Acting Like a Man
Mark Twain's work, Warner Berthoff wrote in The Ferment of Realism (1965), emerged from "a special sort of performing tradition: essentially a popular tradition, journalistic and theatrical," which developed "in newspapers and sporting magazines and on the popular stage." This tradition, in Berthoff's account, shaped Twain's work into an "art of the performer," a writing of exhibitionism, impersonation, manipulation, and flourish, redeemed only by moments of "visionary truth and beauty." Although its cultural meanings have altered, this critical convention of dispraising Mark Twain's "theatricality," usually by contrasting it to some version of "realism," trails back to the nineteenth century; as I have suggested, there is reason now to stop using this opposition as a simple means of evaluation, and instead to place it historically—to show what performance and realistic representation meant in the popular tradition Twain's work emerged from, and to join the terms and practices of performance in the theatrical tradition Berthoff identifies to Twain's writing in a way that will show what was happening culturally and socially in these acts of entertainment.
Mark Twain's early writing emerged out of bachelor subcultures of artisans and bohemians and was closely related to male entertainments in music halls, burlesque houses, and minstrel shows, and to male performances on the street—in holiday festivals, parades, and general hooliganism. My concern in this chapter will be partly to trace the importance to his art not only of the male camaraderie he knew in the eastern artisan subcultures and the western river and mining areas, but also of the conventions in these subcultures of competitive and theatrical male performance. Appraising the impact on his writing of this performative tradition involves attention to Twain's fascination with people on the margins, including actors, popular musicians, music-hall dancers, and exemplars of the working-class performative masculinity that the official culture of his
upbringing tried to suppress. My argument will be that in mimicking performance practices from minstrel shows, melodeons, theatrical burlesques, amateur tavern performances, and street theater, Twain's writerly "acts" also mimicked the effects of these performances by trying to reassert social distinctions between white men (mainly workers or disaffected bourgeois) and other people, including the genteel middle classes, women, and racial minorities. These performances of identity became especially complex to the degree that they aimed to occupy margins and marginalize others—claiming one margin among many while trying nonetheless to sustain white male prerogatives, dismantling mainstream cultural orders yet insisting on their own hierarchies.
As a middle-class bohemian, Twain also embedded in his mimicries a self-conscious sense of transgression that yet clung to mainstream values, thus making his performances serve, on another level, as a negotiation of ambivalences about, and within, his parent culture. As these introductory remarks suggest, rather than trying to save Twain's bohemianism and burlesquing for high culture, I aim to situate them in the conflicts between categories of class and culture and connect them to the "low" entertainments they drew on. And rather than characterizing Twain's embrace of the "vernacular"—often a rather uncontextualized category romantically referring to a language rooted in the common folk—as a product of the familiar biographical self-division between the roughneck Mark Twain (supposedly drawn to the vulgar and the marginal) and the genteel Mr. Clemens, I will consider it as a testing of various middle-class self-definitions by a bohemian busily crossing conventional boundaries into marginalized territories of the working classes, racial cultures, and lumpen communities.
Mark Twain's writerly performances took place within tensions between classes, cultures, genders, masculinities, and races. They were acts in the definition of these categories and embodiments of tensions and relations among them. Most especially, however, they were rehearsals of white masculine identities, and dramatizations and negotiations of the uncertainties that fractured these identities in the later decades of the nineteenth century. The subcultures of bachelors and bohemians in which Twain developed his craft forged experimental cultural spaces where masculinity was in flux. Twain's writings for these subcultures—his performances in print,
his comments about and reviews of theater, and his theatrical burlesques—juxtapose masculinities divided by race and class. They shape white manhood in relation to African Americans, Chinese, and women, as we shall see in Twain's relationship to performances of race and in his role as a spectator before female performance (a role that becomes a performance itself), and they register upheavals in bourgeois stability.
Contesting Masculinities and Performance
A concern about the ways in which "masculinity" and "performance" define each other—in larger cultural terms and in instances of Mark Twain's writing—may seem an obvious enough choice, since in our cultural lexicon masculinity still evokes notions of performance. In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the performative masculinity that came to fascinate Mark Twain—the performance of pugnacious self-display and boasting, or the successful performance of a trick or joke—had an uneasy place in a middle-class culture that had seemed much more ready to sanction quieter and soberer masculine virtues of self-control and self-improvement, diligence, thrift, and sincerity, and that seemed to find its securest identity in the supposed source of these virtues, the domestic interiors it walled off from the streets. The values important for consolidating the self-awareness of the mid-nineteenth-century middle class, that is, may have prized masculine performance in the senses of providing and accumulating, but official ideas of self and respectability stressed control, integrity, containment, and privacy, recoiling from the theatricality of male braggadocio. Yet Mark Twain took masculinities associated with territories outside the middle-class ideological enclosure—the cultures of working-class urban youths, river-boatmen, and miners—and reenacted them as a route to success, notoriety, and fame.
The question, then, partly concerns the attraction and cultural meaning of this other masculinity, one of public display and swagger. And for one explanation, we must look to the historical generalization that masculinity was in "crisis" in the later nineteenth century. Middle-class manhood suffered during this period, according to a number of historians, because a bureaucratized workplace pre-
cluded classic individualism and heroic effort; patriarchal authority at home diminished, usurped by motherly power, critiqued by domestic ideology, and ignored by mobile children; and women's influence in public increased, with female workers and reformers raising male worries about a "feminization" of culture. In this context, a "new virility" looked attractive. Add to this another familiar explanation, that the allure of new masculinities arose for middle-class males in accord with an emerging culture of consumption and imperialism, a culture that no longer meshed with the conservative and producerly "character" of older Victorian manliness. Helpful as these generalizations are, when lifted out of the particulars of the historical studies that generate them they threaten to discount, for example, the investment bourgeois males had in the domestic, or their recoil from pugnacious manliness. Elaine Showalter's attunement, in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle , to the forces of both disorder and reordering that circulated around this general "crisis in gender" is instructive. Beginning to grasp Mark Twain's performances will require heightened sensitivity to middle-class ambivalences about home and market, the genteel and the vulgar, production and consumption, masculinities and femininities.
Understanding Twain's performances will require, too, sensitivity to the flexible meanings these ordering oppositions made, for they refused to hold still, changing a contest into an alignment, and then changing it back again—with the effect of making Mark Twain's poses into complicated dances within Victorian ideology of challenge and affirmation. Twain's ostentatiously lowbrow performances could seemingly affront bourgeois notions of proper character, for example, at the same time that they helpfully expanded them. His embracing of music-hall burlesque could attack the subjectivity associated with middle-class femininity seemingly from a working-class perspective, but it could also serve to celebrate traditional, middle-class male prerogatives. Brandishing a local culture of down-and-outers in the face of an emerging mass culture could show an affinity with a male bohemian elitism devoted to resecuring belles lettres for itself—and to repudiating a "feminized" literary culture. And racial and ethnic caricatures could serve to exclude social subordinates and affirm dominant stereotypes, but they also could be the vehicles for attacks on Twain's parent culture. Ambivalent stances toward a changing dominant culture, toward a changing
femininity, and toward racial and social subordinates all combined and recombined in disorderly ways.
To grasp the ambivalences and contradictions that surface in Mark Twain's written acts—and in his writing about performances and theater—it will help to outline the culture of male performance, the theatrical subculture, and the relatively new social conditions the eighteen-year-old Samuel Clemens encountered when he first left home in 1853. His move from rural Hannibal to the cities—St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.—followed a typical pattern; like so many others, Clemens left home after apprenticeship in a trade and got work in the city as a "jour printer," a semiskilled journeyman. As historians note, however, the position of journeyman in the cities was becoming one of a wage laborer, an employee of an entrepreneur, with little hope of rising within the craft system. Shop masters tended no longer to take on the role of caretaker or mentor, and apprentices and journeymen no longer lived and dined with the master. Clemens worked with as many as two hundred other employees in a single shop, made enough money only to scrape by, lived in boardinghouses and hotels, and spent time with peers rather than family. He was part of a new, marginal population, quite transient: dupring 1853 and 1854 Clemens spent no more than a few months in any one place. He joined the ranks of a mass of youths just liberated from the moral supervision traditionally exercised over their conduct in the home, family, and village. As a group, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg argues, they came to symbolize widespread worries over urbanization and the decaying village order and craft system.
