state of Arkansas was born seven and a half months after Samuel
"Mark Twain" Clemens.
And although Mark Twain will rightly forever be associated with his
native Missouri—Twain was born Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Mo., while
Arkansas, originally part of Missouri Territory, was admitted to the
Union June 15, 1836—Arkansas figures prominently in the writings of
the American legend. And most prominently in Twain’s most prominent
Finn is not only considered Mark Twain’s finest hour, it is widely
regarded as—perhaps the great American novel, a masterpiece
that encompasses man’s inhumanity, and humanity, upon itself. Indeed, Finn
is multi-layered, at once simple and complex, and a comedy and a
tragedy, and is considered structurally flawed by some scholars—all
just like America herself.
Hemingway said "all modern American literature comes from one book
by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.
. . . It’s the
best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that." It is
one of the most studied and controversial novels of all time.
of it takes place in Arkansas.
stores and houses was most all old, shackly, dried-up frame concerns that
hadn’t ever been painted; they was set up three or four foot above
ground on stilts, so as to be out of reach of the water when the river
was overflowed. The houses had little gardens around them, but they
didn’t seem to raise hardly anything in them but jimpson-weeds, and
sunflowers, and ash-piles and old curled-up boots and shoes, and pieces
of bottles, and rags, and played out tinware. The fences was made of
different kinds of boards, nailed on at different times; and they leaned
out every which way, and had gates that didn’t generly have but one
hinge—a leather one. Some of the fences had
been whitewashed some time or another, but the duke said it was in
Columbus’s time, like enough. There was generly hogs in the garden,
and people driving them out.
the stores was along one street. They had white domestic awnings in
front, and the country-people hitched their horses to the awning-posts.
There was empty dry-goods boxes under the awnings, and loafers roosting
on them all day long, whittling them with their Barlow knives; and
chawing tobacco, and gaping and yawning and stretching—a mighty ornery
lot. They generly had on yellow straw hats most as wide as an umbrella,
but didn’t wear no coats or waistcoats; they called one another Bill,
and Buck, and Hank, and Joe, and Andy, and talked lazy and drawly, and
used considerably many cuss-words. There was as many as one loafer
leaning up against every awning-post, and he most always had his hands
in his britches pockets, except when he fetched them out to lend a chaw
of tobacco or scratch . . . .
the streets and lanes was just mud; they warn’t nothing else but
mud—mud as black as tar and nigh about a foot deep in some places, and
two or three inches deep in all the places. The hogs loafed and grunted
around everywheres. You’d see a muddy sow and a litter come lazying
along the street and whollop herself right down in the way, where folks
had to walk around her, and she’d stretch out and shut her eyes and
wave her ears while the pigs was milking her, and look as happy as if
she was on salary."
just like America, Huckleberry Finn is a parable of race. Since
the initial 1884 release of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom
Sawyer’s Comrade), it has sold more than 20 million copies in more
than 50 languages.
nearly since then, misguided educators and parents have attempted to ban
the book for its unflinching portrayal of the depths of human cruelty,
the racism the era represents and its often coarse language. In the
1950s, the NAACP called for the book’s removal from libraries and
schools, and it had been attempted before and would be again. The word
"nigger" appears more than 200 times in Huckleberry Finn,
more than in any other of Twain’s works. We know this because
different groups have counted it over the years. But Huckleberry Finn
is ultimately a tale of redemption, and, like so many of Twain’s often
disjointed and structurally flawed writings, the story seemed to take on
a life of its own, with its author merely acting as an instrument.
began the book in 1876, hoping to capitalize on the success of Tom
Sawyer, writing to chapter 16. Three years later, he wrote to
chapter 21, and wrote the Arkansas half of it in 1882 and 1883, while
adding to the beginning.
Arkansas towns were created for Finn: Bricksville, described
above, and Pikesville.
King and the Duke, charlatans who take up with Jim and Huck, stage their
"Thrilling Tragedy of the King’s Camelopard or the Royal
Nonesuch!!!" in Bricksville. The bottom line of the handbill
"was the biggest of all, which said: LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT
ADMITTED "There," says he, "if that line don’t fetch them, I
don’t know Arkansaw!"
the fraudulent "Royal Nonesuch" is allowed by its angry
audience to play another night in Bricksville so that the other
townspeople can be equally duped, the King and the Duke receive their
comeuppance in Pikesville, as described by Huck: " . . . Here comes
a raging rush of people with torches, and an awful whooping and yelling,
and banging tin pans and blowing horns; and we jumped to one side
to let them go by; and as they went by I see they had the king and
the duke astraddle of a rail—that is, I knowed it was the
king and the duke, though they was all over tar and feathers, and
didn’t look like nothing in the world that was human—just
looked like a couple of monstrous big soldier-plumes. Well, it made
me sick to see it, and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals,
it seemed like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any
more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can
be awful cruel to one another."
is said by Twain scholars and historians to be based on Napoleon, Ark.
