Sitting In Darkness: Mark Twain's Asia and Comparative Racialization. By Hsuan L. Hsu. New York University Press, 2015. Pp. 243. Paperback. 6 x 9" ISBN 978-1-4798-61510-4. $24.00.

Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.

The following review appeared 18 March 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2015 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Martin Zehr

The last quarter century has seen a renewed focus on Mark Twain's anti-imperialist writings and observations of racism in an international context. Although this interest can be seen in earlier works, notably Philip Foner's Mark Twain: Social Critic (1958), the present interest can be traced to the late Jim Zwick, whose book, Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War (1992) can fairly be said to have sparked the current work over the last two decades on Twain's observations of the export of his countrymen's racial attitudes. In addition, during the last decade, Susan Harris's God's Arbiters: American and the Philippines, 1898-1902 (2011), and the republication of Twain's "The Treaty With China: Its Provisions Explained" in 2010 have underscored Twain's career-long interest in race-based questions involving the actions of the United States on a world stage. Now we have Hsuan Hsu's further exploration of these questions, with an emphasis on Twain's writings with respect to Asian nations and the manner and degree to which these are reflections of these same issues in his works, particularly, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and Comedy Those Extraordinary Twins and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

"Comparative racialization," a relatively new term in cross-cultural studies in politics, cultures and literature, refers to the examination of the differential treatments and perceptions of various racial categories in relation to each other and to the dominant racial influence in a particular geographic setting. Hsu states that, "Comparative racialization considers how legal and cultural discourses have constructed racial groupings not only in relation to "whiteness," but also through relational analogies and contrasts with other racialized groups" (Hsuan Hsu, personal communication, March, 2015).

Implicit in this book is the assumption that the reader, likely a scholar in the general areas of Twain studies or Twain studies in the context of American studies, is conversant with Twain's writings, primary and otherwise, on the subject of race relations with respect to African-Americans during the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras Twain witnessed directly. As part of the mission statement contained in his introduction, Hsu asserts "I attend not only to the Africanist or Asiatic presence in literary narratives but also to the ghostly African American presence haunting Twain's accounts of Chinese immigrants and Filipino freedom fighters and to the Asian presences that haunt his treatments of African Americans" (9). The study of comparative racialization, i.e., evaluation of the differential impact of policies, formal and otherwise, on multiple race and ethnic populations, promises that an analysis of race-based issues in one culture has the potential for providing insight regarding the workings and effects of racism in another. This promise is kept in Hsu's book, replete with numerous examples, e.g., Twain's use of the "rhetoric of abolitionism" while condemning the slaughter of innocents in his "Comments on the Moro Massacre" (154).

In order to convey a basic understanding of the comparative status of Asians with respect to racial issues, Hsu provides historical background for the Chinese immigrants who came to the American West to work in the gold fields and on the railroads following the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848. The brutal predations inflicted on the Chinese by whites during this period are documented in horrific detail elsewhere, notably in works like Jean Pfaelzer's Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans (Berkeley: U. Cal. Press, 2008; cited by Hsu), but Hsu outlines the conditions endured by these immigrants in sufficient detail to convince the reader that this segment of the population, in many respects, had impediments to their survival and success that even African-Americans in the post-war period did not encounter. In addition to the Introduction and the primary text, this book includes a section of endnotes (37 pages), Works Cited (16 pages) and Index (14 pages) which provide notice of the depth and breadth of the research entailed in its writing, serving also as a comprehensive reference base for any reader/scholar wishing to conduct their own explorations of the subject.

The heart of this book consists of a series of challenges to preconceptions of Twain's race-based considerations in his major, and minor, writings. Of particular interest is Hsu's analysis of Ah Sin, the collaboration between Twain and his erstwhile mentor, Bret Harte. Ah Sin is considered an unequivocal failure by most Twain scholars aware of its existence, who would likely share Frederick Anderson's assessment, in his preface to its 1961 publication, that "while Ah Sin is not the poorest work by either man, it is not far from it" (Anderson, Ah Sin, Page v).