Members of a bachelor subculture, Clemens and his friends replaced the controlling hands of parents, guardians, and masters with peer relationships. Outside the workplace, they attended the taverns, theaters, music halls, gambling saloons, and billiard parlors of the city. Although Clemens dutifully sent word home that he spent evenings reading in mechanics' libraries and had not touched a drop of liquor (he had pledged his mother that he would not drink or gamble, and may have kept the promise), we know that he also pursued less respectable amusements far from the quietness and privacy of a reading nook. In New York, for example, he apparently went to a "model artist" show, in which women in flesh-colored tights and draped with transparent gauze posed in attitudes of Greek sculpture. He wrote from Philadelphia that he took part in "what is called
a free-and-easy at the saloons on Saturday nights," at which "a chairman is appointed, who calls any of the assembled company for a song or recitation, and as there are plenty of singers and spouters, one may laugh himself to fits at very small expense." The contrast between quiet reading, the activity most fully invested with bourgeois values of privacy and self-improvement, and raucous "spouting" in a tavern, which negated such sanctified privacy and interiority, crystallizes in its most simple terms the specter posed by Clemens and his peers.
Both the model artist show and free-and-easies were relatively new entertainments, initiated for this emerging audience of single men—and for husbands fleeing family morality. Attended in groups, both existed as public rites of masculinity. The free-and-easy, which had begun to appear in Philadelphia only in the late 1840s, especially exemplifies the performative masculinity of the bachelor subculture. It took place in a tavern, established by mid-century as the social center for workers and the single men of boardinghouses, and as individuals performed—getting cheers or hoots for their skill—the entertainment enacted the camaraderie that built group identity while working also as an occasion for competition, self-display, and the rituals of affirmation and humiliation that determined status. The dynamics of such self-consciously public performances, enacted for and within groups of men, powerfully shaped the performative dimension of Clemens's earlier writings.
These performances, then, had somewhat different emphases at different cultural levels, locally embodying a dynamic of male ritual, of group and status, but in the more general territory of dominant cultural meanings serving to symbolize an emergent threat. For much of the northern, urban middle class around mid-century, these young men and their entertainments became an obsession, representing a variety of fears and fantasies of unleashed masculinity. The situation of Clemens and his companions was grasped by the prevailing culture, and usually disparaged, in terms of the pervasive, ordering oppositions between public and private, street and home, theater and hearth. Henry Ward Beecher, in his Lectures to Young Men (1844), asserted a guardianship in the home and shop over "our sons, our brothers, our wards, clerks, or apprentices" that was endangered by a "whole race of men whose camp is the theater, the circus, the turf, or the gaming-table." William K. Northall, writing in 1851
about the theaters of New York, observed that "our boarding-house system of living" underwrites the health of New York playhouses; because there is "no domestic purpose" and "very little to make the fireside attractive," "the boarders are entirely thrown upon their own resources for amusement." Instead of "fireside enjoyments," "public places of entertainment offer the readiest means to these poor undomesticated animals." In this specific mid-nineteenth-century version of anti-theatricality, theater itself came to epitomize a changing public world of working-class male anarchy whose excitements, one writer feared, would create a distaste for "the quiet and pure enjoyments of the home." Both alarmist and reformist, this arrangement of the cultural topography so starkly contrasts the order, comfort, and sense of classless togetherness promised by the hearth to the image of unsupervised bachelor life outside the parlor doors, that the emotionally barren boardinghouses, the streets, and the theaters become places fearfully alien to the idealized interior.
Young men at leisure surely provoked more worries than did young wage-earners in manufactories and shops. And in the years following the 1849 Astor Place riot, in which the working-class, nationalist supporters of the actor Edwin Forrest mobbed the performance of the Englishman Charles Macready at the highbrow Astor Place Opera House, this entertainment subculture of bachelors especially evoked fear in the middle classes. Significantly, Clemens in 1853 (and for a couple of decades thereafter) was an intense admirer of Edwin Forrest; after seeing the actor play the title role in The Gladiator in October in New York, he (perhaps not coincidentally) traveled to Philadelphia, where Forrest was performing, and then to Washington, D.C., where he saw Forrest in Othello . Like the other "boys in the pit," the artisans and laborers who occupied the cheap seats and set the tone for Forrest's appearances at the Bowery Theater, Clemens reveled in Forrest's unleashing of violent, "manly" emotions; he commented on the actor's seemingly uncontrolled absorption in "the fierce pleasure of gratified revenge." Since one middleclass strategy of distinguishing itself from social and economic inferiors was to stress decorum, self-control, propriety, hearthbound pastimes, and privatized leisure, it is telling that Clemens chose to idolize Forrest, whose romantic style and most famous roles—Spartacus battling his Roman oppressors, or Metamora defying the English conquerors—symbolized uncontrolled rage and worked to
crystallize working-class resentment and male hooliganism. Clemens indeed seems to have felt an affiliation with the "Bowery boy" subculture of apprentices and journeymen. A youth culture of styles and tastes—a preference for Forrest, outfits of red flannel shirts, stovepipe hats, and high boots, a leisure milieu of theaters and taverns and fire companies, and an identification with the stage characters of Sikesey and Mose—its "rowdies" positioned themselves against bourgeois propriety.
In Victorian symbolic topography, Forrest's manly bellowing on stage existed on the same continuum with the Bowery boys' hooting in the pit or rioting in the streets, in somewhat the same way that audience shouting and performers' spouting at free-and-easies had a kinship. They existed in relationship all the more strongly because of their contrast to the image of proper middle-class pastimes: particularly the quiet pursuit of reading at home, but more generally a passivity and receptiveness in consuming entertainment that stressed privacy, the spectacle of feeling, the transport of the imagination. As the middle class began to sanction the theater after mid-century and transported its model of consumption—darkening the theaters, demanding audience silence and decorum, turning the collective ritual into a private experience—the conflict between styles of being entertained became sharp.
Samuel Clemens's 1856 sketch about Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass's trip to the theater embodies the tension. Usually dismissed as a simple and derivative story of a rube who cannot meet the imaginative demands of the theater (like, say, Jonathan in Royall Tyler's The Contrast ), the piece actually resonates with the specific mid-century frame that contrasted the more passive spectatorship of the middle classes to the competitiveness and aggression of certain strains of working-class masculine performance. Failing to grasp Julius Caesar and Don Cesar de Bazan as fictions or representations, Snodgrass sees them as present-time events and through the similes of his male subculture. The murder of Caesar looks to him like an actual streetfight. And in a telling moment, Snodgrass tries to compete with the orchestra by rendering "Auld Lang Syne" on his comb in an effort to "bring the house down, too." For him, spectatorship is not divided from performance, and consumption is not divided from production, because the space of illusion is not divided from the present, and he does not have a privatized, passive subjectivity marked off from the publicly recognized self. His displacing the appropriate and private
sensitivity to pathos with his ritual of competitive "showing off" corresponds, as we shall see, to the typical tactics of burlesque, which make consumption as aggressive an activity as performance. In this, the Snodgrass sketch reverberates not only with the tensions between low entertainments and the psychological spectacle of bourgeois theater, but also more generally with conflicting notions of the self that symbolized a social division—the raucous public self of male camaraderie, and the private, quiescent self of the genteel.
