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Assembling Counter-Majorities: Mark Twain’s Democratic Mugwumpery

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In this essay, I read Mark Twain as a practitioner of what Deleuze and Guattari call an “active micropolitics,” focusing especially on his depictions of race and racism. In his popular stories, essays, speeches, and autobiography, Twain gave voice not only to marginal and underprivileged characters, but also to minoritarian, changeable sentiments circulating among popular majorities. Moreover, he suggested these sentiments might comprise not only actual counter-majorities, but also potential counter-majorities, linking personal complexity to democratic potential. I argue that despite his appreciation for the inertia of popular prejudice, Twain’s appeals to minoritarian sentiments, and the popularity thereof, testify against Tocqueville’s fatalism concerning majority opinion in general, and white supremacism in particular.

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  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Bantam, 2000), 433.

  2. See Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey (New York: Polity Press, 1988); Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (New York: Verso, 2000).

  3. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 59.

  4. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 291.

  5. Ibid., 293. Also see ibid., 277: “The only way to get outside the dualisms is to be-between.”

  6. Ibid., 216–17.

  7. See ibid., 292. Cf. Paul Patton, Deleuze and the Political (New York: Routledge, 2000), 8.

  8. I do not propose to, nor can I provide a full survey of Twain’s various treatments of race, much less the extensive literature addressing the historical sources for and impact of the same. Rather than trace biographical sources for Twain’s racialized discourses, or the paths of their historical reception, I focus on several works in which Twain links a dynamic conception of selfhood to the idea of what I call counter-majoritarian assemblages as they work against de Tocqueville’s fatalistic views concerning race and racism in America. For an influential discussion of Twain’s adoption of African-American styles, idioms, and manners, see Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Was Huck Black? (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1993). For a critical evaluation of Twain’s use of racialized language, especially regarding its public impact, see James Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis, eds., Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992); Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua, The Jim Dilemma (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998); Elaine and Harry Mensh, Black, White and Huckleberry Finn (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000).

  9. See Mark Twain, “Goldsmith’s Friend Abroad Again,” in Mark Twain, Collected Tales, Sketches, & Essays, 1891–1910 (New York: Library of America, 1992), 455–70; and “My Platonic Sweetheart, 284–96; and “The Great Dark,” in 297–343; both in Mark Twain, Collected Tales, Sketches, & Essays 18521890 (New York: Library of America, 1992).

  10. Mark Twain, “Extracts from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” in Collected Tales, 18911910, 826–63, at 833 (see previous note).

  11. Ibid., 852.

  12. Ibid., 859.

  13. Ibid., 838.

  14. Ibid., 839.

  15. Ibid., 842.

  16. Ibid., 851.

  17. See Mark Twain, “To Walt Whitman,” in Collected Tales, 1852–1890, 940–41 (see note 9 above).

  18. See George Schulman, American Prophecy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

  19. Ibid., 848.

  20. Ibid., 836.

  21. Ibid., 857.

  22. Mark Twain, Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 221.

  23. Ibid., 220.

  24. Ibid., 283.

  25. Twain abandoned earlier beginnings that followed the “old and inflexible” model of a linear history, he explains, because “some other and newer interest” (the sparks of his later success) distracted him. See Twain, Autobiography Vol. 1, 203 (see note 22 above).

  26. Ibid., 220–21.

  27. Ibid., 257.

  28. See Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), #115. Cf. Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002), 28, 30

  29. Twain, Autobiography Vol. 1, 256 (see note 22 above).

  30. Twain, “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed,” in Collected Tales, 1852–1890, 863 (see note 9 above).

  31. Twain, Autobiography Vol. 1, 223 (see note 22 above).

  32. Ibid., 301.

  33. Twain, “The Privilege of the Grave,” The New Yorker 50 (December 22, 2008), emphasis added, at, accessed December 29, 2009.

  34. See Twain, Autobiography, Vol. 1, 311–12. Cf. 314 on the “tyranny of party” and the “lie” that men prize independence of action and opinion (see note 22 above).

  35. Twain, Collected Tales, 1852–1890, 910 (see note 9 above).

  36. Ibid., 909. Twain’s account of continuous transformation echoed the vision famously set out by Emerson in “Self-Reliance,” namely that “society never advances,…it undergoes continual changes.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in his Essays (New York. Charles E. Merrill Co., 1907), 112. It also found common cause in a broader evolutionary philosophy coming into its own at the time, which describes history as transformation without linear progress (it too can go up or down). Cf. Twain, Autobiography Vol. 1, 230–31 (see note 22 above).

