Mark Twain was not ignorant of what others have called the original sin of America—i.e. the catastrophic slaying of indigenous people and the slavery of African Americans. This is a sin so dark it is not clear how America can ever atone for it.
In 1881 Twain gave a dazzling speech to the New England Society of Philadelphia who were celebrating the anniversary of the Pilgrim’s landing on Plymouth Rock. He challenged the good people of the society to avoid smugness at that history. He began his speech by asking the audience what they wanted to celebrate. As Nafisi said,
Speaking to the descendants of the Mayflower he begins by asking his audience what they would wish to celebrate
“those ancestors of yours of 1620—the Mayflower tribe,” whom he describes as a “hard Lot” who “took care of themselves but they abolished everybody else’s ancestors.” Twain differentiates himself from his hosts, telling them, “I am a border ruffian from the state of Missouri. I am a Connecticut Yankee by adoption. I have the morals of Missouri and the culture of Connecticut , and that’s the combination that makes the perfect man… “
Twain says his ancestors are precisely those people their ancestors abolished. As Nafisi said,
“Identifying with those “abolished” ancestors, he assumes the identity of America’s persecuted underdogs, and says his first American ancestor was “an early Indian.” Your ancestors skinned him alive, and I am an orphan. Not one drop of my blood flows in that Indian’s veins today. I stand here, lone and forlorn, without an ancestor”.
What a fascinating idea that his ancestors were the native American indigenous people who were slaughtered by Americans.
Twain also laments how “your tribe,” the Americans, chased the Quakers out of the country “for their religions sake.” He added, They broke forever the chain of political slavery and gave the vote to every man in this wide land, excluding none!—none except those who did not belong to the orthodox church. Next Twain invokes others who were used and abused by their ancestors: the witches and finally the most persecuted and marginalized of all, the black slave. “The first slave brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine—I am of a mixed breed, an infinitely shaded and exquisite Mongrel. I am not one of your sham meerschaums that you can color in a week.” Twain identified with the spat upon and beat upon. As a result, Twain was able to create what Nafisi called “an epic of the first American rogue.”
Here we learn what Twain revolted from—the exploitation of others. And this was, I would suggest the classic theme of this magnificent novel that makes it one of the glories of literature anywhere.
Sadly, Americans have not taken Twain’s case to heart. As Nafisi said, “After Twain, it becomes difficult to talk about America without acknowledging those absent ancestors, conveniently airbrushed out of the preferred mythology of America’s glorious origins.” Unlike Twain, too many Americans are not able to take an impartial view of their own history. In fact, as has been seen in the last few years, the American conservatives are actively trying to scrub out the truth of American history. They can’t bear to look at it. These Americans, unlike the best Americans, are not able to look at the truth. And as Nietzsche said “the measure of a person’s worth is how much truth he can stand.” These modern Americans reveal they have little worth because they can’t stand the truth.
Unlike so many other Americans who blamed England for all the sins of America, Twain wanted Americans to see their own sins. This theme was then picked up by other great American writers.
Of course Huck and Jim, the heroes of the novel, embodied the mongrels and ruffians that Twain celebrated. .