If the territory of public entertainment became a location for both symbolic and literal conflicts, these contests nonetheless cannot generally be grasped simply as reflections of class tensions, and such a simplification of course fails to account for Mark Twain's specific enactments of them. Although in middle-class paranoia ruffian masculinity was largely a signifier of class, there were of course among workingmen cultures of temperance and industry as strong as the "traditionalist" subculture that embraced drinking, gambling, brawling, and whoring. And if the latter, extroverted masculinity did indeed have an actual tradition, mainly a preindustrial, rural one to which punctuality and niceties were alien, it rapidly became mythicized for bourgeois delectation. The Davy Crockett almanacs of the 1830s to 1850s, as Smith-Rosenberg has shown, made this tradition into an urban, bourgeois fantasy about a wild and violent backwoodsman who symbolized everything reform-minded people feared (and were fascinated by): ungoverned adolescence, uncontrolled sexuality, dirt, disorder, intemperance, illiteracy, poverty, insubordination, drunkenness, profanity, and so on. Images of urban workingmen and frontier louts had a kinship based on the middle class's widely disseminated projections of otherness—projections of the preindustrial and the lower class, of vulgar and ungoverned masculinity.
To some extent Mark Twain certainly exploited both the experience and the romanticization of this masculinity, sending a reporter's dispatches from worrisome cultural territory and playing to that worry, a divided stance that his social position would seem to require. Although he joined the wage-earning subculture when he left home and seemed to revel in working-class entertainments, his sturdily middle-class background and the status he was able to hold onto, despite his downward mobility, as an artisan rather than a laborer undoubtedly imbued his perspective on the lower reaches of culture with profound ambivalences. And when he moved to the decidedly male riverboat world, then to the mining communities of
Nevada and California, his immersion in the rough masculinity of these subcultures was tinctured nonetheless with bourgeois values; the dramatized tensions between the "innocence" of the tenderfoot in Roughing It or the cub in Life on the Mississippi and the "experience" of the groups they are initiated into engage conflicts between these marginal male cultures and the dominant middle-class culture. Mark Twain's popularity lay partly in his ability to poise his writing in the divide between the middle class and its others.
His roughneck persona and self-conscious bohemianism in Nevada and California during the 1860s—poses so sharply fraught with contradictions—self-consciously engaged the tensions between accepted middle-class values and the lure of male and workingclass subcultures and entertainments. Whether or not we agree that nineteenth-century bohemias functioned mainly to serve their middleclass parent cultures by exploring specifically bourgeois contradictions and dilemmas, as Jerrold Seigel has argued, Mark Twain, as a public poser, dandy, and ne'er-do-well, pursued the netherworlds of male leisure with a combination of pleasure and recoil which, even if both were poses, spoke to a dualistic response of bourgeois fascination and revulsion. His writings of the 1860s are riddled with multiple and jostling voices accented by contentions between classes, masculinities, and genders.
For example, his report in 1863, for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise , of a visit to San Francisco's Bella Union Melodeon—the best-known music hall for disreputable variety shows and minstrelsy—presents his persona of Mark Twain as ingenuously interested only in going to "a chaste and high-toned establishment." His companion, the Unreliable (modeled on Clement T. Rice, of the Virginia City Union ), assures him that the show is properly "moral," but the spectacle of "half a dozen lovely and blooming damsels, with the largest ankles you ever saw"—with dresses, indeed, that "looked like so many parasols"—lashes quickly with the guarantee. Mark Twain's additional remark, that forty-two single men and twenty-six married ones were in town from Nevada, and that all were at the music hall except two ("both unmarried"—a homoerotic/homophobic joke?), spells out the nature of the audience (men out on the town) and the appeal of the show (the spectacle of women's bodies). The performance in print mimics the male ritual of collective watching, and the collective rites of male readers and spectators together overshadow the actual sight of the performing female body. From the
point of view of this subcultural male rite, the propriety of Twain's persona might signify an excluded bourgeois respectability, except that the persona is not sufficiently denied to preclude strains of identiffcation with its sense of scandal.
The account, more elaborate but similarly structured, of his visit in 1867 to Harry Hill's saloon in New York—again, a notorious institution—also combines a foray into the demimonde of illegitimate male pleasure with a caricature of proper decorum. This time the "innocent" Mark Twain follows his companions into "a little sawdusted den of a tenth-rate rum hole" under the assumption that it is a men's club for "savants " and philosophers, a "retired spot" suitable for a "reflective mood." From the assorted toughs he picks out men who "must be" Louis Agassiz, John Ericsson, and Samuel F. B. Morse, and he expresses some surprise when these men "take each a lady" and variously dance with them, kiss them, seat them on their laps, or buy them drinks. He is further surprised by a floor show of music, minstrelsy, mimics, and a male dancer in a kilt whose highland flings serve to expose himself to the house, especially to a row of "young ladies" gathered by the footlights. After Mark Twain buys drinks for a friendly woman, then righteously refuses her request to see her home, he leaves, declaring to his friends his amazement about this philosophers' club; whereupon they inform him that the place is one of "the worst dens in all New York," and "the young girls were streetwalkers, and the most abandoned in the city." His response to this news condenses the contradictory attitudes that shape the episode; Twain declares that "my indignation knew no bounds, and I said we would go and hunt up another one." This eager pursuit of wild, illegitimate leisure and pleasure is bound to a caricature of middleclass quietness, reflective contemplation, and decorum that, despite the caricature, outlines Twain's point of view and invokes a guilty sense of transgression. And the commitment of this experience of consumption and spectatorship to print, especially because it emphasizes these contradictory attitudes as poses, outlines the cruising at Harry Hill's and the reportage in his newspaper (the Alta California ) as performances themselves in male ritual.
Such pieces plainly resonated at different pitches in different configurations of reception. Within a broad middle-class ideological dynamic, Twain's forays into cheap dives and music halls in pursuit of marginalized cultures and masculine styles held allure, plausibly enough, for a culture beginning to place consumerist hedonism over
frugality and searching for a vitality and virility seemingly lost to breadwinners stuck as clerks and oppressed by wage-earning, rationalized labor. The echo of Twain's contrast between sissies and roughnecks in the desires and anxieties of the larger middle-class culture, however, would have had an emphasis different from that in the mainly male societies of urban leisure, the river, and the mining town, where they served more explicitly as acts in a homosocial dynamic, as exchanges between men—located on a continuum with the types of public performance that Twain sometimes wrote about: parades, fire company displays, political meetings and orations, sporting contests, informal street theater, impromptu acts and storytelling in taverns, and music-hall and minstrel performances.
At this local level, the varieties of male public performance were interwoven. As John Dizikes has observed in Sportsmen and Gamesmen , by the 1860s there was a well-established "sporting theatrical world" in America that brought together performers and fans of the turf, the prizefight ring, and the stage. Twain's newspaperman's culture was inextricable from this context. Virginia City, Nevada, had four theaters (along with at least six music halls or taverns that provided entertainment); it also became a center for pugilism and other sports. Twain and his cohort from the Virginia City Enterprise had free passes to the theaters, went to the music halls to hear monologuists and minstrels, attended the prizefights, and wrote about these performances; thanks to the sexual diary of his friend Alf Doten of the Virginia City Union , we can guess that Twain may have accompanied his companions also to dance halls, brothels, and prostitutes' balls. Mark Twain also belonged to a drinking club that entertained visiting actors, and at which both writers and actors engaged in informal performances of poetry, tales, and jokes. The circumstances of male performance and the rites of masculinity, in other words, shaped the conditions of entertainment. While there were moments when writing or onstage performance were separated from and mimed acts in the social dynamic, there also were moments when representations and social acts collapsed into a continuum. Mark Twain's writings were entertainments themselves, often about entertainments, but also themselves among the symbolic acts that reproduced and defined their culture.
As prizefighters in this culture used newspapers to convey "cards"—challenges and boasts—to each other, Twain and other
newspapermen used newspapers to feud, often teetering on the line between kidding or mimicry of a fight and serious fighting. (One of these feuds prompted his flight from Virginia City to San Francisco.) As monologuists and minstrels pattered and joked on stage, so Clemens did in print, following quite closely the conventions of popular performance. This writing was explicitly, and often selfconsciously, preoccupied with public self-display, competition, braggadocio, and status—features of a masculinity that respectable society had chosen to suppress or ignore, and performances that helped constitute the milieux they arose from.