Often considered as a lightweight, convoluted farce, with racist overtones associated with the dialogue of the title character (e.g., "Me washee-washee…") and "yellowface stereotypes," a closer reading, provided by Hsu, turns this conception on its head. Important to his reading is a familiarity with the legal constraints on Chinese immigrants to the American West following the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, particularly the prohibition, upheld in the California case of People v. Hall in 1854, on Chinese testimony against white men in courts, and the imposition of the Foreign Miners Tax. These measures effectively rendered the Chinese fair game for the predations of white men, including mass murder, and, in combination, formalized a qualitative and quantitative racialized oppression arguably much greater than that experienced by members of other minority groups in the West of this era. In Hsu's analysis, the title character can be seen as an individual who, forced to survive under these legal constraints, which effectively preclude him from divulging the identity of a murderer, nonetheless "proves to be the most perceptive witness in the play" (44). By using physical evidence, Ah Sin manages to circumvent the constraints of the racist criminal justice system and make possible the play's resolution, while underscoring the injustices of his circumstances. Both Harte and Twain could testify to the sufferings and oppression of the Chinese immigrant, and both documented their observations, Twain most notably in his newspaper work and in early writings such as "The Treaty With China" (1868), "Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy" (1870), and "Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again" (1870). It should be noted that Hsu's discussion of Ah Sin is not for the purpose of defending its paltry literary merits, but, instead, his aim is "to shift the interpretive focus from the play's racial stereotypes to its dramatization of structural racism" (41). Reading the play from this perspective may not alter any assessment of its entertainment value, but will, undoubtedly, reinforce the idea that Twain's more famous condemnation of racism and imperialism regarding Asian nationalities, "To The Person Sitting in Darkness" (1901) is part and parcel of a continuing preoccupation with the comparative racialization which is the subject of Hsu's book.

Extending comparative racialization analysis to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hsu turns his focus to notions of "vagrancy" and its implications for "spatial" restrictions within population subgroups, i.e., imposed legal and cultural limitations on literal and political/economic mobility. He begins his analysis by noting the proliferation of vagrancy laws in southern and western states that placed disproportionate legal burdens on black and Chinese-American populations, criminalizing status, rather than behavior, in what has to be judged a successful effort to restrict employment and, through enforcement, perpetuate stereotyped notions of "tramps" or "loafers." In Huckleberry Finn, Hsu contrasts Huck's "adventurous mobility" with Jim's need to remain inconspicuous, to the point of being hidden, although both, by the standards of the era, could have been described as "vagrants." Even Huck, however, along with other white "vagabonds," "tramps" and "vagrants," including Pap, was subject to implicit boundaries to free movement, requiring him to stay between the river's banks or to "light out for the territory" to avoid the "sivilizing" trappings of town living. These restrictions, however, are inconsequential compared to the legal restrictions that made free movement and employment of Chinese immigrants nearly impossible, such as the Geary Act requirement that they carry photo identification to prove they were legal residents and the 1870 Cubic Air Ordinance in San Francisco which gave police an excuse to raid Chinatown tenements and jail countless residents, simultaneously rendering them criminals and vagrants. Hsu uses a late work by Bret Harte, Three Vagabonds of Trinidad (1900), to underscore the equivalent vagrancy status of a Chinese boy, Li Tee and Jim, an Indian, in a reprise of the outsider status of Injun Joe and Jim in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and Comedy Those Extraordinary Twins (1894), another Twain work which only infrequently attracts critical attention, is the focus of Hsu's argument regarding notions of corporate personhood in post-Civil War America, satirizing the inherent contradiction of "conjoinment and Western models of justice" (89). As Hsu notes, the Capello twins reflect Twain's fascination with Chang and Eng in an earlier piece, "Personal Habits of the Siamese Twins" (1869). In conjunction with Puddn'head Wilson (1894), with which it was originally "conjoined," the obvious racial issues in what Twain described as his "Suppressed Farce" should be read in context with the allegorical representation of the sinister implications of "coolie" labor and the increasing influence of corporate entities of the era. The use of fingerprinting in the plot of Puddn'head Wilson, according to Hsu's thesis, was used, not only as the means of solving the racially-infused mystery, but as an allusion to its application as a means of policing racialized groups, including Chinese immigrants. These Chinese immigrants, according to Hsu, warranted special attention (persecution) as a result of their association with devalued ("coolie") labor and its use to build the railroads which were the source of much corrupt corporatization in this era.

