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.