Acts in the definition of a male group, performances in this subculture tended to oppose themselves not only to the propriety of the dominant bourgeois manhood, but also to femininity and sentimentality, to the middle-class subjectivity associated with the feminine, and to a developing mass culture—also associated with the feminine. This pattern of symbolic exclusion is telling, partly because of the affinities it sets up. The writings by Mark Twain that emerge from this context are attuned to the connection between conceptions of middle-class masculine "character" and, to use Mary Ryan's characterization, the "cradle" of domestic femininity that nurtured them. Twain and his comrades, ostensibly at least, pitted themselves against a perceived alliance in Victorian individualism between industrious masculinity and domestically based identity. Twain's burlesques of sentimentality look more complicated than the dismissive characterizations of his "antiromanticism" suggest when we grasp them as attacks on a particular subjectivity associated with both femininity and the northern middle class. If, as several historians—particularly Nancy Armstrong—have argued, consolidation of middleclass dominance involved the construction and exaltation of a domestic femininity of psychological depth, emotional resonance, and moral value that struggled to replace or suppress status and class as measures of personal worth, then in midcentury America there emerged counterstrains. What appears to occur in many of Mark Twain's early writings is a clash between masculine systems of status and the sincerity and emotional expression of supposedly classless bourgeois domesticity. Invoking a working-class masculinity of aggression, mockery, posing, and braggadocio, Twain assaults affiliations among self-improvement, equilibrium and strength of character, tenderness, emotional expressiveness, and sincerity.
Opera's emotional spectacle served most especially as a signifier of the psychological interior and of the transparency of expression (though not of the equilibrium of character), and Twain's 1866 burlesque of Il Trovatore , therefore, exemplifies the contrast between a subjectivity of depth and the dynamics of masculine status competition. Written as a kind of summary of the opera, and characterized throughout by a profound misreading through uncultivated and masculinist eyes, the piece simply obliterates the existence of the emotional interior and its expression. When Count di Luna first appeared on stage, Twain reports, he began "to yell," until Manrico, offstage ("in the kitchen"), "crowded him down." In the passionate and well-known trio during the first act, sung by the count, Manrico, and Leonora, the two lovers finally "beat" the count "at his own tune"; in an equally well-known scene, when Azucena sings of her mother's death and her gypsy chorus departs, their voices dying prettily away in the distance, Twain again characterizes the singing as a contest, with gypsies who "blasted away and tried to beat her" but "made a fizzle of it and knew enough to curl their tails and leave." Misreading the signs of emotional expression as competitive performance, Mark Twain's persona violates the vulnerability of love and grief and erases the subjective interior. In so doing, the regime of masculine status displaces that of feminine feeling.
Opera, for Mark Twain, epitomized not only a territory of emotional expression but also the power of publicity over what he considered a middle-class mass mind; to him it was ludicrous for Americans to sit in awe before a spectacle in an incomprehensible language, and this was possible only through a weak-minded surrender. Likewise, his sense of an emerging mass culture—the best term, given his frequent condescension toward sentimentalism, sensationalism, and melodrama—was interwoven with notions of femininity, emotional surrender, and "inauthenticity." On the one hand, in his reviews of popular theater Twain consistently attacks such plays as East Lynne , the "sickest of all sentimental dramas"; he scorns those San Franciscans who watch it and "whine and snuffle and slobber all over themselves." He mocks Tom Taylor's temperance drama, The Bottle; or, The Drunkard's Doom , as "rather overwrought in the misery line" and in general rejects what he called "sensational, snuffling dramatic bosh, and tragedy bosh," Consistently paired, then denounced, is behavior associated with the domestic interior
(the expression and transparency of a limited range of emotions—the tender, quiet emotions appropriate to the home) and a submissive passivity. Ann Douglas, in The Feminization of American Culture , rightly identifies (though, as some critics have insisted, she may too readily accept and adopt) this nineteenth-century equation of the sentimentalism of the private sphere with a new, emotionally manipulating mass culture. Mark Twain surely perceives this alignment—to the detriment of both femininity and mass culture. And the concomitant contest Douglas sees between mass cultural sentimentalism and an "authentic" and tough-minded masculine opposition also clearly surfaces in Twain's writings.
For example, what Twain contrasted to "sentimental bosh," with its connotations of inauthenticity and femininely passive consumption, was the banjo music of the minstrels Tommy Bree and Charley Rhoades and the black (not just blackfaced) minstrel Sam Pride, which he called "genuine music —music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth's Pills, ramify your whole constitution like measles, and break out on your hide like the pinfeathered pimples on a picked goose." To be sure, there is passivity and victimization here as well, really an impregnation that echoes the contiguity of the homosocial and homosexual, and that more specifically invokes the white desire in minstrelsy to turn the threateningly wild black body into pleasure; but it is combined with a sense of overt and "manly" assault that is to be distinguished from emotional seduction and surrender and that may partly vitiate its eroticism. The similes here, of swindling, whisky, and disease, are violent rather than languid, bodily rather than emotional, and come pointedly from the low-masculine territories of the marketplace, the tavern, and the grotesque material body—far from an etherealized feminine sphere. The man-to-man assault, as Twain describes it, has a "genuineness" that the emotionally manipulative lacks. The direct physical effect escapes the dynamic of depth on which an uncovering of the emotional interior relied. The embrace of "black music," played in a music hall for a predominantly male audience, further separates Twain's tastes from the genteel and effeminate. (I will turn to the meanings of race and performance in relation to these distinctions of gender in a moment.)
Mark Twain upholds—against the ostensibly mass cultural and feminizing features of midcentury national culture—the qualities of
the local and the masculine, the aggressive and performative ethos of the mining camp. This is perhaps best exemplified in his most famous pieces from this period, the two hoaxes entitled "Petrified Man" and "A Bloody Massacre near Carson." Twain claimed that each of these was a burlesque—the first, of news articles in the popular press about supposed cases of petrifaction, which Twain called a "wonder-business," the second, of sensation items in general, murder stories in particular. In other words, they were mockeries, as he saw them, of mass-media-induced readerly wonder and gullibility. The description of the petrified man—the details of which, when carefully read, revealed the subject frozen in the act of thumbing his nose—and certain details of the massacre piece supposedly disclosed them as derision and sport. But each of them, the "Massacre" in particular, relied on local reference to mark them as burlesques. They were jokes for insiders, and means for victimizing outsiders, vehicles for contrasting serious truth and jokes and for making the ethos of male joshing prevail over news. The pieces set up an opposition (a mocking one) between the male subcultures and the mass press, between the knowledgeable locals and the gullible masses, and between manly raillery and passive consumption. Twain later criticized the "hurried" and "heedless" readers who mistook the pieces for the truth because, he said, they went for the "marvellously exciting" and "blood-curdling particulars," ignoring the elements of burlesque, travesty, and satire. The scorn for this imagined audience of witless readers relies on a conception of mass culture as eliciting wonder and horror from the pliant and careless; it relies on a conception of a feminized and victimized mass audience.
The "Bloody Massacre near Carson," moreover, seems figuratively to match what Twain thought the burlesque-hoax did to the unguarded portion of its audience. Pete Hopkins, whom local readers would know as a saloon keeper and a bachelor, kills and scalps his wife and then his children. The echo of the masculinely aggressive bachelor and saloon culture scalping masses conceived as sentimentalized and feminized—and who, from the point of view of this culture, might indeed deserve such scalping because of their passivity, gullibility, and vulnerability—is quite strong. The characters in the story and the projected audiences are divided into masculine and feminine, active and passive; it is the bachelors and saloon goers of Virginia City who would be best able to spot the hoax as a fiction, avoid getting figuratively scalped themselves, and take some plea-
sure in ridiculing the credulity of the distant and victimized masses. The locals would also take "Massacre" as a mockery of Hopkins himself, and "Petrified Man" as an insult to G. T. Sewall, the local judge who, the piece reports, gravely conducts an inquest into the petrifaction. Each piece, in other words, works as mockery and insult in the guise of seriousness and truth, and enacts a ritual that excludes the gullible and feminine and resecures the bond of laughing males. In addition to this subcultural enactment, each tale projects two different audiences, a vulnerable and victimized one and a wary and scoffing one, in a way that activates the distinctions between the feminine and the masculine, the serious and the rollicking, the atomized mass and the reveling locals.