  37. Twain, Collected Tales, 1852–1890, 916 (see note 9 above). On Twain’s break for Cleveland, see Twain, Autobiography Vol. 1, 315–19 (see note 22 above).

  38. Wilson Carey McWilliams, The Idea of Fraternity in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 445.

  39. See Gore Vidal, “Twain on the Grand Tour,” in The Last Empire (New York: Vintage, 2001), 68–78, at 73.

  40. In part, this was to the credit of the country, inasmuch as it prevented minority factions or associations from becoming warring classes, as in Europe. See Tocqueville, Democracy, 226 (see note 1 above).

  41. Ibid.

  42. Jason Frank, Constituent Moments (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010), 100.

  43. Ibid., 100, emphasis added; also cf. 69.

  44. See Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 141.

  45. Tocqueville, Democracy, 414 (see note 1 above).

  46. As Sheldon Wolin argues, Tocqueville privileges custom over constitutions as a source of political order, even a means of “neutralizing” democratic man. See Sheldon Wolin, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 335–36. However, by treating culture as an independent force, Tocqueville downplays the role of racist laws and official discourses in shaping popular prejudice. See Rogers Smith, “Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz,” American Political Science Review 87 (1993): 549–66, at 552.

  47. Tocqueville, Democracy, 416 (see note 1 above).

  48. Ibid., 415, note e.

  49. As Joel Olson argues, “The implication of Tocqueville’s argument is that the United States is democratic and white supremacist simultaneously…,” in The Abolition of White Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 51.

  50. Jefferson writes, “Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?” (264), at, accessed March 20, 2012. On blushing and racism, see Douglas E Cowan, “Theologizing Race,” in Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity, ed. Craig R. Prentiss (New York: New York University Press, 2003).

  51. See Etienne Balibar, “Is There a ‘Neo-Racism’?” in Race and Racialization, ed. Tania Das Gupta (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2007), 85

  52. Melvin Rodgers has accused Ta-Nehisi Coates of succumbing to this temptation. See Melvin Rodgers, “Between Pain and Despair: What Ta-Nehisi Coates is Missing,” Dissent, July 31, 2015, at, accessed August 3, 2015. Despair or no, one can hardly argue with Coates’s argument that “The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015), 79.

  53. Jack Turner, “Awakening to Race: Ralph Ellison and Democratic Individuality,” Political Theory 36 (2008): 655–82, at 675.

  54. See Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1973); and “Reflections on Little Rock,” Dissent 6 (1959): 47.

  55. See Arendt, “Reflections,” 46 (see previous note); Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt,1969) 19. As Neil Roberts demonstrates, Arendt also “disavowed” black agency in her accounts of the American and Cuban revolutions. See Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 34–37. Roberts nonetheless deploys some of Arendt’s key terms in his favorable evaluation of Frederick Douglas. Indeed, Arendt’s image of politics as constitutive world-making has been adopted by a variety of postcolonial and critical race theorists. Robert Gooding-Williams, for instance, distinguishes “expressive” and “action-in-concert” strands within African-American political thought, which he identifies with Du Bois and Douglass, respectively. See Robert Gooding-Williams, In the Shadow of Du Bois (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011). Cf. Gary Wilder, Freedom Time (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015), 46.

  56. I do not mean to enter longstanding debates concerning Twain’s personal racism, but simply to note that his inconsistency on the subject exhibits the same evolving complexity he attributed to personal sentiments more generally. On one hand, he actively promoted the political efforts of Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington, and criticized anti-Chinese policies and practices. On the other hand, he often portrayed Native Americans with vicious contempt. On Twain’s endorsement of Douglas, see, accessed November 18, 2013. On Twain’s anti-racism, See Vidal, “Twain On the Grand Tour,” 77 (see note 39 above). On Native Americans, see Mark Twain, “The Noble Red Man,” (1870), Collected Tales, 1852–1890, 442–46, or “Letters From the Earth,” 1892–1910, 881–928, at 926–27 (see note 9 above for both sources). Cf. Helen Harris, “Mark Twain’s Response to the Native American,” American Literature 46 (1975): 495–505 at 497.

