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.

Sam Clemens pistol practicing at his home in Redding, CT. (1908)
Image found at www.MarkTwainQuotes.com

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:

His recent book, Mark Twain at the Gallows: Crime and Justice in His Western Writing, 1861-1873, is available from McFarland & Co.

Ah Shucks, Satan!: Mark Twain’s Style, Quantified

Mark Twain was an immensely popular author. Based on this apparent truth, it has been convenient to regard him as populist as well. Contemporaneous critics dismissed him as “merely a humorist,” a characterization which he clearly internalized. Even those who praise his literary style often, like his friend William Dean Howells, invoke the slightly backhanded adjective natural. “Mr. Clemens is the first writer to use in extended writings the fashion we all use in thinking,” Howells said in 1901, “and to set down the thing that comes into his mind without fear or favor of the thing that went before or the thing that may be about to follow.” The clear implication is that his friend is not a careful craftsman like himself, but a unselfconscious prodigy. The theatrically self-effacing Twain frequently acknowledged that his books were not the product of “great genius,” though his manuscripts demonstrate the patience and self-awareness he committed to revision.

The enduring perception of Twain as an effortless funnyman, careless of technique, is newly troubled by Ben Blatt’s recent quantitative study of literary craft, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve. Blatt compiles a set of general rules about effective writing, drawn from handbooks and testimonials, and tests them against the collected works of dozens of popular and critically-acclaimed novelists, both contemporary and historical. By the standards which Blatt uses, Twain is more “crafty” than his reputation would suggest. For instance, when it comes to “-ly” adverbs, which Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and Chuck Palahniuk all disparage, only Hemingway uses them more sparingly. When it comes to dependence on “thought verbs,” which violate the writer’s credo of “show, don’t tell,” Twain rates favorably as well, ranking #6 among the 50 novelists studied.

One of the more entertaining curiosities to emerge from Blatt’s works is the table of “favorite words” alluded to in his title. From his data, Blatt is able to discern which words each author uses disproportionately compare with the rest. Twain’s favorite words, by this measure, are hearted, shucks, and satan, a trio sure to provoke plenty of armchair psychoanalysis.

 

Judith Yaross Lee to Conclude the Fall 2016 “Trouble Begins at Eight” Series

Samuel L. Clemens pioneered a modern understanding of the new information economy emerging in the U.S. in the years after the Civil War because he understood and marketed Mark Twain as a brand-name comic commodity. Judith Yaross Lee explains how Clemens managed the Mark Twain brand by extending it to some activities, excluding it from others, and exploiting its modern conception of the self in his public performances.

 

Judith Yaross Lee is Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies and Charles E. Zumkehr Professor of Rhetoric & Culture in the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University. A contributor to the Mark Twain Encyclopedia and the Oxford Mark Twain, she is the author or editor of five books and some fifty essays and articles on American humor and related topics, most recently Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture, as well as editor of Studies in American Humor, the journal of the American Humor Studies Association.

 

The lecture will take place on Wednesday, November 2 in the Peterson Chapel of historic Cowles Hall on the Elmira College campus.  The lecture will begin at 8pm.  Tours of the Mark Twain Study and Exhibit will begin at 6pm.