As a final example of the attack on the conjoined values of femininity, tender feeling, and the serious representation or expression of emotion, consider Twain's 1863 burlesque of Ingomar the Barbarian , a play that directly embodied the middle-class myth of feminine "influence" and the power of the domestic over unbridled masculinity. In contrast to Edwin Forrest's unreconstructed barbarians, the hero of Friedrich Halm's play—the wild, warriorly, and sexually aggressive Ingomar—is transformed by his tender love for the Greek maiden Parthenia, which leads finally to their marriage and establishment as rulers in a new Greek city. It is a story of the taming of uncivilized masculinity and desire, the awakening of the tender emotions of middle-class subjectivity, and the repudiation of roving male bands for the closure of marital domesticity. Mark Twain takes these matters explicitly as the targets of his burlesque. In his version of the play, Ingomar's "rebellious spirit rises" at the requirement that he must "dress like a Christian; he must shave; he must work; he must give up his sword!" But Parthenia "tames it with the mightier spirit of love. Ingomar weakens—he lets down—he is utterly demoralized." The love of "Two Hearts that Beat as One" is mocked, as is grief (Parthenia's father, kidnapped from home, "weeps—he sighs—he slobbers. Grief lays her heavy hand upon him"). At the same time that Twain's piece discounts historical representation in typical burlesque fashion—by turning Greece into Nevada, Ingomar into a Comanche, and so on—it attacks marriage, love, family, and emotion in a generalized assault on the image of the feminine.
The environment of theatrical burlesque out of which so much of Twain's writing emerged supports the contention that male "homo-sociality," including both friendship and rivalry, cements its bonds
by taking "woman" as object of exchange, control, exclusion, and scorn. Romantic narrative, sentimentalism, sobs, embraces, tears, "soul butter," and "flapdoodle" are the markers of femininity and mass culture that function as items of abjection whose mockery consolidates the opposed system of the masculine and the local. In addition to this masculine dimension, because the burlesque tradition that Mark Twain and his peers looked to was primarily a working-class, male entertainment—associated by the 1850s and 1860s with burlesque houses and minstrel shows that travestied the legitimate theater and played predominantly to audiences of mechanics, miners, and urban bachelors—burlesquing was accented by the insubordination of male groups who stood outside both the prosperity and the domesticity of the American middle classes.
The terms conventionally (and ingenuously) used in formalist criticism to describe burlesque tactics—"puncturing" illusion or "deflating" pretension—encode penetration and aggression that not only connote a general gendering of artistic practices, but also resonate specifically with the sense of nineteenth-century burlesque as an attack on a subjectivity conceived as enclosed, feminine, and bourgeois. The enclosure of the space of illusion is violated, as is the private communion of the spectator/reader with the spectacle in this enclosure. Much like his friend Charles Henry Webb (whose Arrahno-Poke , a burlesque of Dion Boucicault's Arrah-na-Pogue , began with the "grand effect of changing the flats"), Twain travestied performances by foregrounding the background, focusing on real-time behavior rather than imaginative representation, or stressing "discrepancies" or errant details that ruined the "unity of effect"—all tactics of willful misreading that resisted enthrallment, emotional contagion, effects of feeling, the losing of the self through union/identification with the spectatorial space carved out by the representation. In his burlesque review of Daniel François Auber's The Crown Diamonds , for example, Twain directs all his attention and praise to a "furniture-scout and sofa-shifter," who "performed his part" of moving the stage properties in such a "sublime" way that "there was not a dry eye in the house." Partly an attack on drama reviewers, the piece nonetheless follows the burlesque practices of resisting the instructions for response in the play, refusing the emphases offered, and parodying the intended effect designed by the dramatic structure of pathos and sublimity. Travesties of the popular theater—
that was finally, in the 1860s, becoming legitimate for the middle class and respectable women—enact tactics of symbolic violation, predation, and seizure that underscore their masculine gendering at the same time that they follow the practices of perverse readings that enabled men in working-class subcultures to evade bourgeois propriety and domesticity.
Bohemians, Burlesque, and the Performance of Race
It would be wrong, however, to overstress Mark Twain's early alignment with outright challenges to the interlocked regime of interiorized subjectivity and serious representation, to the domestic versions of men and women and the privatized consumption of "realistic" images. Although Twain so clearly embraced a style of rowdy, performative masculinity—which the prevailing bourgeois ethos had taken pains to exclude from its identity—and then used it against the domestic enclosure of tender and sincere emotion, it is more apt to say that he forged ahead into emergent, middle-class ambivalences about the emotional and the physical, domesticity and bachelorhood, the building of "character" and hedonism, self-control and selfindulgence. His self-professed bohemianism in San Francisco in the 1860s aptly situates him: as a middle-class male seemingly disaffected from his origins, as an explorer of the boundaries of bourgeois life, as a person radically ambivalent about bourgeois culture and its contradictions as well as about that culture's excluded others.
In typical bohemian fashion, Mark Twain in San Francisco sought out, and represented himself as familiar with, people on the fringe of society. He wrote about street people (for example, the homeless, apparently schizophrenic, and notorious Emperor Norton, who considered himself ruler of San Francisco), prostitutes, and Chinese opium addicts. He circulated in a subculture that included a host of actors, notably such acquaintances as Junius Brutus Booth, Agnes Perry (who later married Booth), John McCullough (a protégé of Edwin Forrest), Frank Mayo (who later became nationally famous in the roles of Davy Crockett and Pudd'nhead Wilson), Charles Pope (whom Twain would later introduce to Howells to help launch Howells's playwriting career), the music-hall performers Lotta Crabtree and the Worrell sisters, and the minstrel Ralph Keeler. Although he
worked hard at the Morning Call , instead of early morning industry, his job as drama reporter included "visit[ing] the six theatres, one after the other; seven nights a week three hundred sixty-five nights in the year." The easier work writing theater news and reviews for the Dramatic Chronicle and, later, writing for the self-consciously literary and bohemian Californian and the Golden Era enabled him to maintain irregular work patterns, an addiction to night life and drinking, and a pose that combined ostentatious laziness, artistic pretense, and wild woolliness. Although the pose was more that of an unkempt bohemian with populist impulses than a true dandy, he also indulged in extravagances of dress and appearance that combined with the other features of his lifestyle to affront the canons of utility, industry, thrift, and self-control.
Mark Twain's fascination with a theatrical subculture that pressed against the boundaries of middle-class values meshed with that subculture's fascination with outsiders—including caricatured ethnic and racial outsiders, especially African Americans and Chinese. Twain reviewed and befriended tavern monologuists and music-hall performers in Nevada and San Francisco who enacted ethnic caricatures, from "John Chinaman" to various mocking impersonations of Yankees, Germans, and the Irish. Minstrelsy, which in the decades of midcentury had grown nationally into a culture industry, suited well the concentrations of males in Virginia City and San Francisco. Ethnic and racial parodies circulated between the stages of music halls or tavern free-and-easies and street theater—parades, Fourth of July celebrations, and so on—all of these occasions serving the complex purposes of both ridiculing and excluding others and registering fascination, desire, and anxiety. Intertwined with this broad range of acting and display, but inflected through his bohemianism, Mark Twain's representations of race are crossed by a cluster of contradictions related to his uncertain place in the West—as a white male fascinated by racial otherness, and as a middle-class bohemian enticed by working-class entertainments. The meanings of whiteness, his class status, and his masculinity, all of them in flux, intersect in his performances of race. He constructs race in a way peculiar to his vexed combination of identities.