Napoleon was located below the confluence of the Mississippi and
Arkansas rivers. As its location would suggest, Napoleon, mentioned in
Twain’s The Gilded Age as a stop of the Boreas, was a
busy river port. Twain described it as "a good big self-complacent
town." After suffering heavy blows during the Civil War, Napoleon
was washed away by the Arkansas River in 1874.
Twain’s Life On The Mississippi, published in 1883, Napoleon is
the setting for a sketch called "A Dying Man’s Confession,"
and the narrator discovers to his dismay the disappearance of the town:
had a special interest in remembering the steamboat Pennsylvania,
which exploded in 1858. He sailed the boat while learning to captain and
his brother died on it, nearly a quarter-century before he wrote Life
on the Mississippi. On his first voyage, from St. Louis to New
Orleans in November 1857, the Pennsylvania struck the Vicksburg
and was repaired in New Orleans. Twain rejoined in February 1858, and
soon so did his younger brother Henry. In early June, Twain got into an
argument with the ship’s pilot, and left the helm to beat the man.
Despite this uncaptain-like conduct, the captain offered to put the
pilot ashore and put Twain in his spot, but Twain was unready. Instead,
he departed the boat in New Orleans June 5 with plans to join it again
when the offensive pilot was replaced with someone more suitable, with
Henry still on board as mud clerk, unpaid. On June 13, 70 miles south of
West Memphis, the Pennsylvania’s boilers exploded, killing both
the pilot and Twain’s brother. Twain began to known by some as
then-bustling Arkansas river port, Helena, is described in Life On
the Mississippi as occupying "one of the prettiest situations
on the Mississippi. Her perch is the last, the southernmost group of
hills which one sees on that side of the river. In its normal condition
it is a pretty town; but the flood (or possible the seepage) had lately
been ravaging it; whole streets of houses had been invaded by the muddy
water, and the outsides of the buildings were still belted with a broad
stain extending upward from the foundations. Stranded and discarded cows
were all about; plank sidewalks on stilts four feet high were loose and
ruinous,—a couple of men trotting along then could make a blind man
think a cavalry charge was coming; everywhere the mud was black and
deep, and in many places malarious pools of stagnant water were
standing. A Mississippi inundation is the next most wasting and
desolating infliction to a fire.
had an enjoyable time here, on this sunny Sunday: two full hours’
liberty ashore while the boat discharged freight. In the back streets
but few white people were visible, but there were plenty of colored
folk—mainly women and girls; and almost without exception upholstered
in bright new clothes of swell and elaborate style and cut – a glaring
and hilarious contrast to the mournful mud and the pensive puddles.
is the second town in Arkansas, in point of population—which is placed
at five thousand. The country about is exceptionally productive. Helena
has a good cotton trade; handles from forty to sixty thousand bales
annually; she has machine shops and wagon factories—in brief has
$1,000,000 invested in manufacturing industries. She has two railways,
and is the commercial center of a broad and prosperous regions. Her
gross receipts of money, annually, from all sources, are placed by the
New Orleans Times-Democrat at $4,000,000."
being of recent birth," Twain wrote he had not heard of Arkansas
City in Life on the Mississippi.
