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Project looks at Mark Twain's world tour that reshaped his attitudes about race, colonialism and empire

Thursday, October 02, 2014

LAWRENCE — Most Americans know Mark Twain as the man who wrote "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Many have also criticized Twain’s racial attitudes in those two novels.

A University of Kansas researcher is examining influences Twain’s later writings, especially a lecture tour he took across the British Empire in 1895-96. She suggests that Twain’s travels in Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa reshaped his attitudes about race, colonialism and empire.

"This lecture tour around the world was a turning point for him because it exposed him to people of color and forced him to ponder the relationship between colonials and colonizers," said Susan Harris, a Hall Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture in the Department of English. “Although he was already a sophisticated traveler, this trip made him think about race and empire from a global perspective.”

In 2011 Harris published "God's Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902," which used Twain's responses to U.S. annexation of the Philippines to examine the role that religious rhetoric played in debates over the extent of U.S. imperialism. Twain was vehemently opposed to annexation. Harris became curious about the process that led to his opposition, and that led into her current project. 

She notes that Twain took the trip around the world to earn money. He had declared bankruptcy, and this was a way to repay his debts. The lecture tour and his later published travelogue, "Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World," enabled him to fully compensate his creditors.

As part of research for the book, Harris has retraced Twain’s footsteps in Australia, New Zealand and India, and she is planning to visit South Africa. Her goal is to follow up on themes Twain initiates in "Following the Equator" to see how they are manifested today. Race, politics and empowerment are some of those themes.

Twain was very interested in politics, making astute comments as he traveled through the British Empire.

"These days most people only associate Twain with Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. They would be surprised at his sophistication and his political acuity," Harris said. "He was very, very conscious of political events around the globe."

He also rethought many of his assumptions about race and religion.

"Even though he had traveled extensively in Europe, India was his first sojourn into a place where white people were not the majority," Harris said. "That is a pretty heavy thing for most people who have just assumed the world circulates around people just like they are."

In India, for example, Twain, who grew up in a slave-owning Presbyterian household and had rarely met people who were not Christians, had serious talks with well-educated Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. He admired technologies and arts produced by Aboriginal Australians, and he pointed out that the New Zealand Maoris and Tasmanian Aborigines who fought the British were “patriots” defending their land.  He was also was blown away by India’s ancient civilizations.

"I think what this tour really did in the long term was clarify this long evolution out of the racial and cultural prejudice that he was born into and shift him into cultural relativism," Harris said.

Twain was also interested in indigenous voices. As the creator of Huck, Jim and other vernacular characters, Twain was a pre-eminent spokesman for Americans whose points of view differed from mainstream, white America. 

"Twain’s writings helped get them a respectful place in American literature," Harris said. 

Consequently one theme Harris is following in the former colonies focuses on indigenous voices that were suppressed under white majority rule. 

"Today the issue of self representation for indigenous peoples is a major issue in Australia and New Zealand,” Harris said. 

She suspects that Twain would have been fascinated by contemporary Aborigines’ fight to make their voices heard.

“The struggle for indigenous peoples to control their representations has become a global movement," Harris said.

She added that Twain's life is so fascinating to study because he is so engaged with issues that still resonate in our time.

"The whole question of national identity and responsibility in the world, what stories nations tell about themselves and how they live up to those stories, are issues that engaged Twain very deeply," Harris said. "And of course, they are issues that are with us right now."