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The following review appeared 17 February 2020 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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For everyone except for the criminal on the gallows being fitted for his or her noose, witnessing a hanging can be instructive, reformative, cathartic, or entertaining, if not disturbing. In fact, for the close observer it can be all of these things. It can even be some of these things for the hangee, although of much shorter duration. Why, even the more squeamish among us can derive these same benefits just by reading about a hanging. From a glance at the title of Jarrod Roark's book, a potential reader might be roped into thinking that everything in it takes place at the gallows, but let's cut the author some slack. The subtitle gives it all away: Crime and Punishment in His Western Writing, 1861-1873.
Rope is not a trope in Twain's writings, but crime and punishment are a major recurring theme. It would be a challenge to name a book by Twain that does not somewhere feature a criminal, a crime, a victim, a detective, a trial, an injustice, or some wrong to be righted--or some combination of these elements. Twain's later treatments of crime and its consequences have been repeatedly studied, but one question has gone largely unanswered: How, when, and where did Twain's life-long interest in crime and punishment originate and how did it evolve into his better-known broader concern for social justice? Roark finds the origins in Twain's western years, and documents how his writings evolved. The answer, or a clue to the answer, was hiding in plain sight--roughly half of Twain's more than 100 stories and news items in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise between 1862 and 1864 were reports on crimes or violence, and that percentage held steady for the nearly 500 local items he wrote for the Call in San Francisco (14).
Then as now, crime sells, or, as is said in our own visual age, "if it bleeds, it leads." Twain learned this lesson soon after arriving in Nevada, but no book focusing on Twain's earliest crime writings has appeared until now, although most who have written about his western years have touched upon the subject, and Roark cites them: Ivan Benson, Lawrence Berkove, Walter Blair, Edgar Branch, James Caron, Joseph Coulumbe. Those are just the Bs and the Cs; and Roark's list goes on to include the work of Joe Fulton and Roy Morris. Not cited by Roark is the only extended study of Mark Twain's writings on crime and punishment, Daniel M. McKeithan's Court Trials in Mark Twain (1958), whose focus is on six of Twain's later books. Also not cited by Roark is Earl F. Briden's entry on "Law" in The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (1993), an excellent overview of Mark Twain's conflicted attitudes toward the law that only briefly touches on Twain's western experiences. However, these two omissions are collateral explorations of Twain's writings on crime and punishment, neither of them centered on the origins of Twain's interest.
Most of Twain's earliest writings on crime and justice, as well as many of his later writings, also involve gender--women as both victims and victimizers--and Roark draws upon the familiar works on this topic by Susan K. Harris, Linda A. Morris, Ann M. Ryan, and Laura Skandera Trombley, among others. As Roark points out, his study is intended as "an additive, rather than a corrective, to scholarship about Twain's gender anxieties and his writing from the West and about it" (183).
Roark wastes no time making clear his aim: to describe Twain's response "to cultural anxieties about crime, punishment, and gender in the West between 1862 and 1873" (2). He does this through Twain's newspaper writings, letters, journals, and fiction that deal with the "desperadoes, lynch mobs, failed and drunk husbands, prostitutes and johns, judges, and even the gallows" (1). Along the way, according to Roark, "we see a Trinitarian literary persona emerge: Twain as Murderer, Twain the Judge, and Twain the Hangman. The three work in concert to offer extra-legal, indeed, extra-literary responses to crime and punishment . . ." (3).
The west was a violent place, and when Sam Clemens stepped off the stagecoach in Carson City in August 1861, he found himself in the middle of it. In Roughing It he described a gunfight he claimed he witnessed the day of his arrival, and was soon losing friends and acquaintances to violence. He once interrupted a letter he was writing to his mother and sister to say he was going to investigate the source of five gunshots he'd just heard outside in the street, and discovered that two policemen that he knew had been murdered (39). Writing sensationally about this violence sold more papers than did humor, and Roark portrays a young Sam Clemens "whose inkwell brimmed with blood" (4), and places his blood-drenched approach in the context of popular writings of the day that sensationalized violence, including those of George Lippard and Ned Buntline, and others with whose writings Sam Clemens was familiar. Curiously, despite numerous references to Twain's readings, Roark does not cite Alan Gribben's extensive scholarship in this area, which would have led to other sources (like the Causes Celebres volumes Twain owned and read) which would have further strengthened his strong arguments.
Roark begins by borrowing Joseph Coulumbe's description of Clemens as an "outlaw with a pen" whose reports on crime reflected an outlaw ethic that advanced a moral stance. He could express disappointment that a big fistfight in the middle of the street that didn't end in murder was hardly worth reporting (16) and blend fact and fiction in bloody hoaxes like "Horrible Affair" and "A Bloody Massacre Near Carson" that satirized violence (8, 38-47), but when an innocent man was killed by a stray bullet he wrote a report devoid of humor because he knew his readers would have found no humor in it (25-27). Sam Clemens soon became Mark Twain, and Twain often wrote more like a preacher, advising his readers how to avoid the dangers of the very crimes he sensationalized. He drew in his readers through the use of inclusive personal pronouns like "we" and "us" that polished his persona into a "voice of the people"--an entertaining and trusted vox populi that simultaneously reinforced and reflected the culture of that region (21). Ninety-five percent of that region was populated by men in 1860, a figure that had decreased to 85% by 1862, and the inequality of the sexes was a frequent theme in Twain's crime narratives (5).
