Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens's World

Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens's World

by Terrell Dempsey

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Searching for Jim is the untold story of Sam Clemens and the world of slavery that produced him. Despite Clemens’s remarks to the contrary in his autobiography, slavery was very much a part of his life. Dempsey has uncovered a wealth of newspaper accounts and archival material revealing that Clemens’s life, from the ages of twelve to seventeen, was intertwined with the lives of the slaves around him.
During Sam’s earliest years, his father, John Marshall Clemens, had significant interaction with slaves. Newly discovered court records show the senior Clemens in his role as justice of the peace in Hannibal enforcing the slave ordinances. With the death of his father, young Sam was apprenticed to learn the printing and newspaper trade. It was in the newspaper that slaves were bought and sold, masters sought runaways, and life insurance was sold on slaves. Stories the young apprentice typeset helped Clemens learn to write in black dialect, a skill he would use throughout his writing, most notably in Huckleberry Finn.
Missourians at that time feared abolitionists across the border in Illinois and Iowa. Slave owners suspected every traveling salesman, itinerant preacher, or immigrant of being an abolition agent sent to steal slaves. This was the world in which Sam Clemens grew up. Dempsey also discusses the stories of Hannibal’s slaves: their treatment, condition, and escapes. He uncovers new information about the Underground Railroad, particularly about the role free blacks played in northeast Missouri.
Carefully reconstructed from letters, newspaper articles, sermons, speeches, books, and court records, Searching for Jim offers a new perspective on Clemens’s writings, especially regarding his use of race in the portrayal of individual characters, their attitudes, and worldviews. This fascinating volume will be valuable to anyone trying to measure the extent to which Clemens transcended the slave culture he lived in during his formative years and the struggles he later faced in dealing with race and guilt. It will forever alter the way we view Sam Clemens, Hannibal, and Mark Twain.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826264398
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 03/27/2014
Series: Mark Twain and His Circle , #1
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 5 MB
Age Range: 18 - 10 Years

About the Author

Terrell Dempsey is an attorney and partner with the firm Dempsey, Dempsey, and Moellring, in Hannibal, Missouri.

The Mark Twain and His Circle Series, edited by Tom Quirk and John Bird

Read an Excerpt

Searching for Jim

Slavery in Sam Clemens's World

By Terrell Dempsey

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2003 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-6439-8


A Performance

Spring 1891—Hartford, Connecticut

Now, in your interview, you have certainly been most accurate; you have set down the sentences I uttered as I said them. But you have not a word of explanation; what my manner was at several points is not indicated. Therefore, no reader can possibly know where I was in earnest and where I was joking; or whether I was joking altogether or in earnest altogether.

Mark Twain to Edward W. Bok, circa 1888

Samuel Clemens waited for his appointment to arrive. He whiled the time away at his billiard table. His trademark cigar smoldered in his mouth as one had nearly every day since he took up smoking in earnest forty-four years earlier, at age twelve, in the offices of Hannibal's Missouri Courier. The visitor was an important one: Raymond Blathwait was coming to interview Mark Twain for the Pall Mall Gazette of London.

Clemens no doubt appreciated the importance of the moment. The Pall Mall Gazette was a major newspaper in a time when there was no radio and no television. Outside the lecture hall circuit, a forum Mark Twain had mastered years before, the only way to address the public was through newspapers or magazines. This interview was particularly important because American audiences would not be seeing Twain on stage for several years. Clemens and his family were going to live in Europe. The article would be reprinted in the New York World on May 31, 1891.

Blathwait would interview Mark Twain, not Sam Clemens. That name, Mark Twain, was more than a nom de plume. Mark Twain was a public persona, a master of native humor and slow-drawled hyperbole. There were expectations of Twain that Clemens did not have to bear. Twain could be wry and barbed. He could exaggerate. He would be witty, and the truth ... well, the precise truth wasn't as important as the entertainment.

When the reporter was ushered into the billiard room, Clemens shook his hand and inquired about a mutual friend. Then he seated his guest and gave him an excellent cigar. Clemens made Blathwait comfortable and puffed him with a compliment that raised the journalist to his own level, telling him, "A good interviewer has in him the making of a perfect novelist." Downplaying his own importance, Clemens told Blathwait that he must bear the lion's share of the interview.