His responses to minstrelsy and to actual African-American performances are, accordingly, very complex, exceeding a simplistic conception of white racism as something concerned only to fix and
subordinate African-American identity. For example, in reporting on African Americans dancing the quadrille during an 1864 celebration in San Francisco of emancipation in the English West Indies, Twain writes that, for "pretentious, impressive, solemn, and excessively high-toned and aristocratic dancing, commend us to the disenthralled North American negro," who can far surpass whites "of the upper stratum" in "the slow-movement evidence of high gentility." In this description of what appears to have been black cakewalk imitations of highfalutin white manners, Twain relays some of the caricature of the dominant by the subjugated. Coexisting in his remarks about the dancers' "natural propensity to put on airs" and to "'let on' magnificently" is a condescending objectification of free African Americans, written by a white for the mainly working- and lowermiddle-class white audience of the San Francisco Call , as well as an acknowledgment in African-American culture of mimicry and mockery trained against white elites, an upper stratum that the newspaper's audience would probably also be ready to ridicule. There was, I would suggest, a doubleness in Mark Twain's perception of his audience—as interested in deploying this image against both African Americans and the white elite, much in the same way that the black dandy in minstrelsy seems to have worked. There was also an interest on Twain's part in the excess of this mimicry, partly condescended to and partly admired as an antidote to certain pretensions of white middle-class culture. A fascination for this African-American dancing, along with an adoption of a working-class white view of it that mixed identification and disdain, worked to distance him from his parent culture as well as resecure his whiteness. Mark Twain's reproduction of "race," as well as his fondness for minstrelsy, insistently involves such doubleness. He embraces a mockery of blacks at the same time that he values black burlesques of whites in black culture, and white imitations in minstrelsy of black attempts to mimic whites.
He was attuned, that is, to the resistant tactics of African-American language and masking within the racist image. The contest of parody, the black burlesque of whites within the white burlesque of blacks, constituted for him part of the allure of minstrelsy. The argument from such historians of blackface minstrelsy as Eric Lott, Nathan Huggins, Berndt Ostendorf, David R. Roediger, and Michael Rogin that white audiences felt a range of identifications with and re-
coils from the black stage image—from primitivist identifications based on fantasies of sexuality and freedom, to both longing and disdain for antibourgeois blackface laziness and hedonism, to the always-present race hatred—points the direction for understanding Mark Twain's fascination. If race had been important for forging respectable middle-class and working-class identities, by making African Americans the opposite of sobriety, discipline, thrift, and self-restraint, then the extruded and racially marked qualities returned as desirable for the bohemian Twain; representations of both the disreputable working class and African Americans held allure partly because of the affront to bourgeois respectability in their volatility, sexuality, indiscipline, intemperance, laziness, and corporeality. Also enticing were their symbolic skirmishes with and forays into the territory of the haute bourgeois, their attacks on genteel authority, regularity, and moralism. Minstrelsy combined working-class burlesque of pretension and glimmers, at least, of African-American mimicries of whites. The signifying, parodying, and performative features of such mockeries served as assaults on the middle class, its subjectivity of interiority, and its system of serious representation.
From his admiration of blackface minstrelsy in the early 1840s in Hannibal—when, he remembered, minstrelsy "was a new institution" that "burst upon us as a glad and stunning surprise" —through his stay in California, when the editors of the Dramatic Chronicle announced of Twain that "as a general thing he prefers negro minstrelsy to Italian opera," to his fond memories of the form late in life, minstrelsy functioned for him as the epitome of affront to bourgeois culture. The contrast, as he put it, "between Emerson and a nigger show" exemplified for him the polarization of taste in the United States. Of course, his admiration of the endmen's "extravagant burlesque of the clothing worn by the plantation slave" and their "very broad negro dialect," which he found "delightfully and satisfyingly funny," evinces an obviously racist disdain, though it is quite aware of the counterfeiting at work in the minstrel image. But also discernible is a desire to emulate practices of burlesquing mimicry that are hostile, I would argue, to modes and registers of representation associated with genteel culture. Inasmuch as "serious" representation was increasingly associated with an emerging bourgeois "high" culture, and inasmuch as sincere "expression" was associated with pathos and sentiment, and ultimately with the mid-
dle-class fabrication of the "feminine," Twain's delight in minstrel endmen's typical conflict—a "jangle of assertion and contradiction," a mimicry of "signifying" argument, boasts, and oaths—was partly a delight in the dismantling of meaning. That is, Twain is arrested not only by mockeries of white pretensions in minstrel middlemen and interlocutors, and not only by the way in which the "courtly middleman" is driven to distraction as he implores the endmen "to preserve the peace and observe the proprieties." Twinned with the mockery of bourgeois African Americans and plantation slaves is both a parody of high-toned whites and a reproduction of African-American "signifying." Within white working-class minstrel burlesque, that is, appear maskings and language games related to those in African-American culture.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s, characterization of "Signifyin(g)" as a manipulation of language among African Americans that emphasizes and "turns on the sheer play of the signifier"—done in such a way that it "wreaks havoc upon the Signified" and amounts to a guerilla attack on "the nature of (white) meaning itself"—provides us with one way of grasping the pertinence of minstrelsy to Mark Twain. The practice of avoiding "the game of information-giving," indeed, of acting in opposition to "the apparent transparency of speech" (52–53) and focusing instead on rhetorical structures and strategies, sounds, and the scrambling of sense that puns and homonyms entail, characterized minstrelsy as well. "Signifyin(g)," Gates acknowledges, "is a principle of language use and is not in any way the exclusive province of black people, although blacks named the term and invented its rituals." Gates's examples of white reproductions of African-American language that make signifying both "the object and the mechanism of parody" could easily have come from the minstrel stage. In sum, if the language of minstrelsy incorporated much of what we now know to be African-American dialect and vernacular, and if the blacked face worked as a mask for satirizing the cultivated language and behavior of socially superior whites as much as it served to perpetuate racist stereotypes, then it is certainly plausible to think that some of the language practices of "signifying" found their way into minstrel parody.
Mark Twain borrowed from the minstrel stage, and while he reproduced stereotypes, he also borrowed tactics of subversive language use. The particular practice, for example, of talking and never
getting around to the point—used repeatedly by Mark Twain, most famously in John Skae's "story" in "The Facts" (1865) and Jim Blaine's in Roughing It —had a sure place in minstrelsy (especially, in Twain's experience, in what he called the rambling, "incomprehensible," and "conflicting" monologues of Billy Birch of the San Francisco Minstrels) as well as in African-American language games. Puns, comic boasting, put-ons, and conundrums—all practiced or explicitly admired in Twain's early writing—had their most visible presence on the minstrel stage, but echoed such language use in AfricanAmerican culture. In general, through verbal masquerade and language play, affinities existed among Twain's performances, minstrel shows, and African-American language practices. But seeing the affinities, of course, should not obscure the differences. Though it is tempting to see an analogy between covertly encoded attacks on "white meaning" in signifying and attacks on dominant middle-class meanings in western male burlesquing, Mark Twain's connection to rather than exclusion from the culture he attacks and the mediation of his burlesquing through minstrelsy require a more complex model. In his attention to minstrelsy exist contradictory stances both toward African Americans and toward bourgeois domesticity and propriety; each was mocked and exerted a powerful allure.
