Gallows without Humor: How I Mined Mark Twain’s Western Violence
In 2008 I began my PhD program shortly after I had broken my second metatarsal on a run with former students. At the time, antebellum writers of the gothic and sensational occupied my imagination in the darkness of my newly sedentary life. I read the novels of George Lippard, George Thompson, and John Rollin Ridge and the journalism within The Hangman and the National Police Gazette. One day, as I searched for crime narratives set in the American West, I came across The Sagebrush Anthology, edited by Lawrence Berkove. This collection contained hoaxes written by Mark Twain, which had been published in Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise in the early 1860s. I had not read much early Twain, for I mostly spent time with Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, Hank Morgan or Pudd’nhead Wilson. But, as I researched and read, I noticed that Twain’s periodical writing read more like antebellum sensational writers than like the Twain I had read in school, or his writing I usually taught.
Now I began to catch up, though I could not run, and I emailed Larry Berkove. To my surprise, he responded. We corresponded several times, and I read all that he recommended. Still, I could not shed those gothic writers from eastern cities. I discovered many relationships between eastern metropolitan writers and western writers in mining towns, so I focused on these similarities in my research: narratives or journalism that criticized society, assessed gender norms, reported on or created scenes of crime and punishment, and employed violent discourse. Twain’s journalism and letters had it all. Even humor. I decided, however, mostly to avoid his humor and instead welcome the bullets and ropes, blood and bruises. Besides, I found out, James Caron had written the best book about Twain’s humor and western journalism, Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter, that same year.
So I focused on the violence. My essential question has kept me interested all these years: What and how did Twain write about crime and punishment during his time in the West and just after he left it? Though I was well into my research by 2011, one answer came during the first Clemens Conference in Hannibal, Missouri, that summer. Robert Hirst gave the keynote address, and as he discussed various letters and notes penned by Twain, Bob showed an envelope that contained Twain’s handwritten, but not mailed, response to Henry Bovee, a senator who had campaigned against capital punishment. After his address, I chatted with Bob about the note and asked him if any other such letters or envelopes existed in the Mark Twain Papers. The next year I visited the Papers in Berkeley, and within a box of unpublished materials in Bob’s office sat another envelope, with another response that Twain did not send to Henry Bovee. Images of both envelopes appear in my book, thanks to Bob Hirst.
During that exploration in the Papers I read various newspaper articles, bits, pieces, and columns that offered Twain’s specific, complicated, sometimes fluid views on western violence, including legal and extralegal punishment. He also wrote much about guns, but not in ways that would please either of our current political parties. He wrote about gender in ways that would not necessarily satisfy today’s men or women, whether traditionally or fluidly gendered. And he wrote about violence in ways that might disgust and excite his readers, for violence disgusted and excited him. These contradictions interested me. And though I can now run again, I cannot escape these contradictions, and the darkness and danger lurking in cities or mining towns that Mark Twain’s writing illuminated.
Dr. Jarrod Roark is a teacher at St. Teresa’s Academy (Kansas City, MO) and is Executive Coordinator of the Mark Twain Circle. Dr. Roark presented the following paper at the Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies:
- Jarrod Roark, “Providence of the Pistol” (August 4, 2017 – Tripp Lecture Hall – Elmira College Campus)
His recent book, Mark Twain at the Gallows: Crime and Justice in His Western Writing, 1861-1873, is available from McFarland & Co.