Then the performance began. Asked to give his opinion on the comparative merits of American and British humor, Clemens ran his hand through his hair and slipped with ease into the Mark Twain persona. With his famous slow drawl he answered, "That is a question I am particularly and specially unqualified to answer. I might go out into the road there," he pointed out the window, "and with a brickbat I would knock down three or four men in an hour who would know more than I about humor and its merits and its varieties."

This was the Twain America loved: the self-deprecating wit; the absolute master of American humor claiming he knew nothing of humor. Blathwait lapped it up. Twain went on dramatically, explaining how he never read humor; in broad Twain overstatement he enumerated all the things he would read before turning to humor—biography, history, diaries, personal memoirs, and then the dictionaries and encyclopedias. "Then, if still alive, I should read what humorous books might be there. That is an absolutely perfect test and proof that I have no great taste for humor."

After Twain had continued on for a while longer exaggerating his ignorance on humor, Blathwait complimented him, "The gaiety of nations, Mr. Twain, will be eclipsed when your humor ceases." Twain literally bowed to his audience of one in the billiard room.

The interview continued through lunch. Twain paced the room blowing billows of smoke, tossing his hair, and punctuating his remarks by wagging a finger. He took a verbal swipe at Bret Harte. All the while Blathwait sat writing furiously, prodding the performance with the occasional question. After lunch Blathwait broached the subject. He told Twain that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was his favorite book and complimented the author on "the wonderful knowledge of dialect" displayed in the book.

Twain's response would help distort history for more than a century: It would protect Clemens's parents, mask the town of Hannibal, and obscure Clemens's own training as a writer. These may not have been Clemens's intentions. He was merely being Mark Twain, the entertainer.

I was born in one of those States and I lived a great deal of my boyhood on a plantation of my uncle's, where forty or fifty Negroes lived belonging to him, and who had been drawn from two or three States and so I gradually absorbed their different dialects which they had brought with them. It must be exceedingly difficult to acquire a dialect by study and observation. In the vast majority of cases it probably can be done as in my case, only by absorption. So a child might pick up the differences in dialect by means of that unconscious absorption when a practiced writer could not do it twenty years later by closest observation.

Twain took another swipe at Bret Harte and the New York World. Harte had tried to write a Pike County, Missouri, dialect, Twain drawled, but he had only been in Pike County in "budding manhood.... The World called him the Prince of dialecticians, but there is not a dialect sentence of his that will stand examination."

Having thus insulted his rival, Twain complimented his friend Joel Chandler Harris on his use of dialect in the Uncle Remus tales. In this interview he did not mention his own Uncle Dan'l, the Uncle Remus device to which he would refer in other interviews. He did not include that refinement to the story with Blathwait.

Twain capped the interview by showing Blathwait the check for $450,000, which he had paid to Ulysses S. Grant's estate when he had acted as publisher of Grant's Personal Memoirs. The amount was the most ever paid to the author of a book at that time. Twain had the check framed and hung on the wall.

As Twain was escorting Blathwait to the door, he paused in front of a splendid bust of Henry Ward Beecher, the famous abolitionist. Twain had paid the artist's way to study art in Europe. Twain said the sculptor had repaid him with the bust. He commented, "We are well rewarded by that bust, which is the best one ever done of the great American preacher." And so the performance ended with a salute to Grant, the savior of the Union, and Beecher, an abolitionist.

Blathwait wrote the interview, and for the next century scholars very properly cited it as proof that Mark Twain had learned about dialect on his Uncle John Quarles's "plantation" among his forty to fifty slaves. No fact checker at the Gazette or World bothered to discover that "the plantation" has actually been a 240-acre farm and that no one in Missouri had ever referred to it as a "plantation." John Quarles had owned six slaves in 1840 and eleven in 1850, many of them too old or too young to have been of much use on the farm. Sam Clemens had not mentioned a word about his daily interactions with the slaves that belonged to his own parents. He did not talk about his daily interactions with the slaves in Hannibal or mention that he had eaten his meals alongside slaves when he began his newspaper apprenticeship. He didn't discuss the racist stories (containing dialect) that were a staple of Hannibal newspapers that he had not only read, but also set into type between 1848 and sometime in 1853. While admiring the bust of Henry Ward Beecher, Clemens did not mention the direct actions that he and his family took against the abolitionists.