Ah Sin , the play Twain wrote in collaboration with Bret Harte, illustrates a similar doubleness. Although the play was finished in 1876, after Twain left the West, it was written with his California friend, and like the "heathen Chinee" from Harte's earlier poem "Plain Language from Truthful James" and the briefly appearing character Hop Sing from his play Two Men of Sandy Bar , it drew on racist caricatures from white, male, working cultures and the burlesque and minstrel theaters. Like minstrels, who represented the Chinese especially through a nonsensical jabbering that mocked Chinese language and food (ching ring, chow wow, ricken chicken, and so on), Ah Sin is constantly "jabbering in Chinese" (e.g., 11, 78, 88). And in accord with the racist assumption behind minstrelsy's pretentious interlocutor (who aped white manners), one of the play's characters calls Ah Sin truly a Chinaman in his "monkey faculty for imitating"—by which she means that Ah Sin, a "mental vacuum," ignorantly mimics others without a clue to the significance of their actions (51–52). This white character's aggravation at an apparent idiocy that fails to grasp her meanings is, however, distanced, sub-
jected itself to derision. It arises when she attempts to show Ah Sin, a new servant, how to set the table, and he imitates her every move, including her errors and blunders: she lifts a table leaf and accidentally lets it fall, and so does he, and so on. What looks like empty-headed imitation, in other words, is as easily read as an ignorant mask used against white officiousness and authority, against meaning in the guise of orders.
The latter reading gathers strength in light of the general narrative direction of the play. Like Harte's "heathen Chinee," who euchres a couple of white card cheaters, Ah Sin in this play outsmarts and exposes the villain card sharp and murderer. His "jabbering frantically in Chinese" provides a safety in unintelligibility and apparent stupidity that enables Ah Sin, mainly through subterfuge and trickery, to outwit his adversaries. As in "The Heathen Chinee," which exacerbated anti-Chinese sentiment, there obviously are racist, white supremacist categories in effect, and there may be little profit in distinguishing between the familiar Asiatic stereotypes—inscrutable trickiness and inscrutable idiocy. Yet there is reason not to discount the opposition at work between being fixed in this stylized bundle of racist turns and sounds and eluding, exceeding, and manipulating that mask. Ah Sin's "monkeylike" imitating may suggest, on the one hand, a mimicry that precludes not only intelligence but anything beneath its surface; but on the other hand it also appears to attack and dismantle (white) systems of meaning. In this sense, Ah Sin's expressions hinge on the distinction between "aping" and "jabbering" as objects of ridicule and as tactics of ridicule, as exemplifications of racist attitudes and as undermining mimicries of such racist projections.
That the oppositions hinging on "jabber" or "mumbo jumbo" between idiotically depthless mimicry and disguised intention, and between a racist image and a subversion of that racism, should pertain in Mark Twain's thinking to images of both African Americans and Chinese suggests that race partly became for Twain a generalized category for working out a different problem. It became, that is, a white construction supple enough to give shape to, and slightly to displace, his contradictory relationship to aspects of white American culture. "Monkeylike imitating" had utility as a means of parody and burlesque of middle-class conventions and as a repudiation of the interior of bourgeois subjectivity and its ideally sincere and transparent revelation. Jabber and signifying, in the hands of Mark Twain,
could scapegoat both racial others and the parent culture. Instead of grouping "colored traits" as a means only of consolidating and defining a superior whiteness, Twain's conflation is also deployed in a conflict within bourgeois culture, and inside white male identity.
These examples must underscore for us the complexities of racial exchange as they disclose the specific historical uses to which ambivalent racial signs and images in the white imagination can be put. My focus has been on Mark Twain's responses to racial cultures, minstrelsy's responses to them, and Twain's responses to minstrelsy, rather than on African-American or Chinese responses to white culture—the mimicries, signifying, insider talk. But this white man's terrain is nonetheless one of shiftings in racial meanings, where Twain's fantasies of the other come into play, but where they follow various trajectories. Living in a white male culture that had plenty invested in brutal racisms as ways of excluding and subordinating African Americans and Chinese, Mark Twain yet used race, and raided race-associated language and behavior, in his complicated negotiations with middle-class respectability and femininity; as a white male ambivalent about bourgeois norms, he transformed African-American tactics of resistance (affected by their translation through minstrelsy) into his own, in effect using race to attack his parent culture and to articulate his relationship to it. He responded to performances of race and incorporated racial styles into his own performances as a means of contending with and exploring white, middle-class meaning and its expression. This translation, through performance, of race to other concerns, while it cannot obscure the more blatant injuries of racism—and while it still constitutes reassertions of whiteness and maleness—should also find its way back into our estimate of Mark Twain and race relations, thereby complicating our sense of his racial contacts, exchanges, and transactions.
The Bachelors Watch an "Artiste"
Categories of the "feminine" were invariably inextricable from Mark Twain's writings and their reforgings of his identity. In establishing his stance toward middle-class culture he put performances of race, and racial performers, up against a respectability that always had a gendered inflection. He aligned blackness with a vulgar masculinity that, along with its affront, defined gentility as effeminate. The no-
tion of "woman," especially in its meanings of sincerity, expression, emotion, and interiority, always had a role in the self-definition of Twain and his bachelor subculture, most obviously as an exclusion and projection. But with their bohemian ambivalences toward the ideological underpinnings of bourgeois society, Twain and his cohort also sanctified and preserved the "femininity" so contradictorily necessary to the idea of themselves. Their reactions to Adah Isaacs Menken—probably the best-known and most notorious of the host of female performers in Twain's West, from music-hall danseuses to tragedians—especially demonstrated these ambivalences. Having a woman in the role of performer made explicit the gendering of the conflicting terms of performance, particularly those of expression and theatricality. A bohemian woman confounding definitions of Victorian femininity, Menken served as a liminal term over which Twain and his companions could reenact their intersecting dramas of gender and cultural level in relation to their ideas of acting.
Menken forced a rearticulation of the terms of performance because she was a performing woman and a female bohemian. Before she made herself a part of Mark Twain's scene, she had fully established herself in the bachelor and bohemian subculture: she had been a regular among the bohemians of Pfaff's beer cellar in New York, she had had a relationship and a son with boxing "Benicia Boy" John C. Heenan, and she had married the humorist Robert H. Newell (Orpheus C. Kerr). She became a national celebrity after her appearance in Albany, New York, on June 3, 1861, as the Tartar prince Ivan Mazeppa in Henry M. Milner's play Mazeppa; or, The Wild Horse of Tartary , her notoriety stemming from the scene in which she was stripped down to a very brief costume and flesh-colored tights, then tied to the back of a horse that ran up a stage mountain. Dressed as a man ostensibly for the opportunity to display her body, Menken was a figure of disruption in the patterns of Victorian gender identity and decorum. Using Byron's character as an occasion for a leg show, she also situated her act between high culture and music-hall titillation. When she played in San Francisco and Virginia City in 1863, she elicited, accordingly, some strikingly clashing responses from Mark Twain, his friends, and his peers.
contrasting attitudes of lasciviousness and righteous indignation, of leering and condemnation, posed conventional and familiar male responses—responses that echoed the conflict between errant and respectable masculinity. More interesting (though not unrelated) was a contest over Menken and her meaning that surfaced as a disagreement about her ability to act, but that highlighted the ambivalence in the male subculture about the ideal of sincere expression and the lure of burlesque, as well as an ambivalence about Menken's womanhood. That is, in the responses to Menken surfaces the division I have been sketching in this male subculture between attraction to forms associated with the middle class (especially the expression of tender or "feminine" emotions) and a recoil from such forms to rowdy burlesque. But this ambivalence was complicated by the fact that she was a female performer, and a brazen one at that.
Joe Goodman, Twain's editor at the Enterprise , praised Menken in terms that extolled her femininity and expressive capacity:
It is only in intensely emotional situations that Miss Menken displays those remarkable qualities which prove her claim to the title of great actress.... In these she stands peerless as a speechless but eloquent delineator of human passions.... When you have watched the dawn of a fresh emotion in her soul, which rises and glows till her whole being is suffused with its spirit, and trembles in her countenance with more than voiceful intelligibility, finding its ultimate expression in some action whose grace and significance scorn interpretation, you feel that words would be a miserable, meaningless mockery. It is no abstract conception of passion that Miss Menken delineates. It is the passion that springs from a profoundly emotional and womanly heart—a heart with all the finest sensibilities, quickest instincts, generous impulses, and noblest purposes, that ever animated or actuated mortal being.
