood but eventually distinguishes them, Twain in his novel assimilates Huck with Emersonian boyhood but differentiates him from Emerson’s “true” man. Ironically, the self’s central and self-reliant position in the universe, which differentiates Emerson’s “true” man from boys and brutes, is what Twain deprives Huck of in order to raise him to the central character in the novel. Although Huck’s marginal position in society from both other people’s and his own points of view helps him to keep the three characteristics of Emerson’s notion of the boyhood, it also prevents Huck from being an Emersonian self-reliant man. Huck is not the center of the world but rather an outsider, an outcast, and a fugitive who seeks to escape from his father’s abuse as well as the widow Douglas’s adoption of him as her son to educate and civilize him—just as a fugitive slave Jim attempts to escape from bondage.
Twain’s focus on Huck’s marginality in society and its significance in the novel can be read as Twain’s contestation of Emersonian self-reliant manhood. The shift from Huck’s initial nonchalance to his later concern about morality and social custom reflects Twain’s change from his earlier optimistic view on Emersonian ideal self into his subsequent investment in environmental determinism. In spite of his success in overcoming the first inner conflict about the question of immorality through the attributes of Emersonian boyhood, when he has a second inner conflict later in the novel, he becomes no longer nonchalant about morality and other people’s opinion of him.
Huck’s second inner conflict occurs when Huck finds that Jim has been handed over to Silas Phelps, who later turns out to be Tom Sawyer’s uncle, at the price of forty dollars by the “king”—one of the two humbugs whom Huck and Jim first innocently and later unwillingly accept as fellow travelers. At first, Huck thinks to write a letter to Tom Sawyer and ask Tom to tell Miss Watson where Jim is because Huck conceives that “it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d
Despite his awareness that morality and social convention are concerned with one’s consciousness of other people’s view of him rather than his own view of himself, Huck in the second inner conflict cannot be indifferent to the issue of morality because he now comes to recognize that he is observed by God even when he is not observed by other people. Huck’s understanding of God as an observer of one’s wrongdoing is clearly indicated in his following remarks:
As shown in the above passage, the image of God, or the embodiment of his conscience, as an observer is so vivid to Huck. Huck even imagines that God’s hand slaps him in the face—just as his father might do—in order to let him know God’s presence as an omniscient observer, “One that’s always on the look,” who is always “watch[ing]” his conscience and his wrongdoings, including his act of helping Jim to run away from bondage. As he did in his first inner conflict, Huck tries to get out of the second inner conflict through his marginal status as an uneducated outsider: “Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself, by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame” (256). The same strategy of depending on his marginality that successfully provided him with a resolution to the first inner conflict, however, does not work at all at this time. On the contrary, the image of God as an observer is transformed into the image of the Sunday school in which teachers lecture about everlasting fire for the sinners. Huck’s conscience, or superego, begins to say to him, “There was the Sunday school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you, there, that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire” (256). After realizing that it is “no use to try and hide it[his wrongdoing] from Him” as well as “from me[Huck]” (256), Huck decides to write a letter to Miss Watson to let her know Jim’s whereabouts.
