Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

A Fascination with Corpses: Mark Twain's "Shameful Behavior"

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

A Fascination with Corpses: Mark Twain's "Shameful Behavior"

Article excerpt

Throughout his career Mark Twain exhibited both a fascination with and abhorrence of corpses. Time after time he returned to the subject as both the object of humor and of reflection. Very likely it began on 24 March 1847, when he saw the autopsy of his lather's body through a keyhole. John M. Clemens, Twain's father, was caught in a sleet storm on 11 March 1847, and died of pneumonia within two weeks .... [Twain's] feelings of horror seem to have had a dominant influence on Samuel throughout his personal life, since he never dared to refer to the incident directly even in his private notes. ... However, in his fiction writings, as if to find an outlet for the deep suppression of his traumatic experience, he is almost obsessed with corpses.

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THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER Mark Twain exhibited both a fascination with and abhorrence of corpses. Time after time he returned to the subject as both the object of humor and of reflection. Very likely it began on 24 March 1847, when he saw the autopsy of his father's body through a keyhole. John M. Clemens, Twain's father, was caught in a sleet storm on 11 March 1847, and died of pneumonia within two weeks. According to Dixon Wecter, in those days, "dissection of the human cadaver was still a rare and often clandestine privilege, and the family doctor of the Clemens might have "ask[ed] this boon of the widow." Although Wecter characterizes the young Samuel Clemens's gaze upon something that should not have been viewed as both "fascination and horror" (117), the feelings of horror seem to have had a dominant influence on Samuel throughout his personal life, since he never dared to refer to the incident directly even in his private notes. This is indeed, as Wecter admits, "one of the more carefully guarded, because shocking, memories of Sam Clemens's boyhood" (116). However, in his fiction writings, as if to find an outlet for the deep suppression of his traumatic experience, he is almost obsessed with corpses. One can easily add to the list "Cannibalism in the Cars," "A Curious Dream," "The Invalid," and even "The Stolen White Elephant," a story whose inspiration came from the case of the stolen corpse of Alexander T. Stewart in 1878. This may be because his personal sense of taboo was mitigated by the public "morbidity" (as is depicted by Michael Lest in his Wisconsin Death Trip) after the Civil War, in which over 600,000 Americans lost their lives. In other words, Twain seems to

have been tempted into writing about corpses due to the ubiquity of death in society at that time despite his personal sense of taboo, the self-inflicted prohibition. However, what makes Twain truly unique is that because of the very prohibition he seems to have felt even greater temptation toward the prohibited object--corpses.

This "perversity," a seemingly illogical desire against a backdrop of the dilemma of prohibition and temptation, is the key to understand Twain's creativity because examining such a paradoxical motive serves to answer two of the major problems that have long baffled the readers of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The first is the novel's geographical preposterousness: what prompts Huck and Jim, a runaway slave, to travel south along the Mississippi and not north? According to Bernard DeVoto, their adventure itself may have been totally unnecessary in the first place: "[T]here is a lordly disregard of the fact that Jim did not need to get Cairo or the Ohio River, that he could have reached free soil by simply paddling to the Illinois shore from Jackson's Island" (54). The other pertains to the novel's ending chapters, which Ernest Hemingway once condemned as "just cheating" (23): why do Huck and Tom playfully and uselessly rescue Jim at the Phelps farm even though he has been free since the death of his owner? The long controversy over the ending of the novel since the days of T. S Eliot and Lionel Trilling in the 1940s seems to have reached a consensus that Tom and Huck's attempt "to set a free nigger free" (Huckleberry Finn, 348) must be viewed as "a satire on the way the United States botched the enterprise of freeing its slaves" (Fishkin, 75). …

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