Twain's parable of the destructive impact of forced modernization in the industrial age, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, shows strong evidence of an acute awareness of the problems associated with colonial governance and the presumption of Western superiority that would become explicit in later writings, e.g., "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" and "The Fable of the Yellow Terror." (1904-05). As Hsu observes, through comparison with a piece titled "Wu Chih Tien, the Celestial Empress" (1889), by Wong Chin Foo, familiar to Twain, A Connecticut Yankee makes strong statements regarding "conventional opinions about the progressive nature of history and the temporally backward status of non-Western civilizations" (127). Twain's personal acquaintance with Yung Wing and the establishment of the Chinese Educational Mission in Hartford also raises the question, as Hsu does, whether its purported mission to assist in the modernization of China has an impact on the plot of A Connecticut Yankee, especially in the transfer of technology and retraining of medieval youth to serve Hank Morgan's vision of an enlightened world, created by motivations which unmistakably are those of the imperialism of the latter nineteenth century.

Twain's preoccupation with comparative racialization, undeniable in his late writings, is evident in Hsu's analysis of "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" (1901),"The United States of Lyncherdom" (1901), and Following the Equator (1897). Common to these writings is Twain's explicit reference to the comparative racialization of body counts, an effective means of emphasizing the gruesome consequences of race-based imperialism. Hsu notes that "The United States of Lyncherdom" was a piece "Twain suppressed in order to avoid offending southerners" (150), a curious decision, given his conspicuous condemnation of southern aristocracy in the Shepherdson-Grangerford feud chapter of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and his earlier condemnation of the "southern gentlemen" responsible for a lynching in an editorial for the Buffalo Express titled "Only A Nigger" (1869). Nonetheless, the man who was regarded by his friend and editor, William Dean Howells, as the "most de-southernized Southerner" he had ever known, makes explicit the connection between racial issues in his own country and the imperialist policies imposed on the citizenry of the Philippines and China in "To The Person Sitting in Darkness," reinforcing the conflation of racism and imperialism which is a central theme of Hsu's book.

Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain's Asia and Comparative Racialization is a product of the ever-expanding vistas of Mark Twain studies and underscores Twain's iconic status as an American and international celebrity, as well as an acute observer of racially-based behavior and thinking in a worldwide context. Hsu has extended Twain's familiar critiques of race issues as applied to African-American populations to Asia and Asian-Americans, based on Twain's cumulative writings on the subject, many of these under the radar of all but the most determined Twain scholars. The pieces of this puzzle regarding Twain's attitudes toward race questions as applied to Chinese immigrants and Asian cultures have generally been accessible to scholars, but it has taken the focused efforts of a cadre of Twain enthusiasts during the last two decades, from Jim Zwick to Hsuan Hsu, to stitch together the pieces of the written legacy necessary to bring these concerns to greater awareness. Given the persistence of racial tensions in the twenty-first century and the increasing economic, political and cultural intercourse between the United States and nations comprising the quaint notion of the Orient, this work is a timely, incisive exploration of issues which are unfortunately as contentious today as they were in Twain's era. Through Hsu's work we are again reminded that Mark Twain was never the "mere humorist" of his time, or ours.

Hsuan L. Hsu is associate professor of English at the University of California, Davis.


Martin Zehr is a psychologist in private practice in Kansas City, Missouri. He presented "Mark Twain's Chinese Connection: Empathy, Politics & Race" for "The Trouble Begins at Eight" series of the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies in 2014 and republished the complete text of Twain's 1868 New York Tribune article, "The Treaty With China: Its Provisions Explained," in 2010.