The crimes that especially concerned Clemens were those against women. Women, especially unmarried women, were vulnerable both physically and economically. Prostitutes were often the victim of crime, and any woman traveling by stagecoach was at risk. Before the arrival of the railroad, stagecoaches were the primary mode of transportation in Nevada in the 1860s (54), stagecoach robberies were a "recognized industry" (68), and the groping and rape of women in stagecoaches was frequent enough that both Sam and his brother Orion advised their female family members against such travel (55-59). Writing in Nevada, Twain saw California as an Eden compared to Nevada's untamed countryside and its harsh climate and dangerous landscape (61-62). But when he settled in California in 1864 he began to see those open countrysides and crowded cityscapes differently. The cities of California were beset by a political climate that reflected the Civil War, infested with degraded men--beasts, Twain called them--who were often secessionists (70-72), who accounted for much of the crime.
Twain began to regard his California Eden as a fallen Eden. It was bad enough that secessionists were robbing stagecoaches in the California countryside, but worse that women in the city were being molested by beasts in hacks (taxis), just as women in Nevada had been attacked in stagecoaches. Pornography, or what Twain called "the obscene picture epidemic" blighted San Francisco, as well as physical assaults against women in hacks, unwary women being forced into prostitution by pimps, and other abuses. During a four month period he wrote a dozen articles on these topics for the Call (80-81). He called for harsh punishments and praised one particular policeman and one particular judge for their efforts (107).
But crimes often went unpunished in the court system, or were ignored by police, and this prompted Twain to turn his attention toward extra-legal punishment for crimes. Twain romanticized some outlaws who he saw as otherwise "useful citizens" or who practiced extra-legal justice themselves on those they saw as transgressors of moral or ethical boundaries. Roark explores Twain's complex and shifting views of three such men: the intellectual Edward Rulloff, who was also a murderer and was ultimately hanged legally; the mythic outlaw "Jack" Slade, who made himself "useful" by practicing frontier justice and was ultimately himself hanged extra-legally; and Captain Ned Blakely, who hanged a man for killing his friend and faced no consequences (112-117, 116-130, 130-135).
Twain's already conflicted attitude toward legal and extra-legal capital punishment is set against the background of the ongoing "anti-gallows" debate then raging nationwide, and reflected in the speeches and writings of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, whose views often parallel Twain's (109, 141). Those parallel views are compared in connection with an anonymous 1862 Nevada broadside that Sumner possessed which may have been written by Twain. For those wishing to explore this intriguing possibility further, Robert Armstrong's well-informed discussion in his Nevada Printing History (1981, pp. 52-54) may be consulted. Armstrong is not cited by Roark, but his conclusions about the authorship do not conflict significantly with Roark's. The "anti-gallows" debate centered around arguments about reform (how can a hanged criminal reform?) versus retribution (how does a hanging serve society?). Twain's writings on the subject are described as "entertaining expressions of social reform" (135) although Roark is careful to balance his argument with a reminder that Twain was not a political activist, and sometimes celebrated an execution and made contradictory statements.
Although not an activist, Twain did make clear distinctions between women who were victims and subversive women. Most studies of Twain's attitudes toward women focus on the period after he married in 1870, but Roark looks at Twain's writing about three women in the 1860s who were either victims or subversive--or both: the four-times-married actress Adah Menken who created a sensation when she appeared on stage as a man, Lord Byron's "Ivan Mazeppa," who was punished for adultery by being strapped nude to a horse (Menken wore a flesh-colored body stocking); Julia Bulette, a well-known Nevada prostitute who was brutally murdered; and Laura Fair, a California prostitute who murdered her married lover and survived two trials. Fair is well-known as the model for the character Laura Hawkins in The Gilded Age, and Roark provides a full discussion of how Twain shaped his fiction around the facts of that case, as well as other influences on his portrayal of Laura Hawkins.
Twain's writings on crime and punishment during this period are full of conflict, changing viewpoints, conflations of facts and fictions, romanticizing, mythologizing, inconsistencies, and outright contradictions. He was attracted to women who challenged social norms and gender roles, especially sexual mores, yet treated them differently than men in his newspaper reporting and in his later literary works. Some of his female characters were empowered while others were victims, but things could get complicated when they were both, as with Laura Hawkins. Twain opposed lynching and legal capital punishment, but he sometimes endorsed extra-legal justice as practiced by outlaws like Slade or Captain Blakely. This is what Roark calls the "messiness" in the title of his final chapter, where Twain merges into the contradictory roles of literary murderer, judge, and hangman.
Roark concludes his study by tracing, sometimes briefly, Twain's
"messiness" in his later literary works--Roughing It, The
Gilded Age, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee
in King Arthur's Court, and Pudd'nhead Wilson. He does not avoid
the obvious contradictions in Twain's various accounts, contending that Twain
depended on the contradictions in his writings to "advance a pathos,
so that readers can consider the horror of the violence, understand its cause,
and seek justice, even if mobs and courts do not" (186). Anyone writing
about Mark Twain's attitudes and treatments of issues about women, gender
roles, sexuality, the Civil War, crime, the law and the courts, or social
justice will find this informative and insightful book an excellent starting