Goodman's judgment rests on a notion of transparent expression that is inextricable from the idea of the feminine as emotional rather than rational, realized through the heart and the body rather than the mind, marking an interior (of soul, affect, instinct) that will not be hidden or obscured but naturally lays itself bare without the mediation of wordcraft. In effect, Goodman's Menken is not acting at all, but is simply emoting, uncontrollably, as any "true" woman might. Far from exercising a calculation in performance, she eschews even the artifice of words.
In pointed contrast are the reviews by Mark Twain. He saw Menken perform twice, first in San Francisco, then in Virginia City. After the San Francisco show he wrote to the Enterprise:
Here every tongue sings the praise of her matchless grace, her supple gestures, her charming attitudes. Well, possibly, these tongues are right. In the first act, she rushes on the stage, and goes cavorting around after "Olinska"; she bends herself back like a bow; she pitches head-foremost at the atmosphere like a battering ram; she works her arms, and her legs, and her whole body like a dancing-jack: her every movement is quick as thought; in a word, without any apparent reason for it, she carries on like a lunatic from the beginning of the act to the end of it. At other times she "whallops" herself down on the stage, and rolls over as does the supportive pack-mule after his burden is removed. If this be grace then the Menken is eminently graceful.
Mark Twain's evaluation is the opposite of Goodman's. Instead of a woman whose inner emotion registers automatically in her actions and countenance, Twain's Menken is a bundle of disconnected motions, a flurry of flailing limbs without a directing intelligence, a movement machine expressive of nothing. Part of the contrast at work between Goodman's account and Twain's is a familiar one—a contrast between the serious representation of an emotional interior and the bodily equivalent of mumbo jumbo, between psychological expression and a burlesque cancellation of meaning.
Twain's reading, indeed, may be largely due to a burlesque impulse. In a manner typical of burlesque, it attends most closely to the performative features that foil serious representation, and it thus has a similarity to Twain's illusion-destroying review of Menken's performance in Virginia City, which focuses on her horse—its tendency to be distracted by the theater audience, its walking around the set, its unresponsiveness to Menken's "unconsciously" digging in her heels to perk it up. It echoes, because of this, the host of burlesques of Menken and Mazeppa that arose in San Francisco and Nevada, most presenting some version of what the Bella Union Melodeon billed as "Big Bertha on a donkey." Twain's pleasure in the report that another actress, Caroline Chapman, who "must be seventy-five years old, now," would be playing Mazeppa out in Montana came from his imagining "a jolly, motherly old lady stripping to her shirt and riding a fiery untamed Montana jackass up flights of stairs and kicking and cavorting around the stage." Twain recoils into burlesque from the sensation and the reverence that accompanied Menken's spectacle, countering her performance of revelation with his performance of mockery, transforming Goodman's view of her interior to an explosion of seemingly meaningless signs.
The theatrical relationship Menken invited was voyeuristic, but in a way that linked the exposure of the female body with the expo-
sure of feminine emotion—both consumed privately and intimately by the male spectator. The sexual gaze, that is, was paired with the psychological spectacle of sentimentalism, and became similarly prone to burlesque. For private theatrical unveilings of both body and interior clashed with the communal nature of the male ritual of burlesque-irreverent watching. In these burlesques, the scopic sexual relationship is largely sacrificed for the homosocial connection based on mockery and scorn of "the Menken." This switch in the framing of reception links and repudiates voyeurism and domesticity, mass scopophilia and privatized middle-class consumption, in favor of an errant male camaraderie. At the same time that Mark Twain recoils from the private and passive positions of voyeurism and consuming vision, then, he affirms a male ritual that devalues, even discounts, Menken's performance, transforming her from a performer to a token in the forging of male solidarity. The moves to affirm the local over the mass, and the collective over the atomized, also affirm the masculine over the feminine, making Menken an object or effect of male communality.
And in a further discounting of Menken's performance, Mark Twain attributes a theatricality to Menken that is not, like minstrel caricatures, attuned to its own ways of exceeding mimesis (though many late-nineteenth-century actresses, it has been suggested, did indeed "overact" as a means of pressing the bounds of "feminine expression" to which they had been consigned). Instead, in a response whose ambivalence rests on different standards for different genders, Twain on the one hand critiques her acting as violating femininely transparent expression (that is, she is out of line with the Victorian norm of the feminine), and on the other hand attacks that norm with his burlesque (stressing his own manly rebellion against middleclass effeminacy). While Twain seems to have taken pleasure in other female performers—including, for example, the dances, impersonations, banjo playing, and minstrel routines of such women as Lotta Crabtree and the Worrell sisters—his response to Menken may nonetheless be partly a recoil from a performing woman, a reaction that reproduces the prejudice that such a creature is unnatural, because woman by nature is private, her expressiveness flowering only in the home. It is certainly worth noting that a bit later, in 1867, Twain remembered the model artists he apparently saw in New York during his first year away from home as "a pack of painted old harlots," as
if performing in public, particularly with an overtly sexual dimension, might necessarily transform true women into false ones, the natural into the painted and artificial.
The contradictions in Menken's performance confronted the contradictory impulses in Twain's bachelor subculture in a way that made the possible meanings of Menken proliferate. Her acting could look like emotion bared as well as like theatrical posturing, and Mazeppa had pretensions to be a highbrow and bohemian representation of Byron's poem as well as a spectacle of sexuality, an instance of bourgeois spectacular theater as well as a simple affront to middle-class respectability. When this met the bachelor-bohemian subculture's own ambivalences, the responses included both an appreciation of the strains of respectably feminine expressiveness and an irreverent recoil from them, a spectatorly collusion with the voyeuristic spectacle and a comradely burlesque of it, a characterization of Menken's body as a pellucid medium for emotions and a view of it as hysterically or seductively opaque. There also existed somewhat divergently masculine reconsolidations of power—by making Menken a collective object of scorn or desire and by rebuking her for her sexuality and performance. In effect, Menken's performance was edged out by, or at least the occasion for, male performances and subcultural ritual. Mark Twain, Joe Goodman, and the other journalistic commentators on Menken performed in their interpretive arena, transforming Menken into a token of their contest and once again rehearsing the divisions over cultural level and gender that converged in popular performance. Menken's act and its interpretations and burlesques thus served as stages on which to negotiate cultural disequilibrium.
Peter Stallybrass and Allon White argue in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression that, as one of the effects of creating its identity by marking itself off from the popular and the low, bourgeois culture in the late nineteenth century "produced a compensatory range of peripheral 'bohemias'" devoted to symbolically upsetting, transgressing, and inverting the hierarchies of the parent cultures. Far from necessarily subversive, such carnivalesque play with the symbols of otherness served partly to constitute and reconstitute mainstream cultural identities. Bourgeois authorship in this period, they write, "uses the whole world as its theatre in a particularly instrumental
fashion, the very subjects which it politically excludes becoming exotic costumes which it assumes in order to play out the disorders of its own identity." To a great degree, I have argued, Mark Twain's early writings operate to this purpose. A certain kind of workingclass masculinity becomes a desirable fantasy in a way that addresses dissatisfactions with older masculinities precipitated by social change. Chinese and African Americans, their cultures, and their languages are given a symbolic configuration that serves to negotiate tensions in white, middle-class, male identity. A woman and her body provide the theater for these men to rehearse their larger cultural conflicts.
But the effects of this theater, these exotic costumes, and these playings out of identity are not foregone conclusions. If they are not necessarily subversive, neither do they necessarily serve to equilibrate disorder. The diverse concerns of class, gender, race, region, and nation, the competing impulses of the local and the mass, render Twain's performances part negotiation, part reflection of the unnegotiable. Moreover, they depend, of course, upon their particular, historical situations. As a result, their effects are various, conditioned by how they enter into local cultures and national cultures, how they are received by one group or another. This is obviously so even if dominant cultural strains seem to define the identity disorders that dictate the terms and concerns in performances such as Mark Twain's. The play of multiple cultural imperatives, as well as the insistence of middleclass concerns, in the creation and popularity of a performance style—the deadpan style—will be the focus of the next chapter.