Although the letter-writing causes Huck to “fe[el] good and all washed clean of sin”(256), Huck now begins to think about Jim. While recalling their voyage that consolidated their relationship, Huck clearly recognizes the significance of the mutual scopic relationship between Jim and him. He recollects the ways in which they saw each other—not as Foucauldian panoptic or Sartrean objectifying gazers of the Other but as Lévinasian benevolent observers who received comfort and consolation from each other’s presence.10 Through his mind’s eye, Huck first recollects how he saw Jim when he says to himself:
Huck’s reminiscence is so clear that he feels like he “see[s]” Jim “before” him. Huck observes Jim who always takes care of him and does everything for his good. In addition, Huck also remembers the way in which Jim saw him and communicated his feelings to Huck. Huck recalls what Jim confessed about his meaning to Jim: “I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the
The difference between Huck’s resolution to the second inner conflict and the way he got out of the first is essential to understand Twain’s contestation of Emersonian self-reliant manhood. As he did in his first inner conflict, Huck chooses Jim, decides not to conform to the social custom and other people’s view of him, and regains the “wholeness” of mind in a “swift, summary way” (“Self-Reliance” 96) — again, it takes only one minute. In spite of this affinity between the first and the second in terms of Huck’s nonconformity and wholeness of mind, Huck in his resolution to the second inner conflict, never regains his original nonchalance about morality. Rather, Huck’s decision is bounded up within his recognition that he cannot be free from other people’s and God/superego/conscience’s view of him, morality, and social convention. In this context, rather than, as he did in the first inner conflict, refusing to “bother no more about it” and deciding to do “whichever come handiest” (157), Huck, who chooses Jim, has no choice but to say, “All right, then I’ll go to hell” (257). Unlike when he was indifferent to the issue of morality, Huck is now clearly aware of the influence of social environment on him and, accordingly, he knows that, if he wants to choose to save Jim— which is regarded as a immoral sin to the Southern society to which Huck belongs—he must take the consequences of being categorized as a sinner and being cast into hell.
7Emerson acclaims, “What pretty oracles nature yields us on this text in the face and behavior of children, babes, and even brutes!” (95). 8Emerson even compares society to “a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater” (96). 9Emerson asserts, “the man is as it were clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this” (96). 10In this essay, I use the term “the Other” in the sense that Jean-Paul Sartre uses in Being and Nothingness and, also, as Emmanuel Lévinas does in Alterity and Transcendence. Emerson’s notion of transcendental manhood and Twain’s earlier affirmation of but later doubt of it — through Huck’s inner conflict between other people’s and God’s denouncing gaze and Jim’s benevolent gaze — are reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s later pessimism and Emmanuel Lévinas’s optimism concerning the possibility of a benevolent relationship between the self and the Other. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre argues that the self’s ruling position is doomed to be decentralized by the gaze from the Other (256-57). In contrast, In “Philosophy and Transcendence,” Lévinas indicates that his ethics is based on the presence of the benevolent face of the Other in front of the self (29-37).
Twain’s earlier optimism regarding selfhood is interrelated with his pro-masculine position in his earlier works such as
The first type of masculine characters, Bob and the Child of Calamity, originates from the tradition of nineteenth-century Southern frontier humor. As Susan K. Harris, editor of the New Riverside Edition (2000) of
Rather than simply following the genre conventions of Southern frontier humor, however, Twain associates these two frontier characters with Emersonian ideal manhood. As Emerson clarifies in “Self-Reliance,” the self’s absolute authority as a Cartesian observer that objectifies others is essential to his notion of self-reliant manhood. In his 1842 lecture “The Transcendentalist,” Emerson confirms the influence of Kant’s idealism on “the Idealism of the present day” including his transcendental idealism (145). Inspired by Kant’s idealist notion of the Cartesian subject-asobserver’s “unity” of his mind at the center of the universe (Crary 69-70), Emerson posits that his “true” man has a unified, elevated, and central position through divine guidance and refuses to be an object of the gaze from others: Emerson exclaims, “My life is for itself and not for a spectacle” (97). In the same way, when Bob in his confrontation with the Child of Calamity brags about his hegemonic power over other boatmen, he emphasizes his visual control over them. Bob warns the Child of Calamity and other raftsmen not to “attempt to look at [him] with naked eye” (145). Bob also stresses his masculine power by exaggerating his visual and physical control over the vastness of nature. He says:
Although Bob’s bombast is unduly excessive, which is typical for Southern frontier humor, it is reminiscent of desire for control over the vastness of American landscape in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” Emerson writes, “Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design” (101). The dominance of Emerson’s self-reliant “true” man over nature and other people is not limited to the realm of the visual sense, but extended to that of the physical control over “infinite space and numbers and time.”