It's a fascinating story, and it begins in 1839.



It is curious—the space-annihilating power of thought. For just one second, all that goes to make the me in me was in a Missourian village.

Mark Twain, Following the Equator

The year 1839 was an important one for Hannibal, Missouri. The state legislature chartered the community as a town that spring, and in April, the town board of trustees began writing local ordinances. In the autumn, though no one could have suspected it at the time, a far more auspicious event occurred. John Marshall Clemens moved his family, including little redheaded Sam, to town. Sam was just a few weeks shy of his fourth birthday.

Hannibal was a muddy place. The streets were dirt, and the town was situated in a milewide valley between a picturesque bluff called Lover's Leap to the south and Holliday's Hill to the north. Mark Twain would make the latter famous as Cardiff Hill in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, playground for the imaginary Tom and Huck. Through the valley ran Bear Creek, a meager stream that emptied into the Mississippi River to the east. When low, Bear Creek was too shallow for even a johnboat or canoe. The valley would be a key to Hannibal's development. The valley led west to the unhindered prairie of northern Missouri. In time the first railroad to cross the state would make the gentle climb up Bear Creek Valley, span the prairie, and end at the Missouri River at St. Joseph. But the railroad was still two decades away, merely a dream in the minds of eastern speculators and local boosters.

Rivers were the highways of the western United States in 1839. The state of Missouri was only eighteen years old and had the good fortune to be river rich. The Mississippi formed the state's eastern boundary, and the Missouri River ran like a belt across the state's middle before turning northward at what is now Kansas City. After a minor adjustment to the original boundaries with the addition of the Platte Purchase, the Missouri River became the western boundary of northern Missouri. Being easy to reach, Missouri was a valuable piece of property.

Farmers and merchants floated flatboats and keelboats loaded with produce and other products down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Immigrants took steamboats down the Ohio River to the junction with the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, then took the Mississippi north or south. Some traveled to St. Louis then followed the Missouri River to the prime lands in the western part of the state. Others continued north to northeast Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Towns and settlements naturally occurred at river junctions and bends in the river or where natural valleys allowed easy access to inland areas. Steamboats needed wood for their boilers, and passengers needed food and supplies.

Early speculators realized Hannibal was a natural site for a town. A group of investors purchased land and carved it into lots to be sold to buyers back East sight unseen. Even before a railroad was constructed, farmers working the rich soils to the west in the Salt River and Grand River Valleys could bring their products to market in Hannibal. Manufactured products from the East could be transported on the same Ohio River-Mississippi River path as the immigrants. Goods could also be "coasted" down the Atlantic shore and around Florida from New England or sailed from Europe to New Orleans and carried as cargo on the decks of the large steamboats that plied the Mississippi.

Settlers clustered along the rivers not only for ease of transportation but also because of farming practices. Most of northern Missouri had been planed flat during the last ice age. It was a fertile prairie, but in the 1830s immigrants did not yet possess the plow that would enable them to bust it. Early guidebooks, such as L. R. Bek's Gazetteer of Missouri (1823), emphasized the importance of farming in cleared forests in Missouri; prairie soil was considered less fertile than forest soil. In northeast Missouri, woodlands were found along the rivers.

Hannibal was little more than a village of one thousand souls in the fall of 1839, but it was growing. Coal smoke from the shops of three blacksmiths curled up into the cool air over the valley. There was plenty of work fitting horseshoes, repairing plows, and forging the wagon jacks, tools, nails, and hinges for the little community. Three sawmills, at least one of which was steam powered, sawed logs into uniform lumber for sturdy permanent houses to replace the early log houses. The wood of log structures contracted, allowing wind through, and rotted quickly if not enclosed in clapboard. Stone was quarried for foundations, and brick was fired from clay deposits.