was born of a railway; the Little Rock, Mississippi River and Texas
railroad touches the river there. We asked a passenger who belonged
there what sort of place it was. "Well," said he, after
considering, and with the air of one who wished to take time and be
accurate, "it’s a hell of a place." A description which was
photographic for exactness. There were several rows and clusters of
shabby frame houses, and a supply of mud sufficient to insure the town
against a famine in that article for a hundred years; for the overflow
had but lately subsided. There were stagnant ponds in the streets, here
and there, and a dozen rude scows were scattered about, lying aground
wherever they happened to have been when the waters drained off and
people could do their visiting and shopping once more. Still, it is a
thriving place, with a rich
country behind it, an elevator in front of it, and also a big fine mill
for the manufacture of cottonseed oil. I had never seen this kind of a
mill before. Cottonseed was comparatively valueless in my time; but it
is worth $12 or $13 a ton now, and none of it is thrown away. The oil
made from it is colorless, tasteless, and almost if not entirely
odorless. It is claimed that it can, by proper manipulation, be made to
resemble and perform the office of any and all oils, and be produced at
a cheaper rate than the cheapest of the originals. Sagacious people
shipped it to Italy, doctored it and brought back as olive oil. This
trade grew to be so formidable that Italy was obliged to put a
prohibitory impost upon it to keep it from working serious injury to her
further along the river, "Island 92 belongs to Arkansas. The river
moved it over and joined it to Mississippi. A chap established in a
whisky shop there, without a Mississippi license, and enriched himself
upon Arkansas protection (where no license was in those days
Arkansas is mentioned in several other of Twain’s writings, including:
setting for Tom Sawyer, Detective, like the conclusion of Huckleberry
Finn and Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, is the
Phelphes’ Arkansas farm. The farm is described as being near fictional
Pikesville, Ark., and a "little bit of a shabby village" in Huckleberry
Finn; while Tom Sawyer, Detective doesn’t mention
Pikesville by name.
unfinished sequel to Huckleberry Finn, this story begins where Huckleberry
Finn left off — in Arkansas on the farm of Aunt Sally Phelps.
Twain’s last American novel, Arkansas is mostly represented as
"down the river," a fearsome place where the slaveholders are
much more harsh than in Missouri. When the owner of slaves caught
stealing agrees not to sell them down the river, only "here,"
. . . "The culprits flung themselves prone, in an ecstasy of
gratitude, and kissed his feet, declaring that they would never forget
his goodness and never cease to pray for him as long as they lived. They
were sincere, for like God he had stretched forth his mighty hand and
closed the gates of hell against them. He knew, himself, that he had
done a noble and gracious thing, and he was privately well pleased with
his magnamanity; and that night he set the incident down in his diary,
so that his son might read it in after years and be thereby moved to
deeds of gentleness and humanity himself."
being sold down the river by her son "to an Arkansas cotton planter
for a trifle over six hundred dollars," Pudd’nhead Wilson character
Roxy escapes and returns to Missouri, and chastises her son:
"Sell a pusson down de river — down de river! — for de bes’! I wouldn’t treat a dog so! I is all broke down en wore out, now, en so I reckon ot ain’t in me to storm aroun’ no mo,’ like I used to when I ‘uz trompled on en ‘bused. I don’t know – but maybe it’s so. Leastways, I’s suffered so much dat mourin’ seem to come mo’ handy to me now den stormin.’"
Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s first book, Venice is compared
— unfavorably, it would seem — to an "overflowed Arkansas
the beginning of the story—Twain’s sixth novel—the deaths of Simon
Lathers and his twin brother occur in a fictional Arkansas town:
the novel that gave Franklin D. Roosevelt the phrase "new
deal," Hank Morgan compares the Camelot Weekly Examiner Hosanna
to "Arkansas journalism."
book features a character named Arkansas. A "stalwart
ruffian," Arkansas personifies the rough and rowdy post-territorial
reputation of his namestate.
Stranded by bad weather at an inn, the narrator witnesses Arkansas,
"a stalwart ruffian .
. . who carried two revolvers in his belt and a bowie-knife projecting
from his boot . . .
always drunk and always suffering for a fight," goads the
inn’s owner into a fist fight: "
. . . Arkansas began
to shoot and the landlord to clamber over benches, men, and every sort
of obstacle in a frantic desire to escape. In the midst of the wild
hubbub the landlord crashed through a glass door, and as Arkansas
charged after him the landlord’s wife suddenly appeared in the doorway
and confronted the desperado with a pair of scissors! Her fury was
magnificent. … While the wondering crowd closed up and gazed, she gave
him such another tongue-lashing as never a cowed and shame-faced raggart
got before, perhaps! As she finished and retired victorious, a roar of
applause shook the house and every man ordered ‘drinks for the crowd’
in one and the same breath."
lesson was entirely sufficient. The reign of terror was over, and the
Arkansas domination broken for good. During the rest of the season of
island captivity, there was one man who sat apart in a state of
permanent humiliation, never mixing in any quarrel or uttering a boast,
and never resenting the insults the once cringing crew now constantly
leveled at him, and that man was Arkansas."
Arkansas excerpt appears in some short story anthologies as "Mr.
Arkansas." Twain began to expand and dramatize Arkansas’s scene
from Roughing It for a play, but did not complete the project.
(Photo by M. Hendrix)