Twain also represents Emersonian association between masculinity and the Southern frontier landscape through the second type of masculine character, Colonel Grangerford. After Huck’s raft was crashed into a steamboat and the wreckage resulted in his separation from Jim, Huck comes to stay for a while in Colonel Grangerford’s house. As a patriarch of an aristocratic clan, Colonel Grangerford is presented as a typical southern masculine gentleman: Huck says, “Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family” (167). While the raftsmen’s masculinity is based mainly on the boastful exaggeration of their visual and physical control over others and nature, Mr. Grangerford’s masculine power comes from his nobility and reticent charisma.
However, the real significance of the difference between the two types of masculinity in
Emerson first condemns the lower level of vision as the “despotism of senses” that “bind us to nature” and unjustly prompt us to believe in “the absolute existence of nature” of which men are nothing but “a part.” As a proponent of transcendental idealism, Emerson warns that if vision belongs not to reason for “causes and spirits” but to the senses of nature, men are doomed to be entrapped in the realm of senses rather than pursue that of spirits and truth. Emerson even calls this lower level of sensory vision “the animal eye” in that it can “see, with wonderful accuracy, sharp outlines and colored surfaces.” In contrast, at the higher level of vision that he terms “the eye of Reason,” outlines and surface that belong to the animal eye are not only “no longer seen,” but they also become “transparent.”
In common sense, these two aspects of transcendental vision cannot be the same: the first is a sight from a higher place, from which you cannot see the details of an object because of the distance between you as an observer and the object to be observed; the second is a clairvoyant vision which can see the internal through the surface of the external. For Emerson, however, they are like two sides of the same coin: Emerson’s transcendental vision is both higher and transparent. The highness of transcendental vision signifies its higher level than that of sensory vision as well as higher, dominant, and authoritative “power” and position of the observer as the Cartesian subject toward nature and other people. Also, the transparency of Emerson’s ideal vision provides the true man with a penetrating access to “causes and spirits,” that is, truth. Moreover, transcendental vision removes even the corporeality of the observer’s body by transforming it into “a transparent eyeball.” Emerson proclaims, “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all” (26). This is how the highest level of Emerson’s transcendental vision called transparent eyeball vision is dominant, authoritative, penetrating, and decorporealized.
Twain’s description of Colonel Grangerford’s gaze as a symbol of his masculine character is analogous to Emerson’s notion of transcendental vision. Unlike the association between Bob’s masculine vision and Emersonian self-reliant true man’s control over nature, which is actually based on Bob’s over-exaggerated statement, Mr. Grangerford’s vision can be read as an essential embodiment of Emerson’s transparent eyeball. Huck describes, “Sometimes he smiled, and it was good to see; but when he straightened himself up like a liberty-pole, and the lightning begun to flicker out from under his eyebrows you wanted to climb a tree first, and find out what the matter was afterwards” (168). While natural lightning is supposed to strike a liberty-pole, Twain underscores the dominant power of Colonel Grangerford’s gaze from his tall stature by comparing it to the lightning from the top of a high pole. His vision is so powerful and masculine that, by just gazing at others, he can cause them to be coward enough to “want to climb a tree first.” The hegemonic authority of his gaze is sufficient enough to make others behave well: “He didn’t ever have to tell anybody to mind their manners—everybody was always good mannered where he was” (168). Huck even compares his masculine vision to sunlight when he says, “he was sunshine most always—I mean he made it seem like good weather. When he turned into a cloud-bank it was awful dark for half a minute and that was enough; there wouldn’t nothing go wrong again for a week” (168). Like sun, Mr. Grangerford can change the psychological weather of others by just gazing on them. Significantly, through the images of lightning and sunlight, Twain insinuates that, as in the case of Emerson’s transparent eyeball vision, Mr. Grangerford’s being itself is transcended to the decorporealized and penetrating vision.