The November day the Clemenses arrived, the sweet smoke of oak and hickory fires from residents' hearths hung in the air. And carried on the wind was the pungent scent of hogs. Then, as today, pork was the principal meat produced in the area. Farmers allowed their pigs to run loose about the town and roam the oak forests, churning the already muddy streets and fattening themselves on acorns and other edibles rooted up among the trees. When the hogs were large enough, farmers would finish them on corn before slaughtering them. The pork industry had moved beyond subsistence slaughtering. There were two pork-packing plants in Hannibal. The squeals of hogs punctuated the air as animals were slaughtered, processed, and packed in wooden barrels.

Adding to the odor was a tanyard where pigskins and cowhides were turned into leather for harnesses, saddles, and yokes. A factory produced rope from the hemp plants cultivated by local farmers. Another factory transformed the local tobacco crop into cigars and chewing tobacco. Along the riverfront were four general stores, two log hotels, and three saloons where men would meet to drink and talk. There were two churches and two schools, one public and the other private. But the public school would close in a few years for lack of interest.

Hannibal could be a very attractive place. The hills to the north and south along the river were of little use to farmers and were left in their natural state. They were wooded then, as today, with oak and hickory. Black walnut trees were also abundant. Giant cottonwoods grew in the moist soil of the bottoms. Wildlife was plentiful, and game was common on the dinner table.

Because Bear Creek Valley runs west to east, it produces one very beautiful phenomenon. At sunset on rainy or misty days, rays of light form a rainbow that appears to start at the base of Lover's Leap to the south and disappear into the Illinois bottoms across the river. On such a day how peaceful Hannibal looks, how full of promise. How deceptive.

Over the next twenty-five years, trouble would torment this little town. Because of a bizarre combination of geography and politics, this world, the world of Sam Clemens's youth, would know little peace. The problem was slavery.

Just twelve miles to the north of Hannibal, and across the river, was the town of Quincy, Illinois. Illinois had been a state since 1818. It had been formed from the old Northwest Territory, which included Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had forever forbidden slavery in the Territory or in the states to be formed from it. Illinois had experienced slavery under the French and British, but the institution was dying out, though it continued on, thinly disguised, until nearly 1840 under the guise of "indentured servitude." By 1839, hardworking artisans and farmers who did not practice slavery had been settled on the prairies of Illinois for thirty years. Slavery was frowned upon; free people worked for wages. Settlers came from all parts of the United States and Europe to live in Illinois.


Excerpted from Searching for Jim by Terrell Dempsey. Copyright © 2003 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Preface 00 Acknowledgments 00 1. A Performance: Spring 1891--Hartford Connecticut 00 2. 1839 00 3. Slavery and the Clemens Family 00 4. The Honey Tree War 00 5. The Abolition Movement across the River 00 6. The Contest Begins 00 7. The Trial of Thompson, Work, and Burr 00 8. Judge John Marshall Clemens 00 9. Slavery and the Churches of Hannibal 00 10. The Theology of Slavery 00 11. The Face of Domestic Slavery in Hannibal 00 12. The Siege Begins 00 13. The Emancipation and Colonization Movement 00 14. 1849 and 1850: Terror in Marion County 00 15. Sam Clemens and the Press in Slave Culture 00 16. Runaway Slaves and Slave Resistance 00 17. Battling Abolitionists in the Press: The Enemy Without 00 18. Dehumanizing the Slave in the Press 00 19. The Slave Trade in Hannibal 00 20. Leaving Hannibal and Taking a Swipe at the Abolitionists 00 21. The Great Change: The Railroad 00 22. Steamboating Days 00 23. Sam Clemens Comes Back to Fight 00 Postscript 00 Appendix 00 Bibliography 00 Index 00

Library of Congress Subject Headings for this publication: Twain, Mark, 1835-1910 Political and social views, Twain, Mark, 1835-1910 Homes and haunts Missouri Hannibal, Literature and society United States History 19th century, Antislavery movements United States History 19th century, Slavery Missouri Hannibal History 19th century, Slavery United States History 19th century, Authors, American 19th century Biography, Twain, Mark, 1835-1910 Family, Hannibal (Mo, ) Social conditions, Slavery in literature, Racism in literature

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