  57. Mark Twain, Following the Equator (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Books, [1897] 1989), ch. XLI.

  58. Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson (New York: Bantam Books, 1959), 45.

  59. Ibid., xi.

  60. See Susan Gilman, Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain’s America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); Stephen Railton, “The Tragedy of Mark Twain, by Pudd’nhead Wilson,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 56 (March 2002): 518–44, at 522.

  61. Twain, Pudd’nhead, xii (see note 48 above).

  62. Ibid., 9.

  63. Deleuze identifies absurdity of this kind with humor generally, which he describes as a “downward movement from the law to its consequences….” Gilles Deleuze, Masochism (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 88.

  64. Ibid., 20.

  65. McWilliams, The Idea of Fraternity, 438 (see note 38 above).

  66. Twain, Pudd’nhead, 31 (see note 58 above).

  67. Ibid., 54.

  68. “The eight years in America from 1860 to 1868 uprooted institutions that were centuries old [and] …transformed the social life of half the country.” In Mark Twain, The Gilded Age (New York: American Publishing Company, 1874), 168.

  69. Some question whether Twain attributed differences in racial character to conditioning rather than biology, highlighting a reference to Tom’s “native viciousness,” in Pudd’nhead, 22 (see note 58 above). Taking up this charge and compiling further evidence, Henry Wonham argues that “it is simply not possible to be black and white at the same time in Pudd’nhead Wilson,” in “The Minstrel and the Detective,” in Wonham, Constructing Mark Twain (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), 131. However, one arguing otherwise might look, in addition to the points I discuss above, to an early manuscript of the text that includes passages in which Tom reflects on the role of white and black “blood” in shaping his personality. His reflections at once exhibit a critical intelligence and mediate the dispute over essentialism, one might say, by positing a Lamarckian development of habits across generations (specifically, he supposes the history of slavery produced both white depravity and black cowardice). See, accessed October 6, 2015.

  70. Twain, Pudd’nhead, 12 (see note 48 above).

  71. In part, my reading here reiterates Henry Wonham’s argument that Twain’s ambiguous deployment of racialized performances renders identity an “unstable compound.” See Henry B. Wonham, “Mark Twain’s Last Cakewalk: Racialized Performance in No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger,” American Literary Realism, 40 (2008): 262–70, at 268. In another essay, “The Minstrel and the Detective,” Wonham argues persuasively that Twain’s vision found little purchase on the rigid, polemical racist distinctions of the early twentieth century (see note 69 above). However, what I am calling transversal humanity differs from the ideal of an “undifferentiated identity and unmediated communication” that Wonham infers from Twain’s employment of blackface performances in “The Mysterious Stranger,” (in the “Last Cakewalk,” 270). A transversal humanity is very much mediated, at once moved by a finite plurality of sentiments and constrained by habits, but nonetheless a site of emergent possibilities.

  72. See Twain, Pudd’nhead 28, 3 (see note 58 above).

  73. Tracy Strong suggests that Twain’s use of the first-person in Huckleberry Finn – a less distinctive technique – has a similar effect inasmuch as “any novel so written is then about the process by which a given individual…comes to change as he or she moves about in his or her world. And the same happens with the reader.” Tracy Strong, “Glad to Find Out Who I Was: Mark Twain on What Can Be Learned on a Raft,” Journal of Law, Philosophy and Culture 5 (2010): 151–78, at 160.

  74. Twain, Pudd’nhead, xiii (see note 58 above). Carl Dolmetch compares Twain’s impressionistic recollections to the styles of Schnitzler, Chekhov, and Proust in Our Famous Guest (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 225.