Despite Twain’s seeming valorization of the association between the two types of masculine characters and Emerson’s ideal manhood and between their masculine visions and Emerson’s transcendental vision, these masculine characters end up being satirized and denounced by Twain in
11About Twain’s pro-masculine position in Roughing It, see Coulombe’s chapter 2, entitled “Mark Twain as Western Outlaw: Masculine language, Violence, and Success in Roughing It” (21-46) in Mark Twain and the American West. 12Although I originally planned to put Colonel Sherburn in chapter 21(pp.198-203) as the third example of masculine character, I omit him due to the restriction of space. 13In the New Riverside Edition of Huckleberry Finn, the editor, Susan K. Harris’s footnote about the omission of the passage from the early editions of Huckleberry Finn and the later inclusion of the passage by modern editors is noteworthy. Harris points out, “The ‘Raftsmen’s Passage,’ originally written for Huckleberry Finn but omitted from early editions, begins here. Twain first published this passage in 1883 in Life on the Mississippi, after his publisher convinced him to remove it from Huckleberry Finn in order to market the novel as a companion to Tom Sawyer. Modern editions include the passage because Twain originally intended its inclusion and because it contains information integral to the novel” (143).
Given Twain’s satire and denouncement of masculine male characters and, on the contrary, his valorization of Huck’s relation with Jim even as an alternative family, does this mean that Twain seeks to suggest Huck’s boyhood—as Emerson does with his notion of boyhood as a necessary condition, if not the sufficient condition, for his self-reliant manhood— or Jim’s “other” manhood as alternatives to the limitation of the antebellum masculine manhood? Twain’s treatment of Huck and Jim is too ambiguous to give a positive answer to this question. While Twain depicts Jim as the one who considerately takes care of Huck and always worries about his wife and children, he also satirizes Jim’s blind belief in all kinds of mysticism.14 Similarly, despite the contrast between Huck and Tom in terms of their view on Jim—while Tom “exploit[s]” Jim as a prisoner in his play of recreating romantic fiction, Huck recognizes that Jim is “white inside” (210) and decides to save Jim with “self-sacrificing compassion” (David L. Smith 368)—Huck is too imperfect to serve an alternative model of ideal manliness.15 One of Huck’s worst deeds is his compliance with Tom’s exploitation of Jim in his romantic-fiction play. While Huck at first insisted that they should use “the handiest thing” to save Jim rather than follow Tom’s dependence on the “morality” and the “authorities” of romantic fiction (283), Huck finally ends up saying to Tom, “I ain’t going to make no complaint. Any way that suits you suits me” (299).
Notwithstanding Huck’s and Jim’s inadequacy to serve an ideal model for the postbellum reconstruction of American masculinity, their relationship conveys an important message of Twain’s concerning his changed attitude toward Emersonian ideal manhood. In chapter 15, Huck deceives Jim by saying that their separation in the middle of fog and the subsequent drift to find each other are nothing but dream. When Huck confesses his trick to Jim, Jim cries out in his anger over Huck’s trick, “What do dey stan’ for? I’s gwyne to tell you. . . . Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed” (142). Jim’s response “made [Huck] fell so mean [Huck] could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back. It was fifteen minutes before [Huck] could work [himself] up to go and humble [himself] to a nigger — but [Huck] done it” (142). Unlike Emersonian “true” man’s self-reliance and nonchalance about social influence, which can be distorted into narrow-minded and dogmatic self-righteousness, Twain presents Huck as the one who can be ashamed of himself for his wrongdoing to others. In his thirties during which he wrote his earlier works including
14Huck says, “I went to sleep, and Jim didn’t call me when it was my turn. He often done that. When I waked up, just at day-break, he was setting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself. . . . He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick. . . He was a mighty good nigger” (210). 15For Twain’s satirical position on Tom’s romanticism in his relationship with Jim, David L. Smith’s comment on the connection between racism and romanticism is noteworthy: he says, “racism, like romanticism, is finally just an elaborate justification which the adult counterparts of Tom Sawyer use to facilitate their exploitation and abuse of other human beings” (368). 16The topic for this paper originates from the conclusion of my Ph.D. dissertation “From Transcendental Subjective Vision to Political Idealism: Panoramas in Antebellum American Literature” (2012). The main idea and the quotation in this sentence come from a paragraph on page 230 in my dissertation.