Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain, Asia, and Comparative Racialization

Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain, Asia, and Comparative Racialization

Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain, Asia, and Comparative Racialization

Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain, Asia, and Comparative Racialization

Synopsis

Perhaps the most popular of all canonical American authors, Mark Twain is famous for creating works that satirize American formations of race and empire. While many scholars have explored Twain's work in African Americanist contexts, his writing on Asia and Asian Americans remains largely in the shadows. In Sitting in Darkness, Hsuan Hsu examines Twain's career-long archive of writings about United States relations with China and the Philippines. Comparing Twain's early writings about Chinese immigrants in California and Nevada with his later fictions of slavery and anti-imperialist essays, he demonstrates that Twain's ideas about race were not limited to white and black, but profoundly comparative as he carefully crafted assessments of racialization that drew connections between groups, including African Americans, Chinese immigrants, and a range of colonial populations. Drawing on recent legal scholarship, comparative ethnic studies, and transnational and American studies, Sitting in Darkness engages Twain's best-known novels such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, as well as his lesser-known Chinese and trans-Pacific inflected writings, such as the allegorical tale "A Fable of the Yellow Terror" and the yellow face play Ah Sin. Sitting in Darkness reveals how within intersectional contexts of Chinese Exclusion and Jim Crow, these writings registered fluctuating connections between immigration policy, imperialist ventures, and racism.

Excerpt

As the unexpected bestselling status of his autobiography and the controversy over the NewSouth edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (in which pejorative terms for blacks and Native Americans have been replaced with “slave” and “Indian” throughout) attest, Mark Twain’s incisive literary treatments of U.S. history’s darker episodes continue to fascinate and provoke twenty-first century readers. For a broad international audience, Twain exemplifies how literary form and style can be mobilized against racist institutions; at the same time, his writings have provided key test cases for critical conversations about the possibilities and limitations of canonical engagements with blackness and empire. But whereas Toni Morrison’s reading of the “Africanist” presence at the center of Huck Finn has given rise to illuminating scholarship on blackness and its multiracial analogues in canonical American literature, historical dynamics of comparative racialization raise questions about how “Africanist” representations intersected with representations of Chinese immigrants in a period when the figure of the indentured “coolie” laborer blurred boundaries between traditional notions of freedom and servitude. Sitting in Darkness draws on recent scholarship on Asian immigration, U.S. imperialism, race theory, and legal history to situate Twain’s race fiction in a comparative perspective: in the intersectional contexts of Chinese Exclusion and Jim Crow, even historical novels about antebellum slavery registered fluctuating connections between immigration policy, imperialist ventures, and antiblack racism.

Although this book focuses on the explicit and implicit comparisons that Twain drew between different racial groups over the course of his career, his writings also provide occasions to think through . . .

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