  75. Claire Colbrooke, Deleuze (New York: Routledge, 2002), 133.

  76. Deleuze and Guattari, Plateaus, 216 (see note 4 above).

  77. See Robert Penn Warren, Who Speaks for the Negro? (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2014), 344; cf. 347

  78. Ibid., 343.

  79. Ibid., 344.

  80. Ralph Ellison, “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 88. Elsewhere, in a more nuanced assessment, Ellison suggests while the character of Jim draws on conventions of minstrelsy, “it is from behind this stereotype mask that we see Jim’s dignity and human capacity – and Twain’s complexity – emerge.” See Ellison, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” in The Collected Essays, 104. As indicated by Ellison, Twain’s portrait of interracial friendship between Huck and Jim allows for diverse interpretations. For this and other reasons – including the centrality of interracial relations in the novel and its prominent, often controversial place in grade-school curricula – Huckleberry Finn is the focus of many, if not most studies of race in Twain’s writings. For Fishkin, in Was Huck Black?, the character of Huck exemplifies Twain’s adoption of African-American vernacular (see note 8 above). For a more critical assessment of racist themes evoked by the figure of Jim, and particularly of the novel’s didactic function, see Peaches Henry, “The Struggle for Tolerance,” in Satire or Evasion, 124–40; and Elaine and Harry Mensh, Black, White and Huckleberry Finn (see note 8 above for both sources).

  81. Ellison, “Twentieth-Century Fiction,” 88. In his autobiography, Twain cites Huck’s considered decision to face hell rather than betray Jim as the cause for the expulsion of his novel from the library of Concord, Massachusetts. See Mark Twain. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 29. If one must become evil (and so be socially condemned) to counter popular prejudice, then to be accepted is in a sense to fail, as Railton argues with respect to “Pudd’nhead” Wilson, whose redemption at the end of the novel coincides with the re-assignment of white and black characters to their “proper” place. On Wilson’s redemption, see Railton, “The Tragedy of Mark Twain,” 527 (see note 60 above).

  82. See Ellison, “Change the Joke,” 102 (see note 80 above).

  83. Ibid. 89. It is precisely this responsibility that Leo Marx accused Twain of “evading” in the final sections of the novel, an accusation still widely discussed. See Leo Marx, “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn,” The American Scholar 22 (1953): 423–40. Cf. Bernard W. Bell, “Twain’s ‘Nigger’ Jim, The Tragic Face Behind the Comic Mask,” in Satire or Evasion, 124–40 (see note 8 above). For a defense of the novel’s final chapters against such criticisms, see Chadwick-Joshua, The Jim Dilemma, ch. 4; Betty H. Jones, “Huck and Jim: A Reconsideration,” in Satire or Evasion (see note 8 above for both sources).

  84. Ellison, “Change the Joke,” 91 (see note 80 above).

  85. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011).

  86. Ibid., 68–73

  87. Ibid., 113 Although their lives overlapped, Du Bois and Twain apparently never met. After Twain’s death, Du Bois contributed a short text on “negro humor” to the Mark Twain Journal, concluding “…with inborn humor, men of all colors and races face the tragedy of life and make it endurable.” W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Humor of Negroes,” Mark Twain Quarterly 5 (1942–43): 12.

  88. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003), 13.

  89. Ibid., 13–14.

  90. Ibid., 45.

  91. At times, certainly, Du Bois presented the races as having distinct virtues. See Du Bois, Souls, 14–15 (see note 88 above). Cf. Paul Gilroy, Darker than Blue, On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 6.

  92. Ibid., 39.

  93. Ibid., 37.

  94. Jonathan Flatley, Affective Mapping (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008), 110, 113

  95. See Amy Wood, Lynching and Spectacle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

  96. Twain, Collected Tales, 1891–1910, 483 (see note 10 above).

  97. See Wendy Pearlman, “Emotions and the Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings,” Perspectives on Politics 11 (2013): 387–409.

  98. Twain, Collected Tales 1891–1910, 483 (see note 10 above). Compare the following: “Secretly, the poor white detested the slave-lord and did feel his own shame. That feeling was not brought to the surface but the fact that it was there and could have been brought out, under favoring circumstances…showed that a man is at bottom a man, after all….” Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (New York: Norton, 1982), 172.

  99. Ibid., 486.

  100. Ibid., 484.

  101. Ibid., 659.

  102. Tocqueville, Democracy, 308 (see note 1 above)

  103. Twain, Collected Tales 18911910, 478 (see note 10 above)

  104. Ibid., 476.

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Thanks go to Melvin Rodgers, Jason Frank, and Emily Beausoleil for comments on earlier drafts, and to three anonymous reviewers for Polity for their helpful suggestions.

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Shapiro, K. Assembling Counter-Majorities: Mark Twain’s Democratic Mugwumpery. Polity 48, 308–331 (2016).

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