If America can be said to have a coherent, unified folklore of its own, then Mark Twain certainly has a place in its history and character. Both a collector of folklore and a source, he grew up in the Mississippi River Valley, living in towns where this lore was current and believed, and knew it intimately. A myriad sayings, proverbs, beliefs, tale patterns, superstitions, and omens are recorded in his works. Too, the images of Tom Sawyer tricking his friends into whitewashing his fence, as well as Huck Finn and Jim lazing on a raft and riding the river, have become immortal pieces of Americana.
Folklore reflects the values and experiences of a culture; but this can be true of individual artists as well, who often utilize folk elements in new and revealing ways. In Twain’s writing, folklore reflects a basic division in his mind and foreshadows some of the writer’s deeper struggles in later life.
Twain’s divided mind has been remarked upon before. Especially in earlier writings like Roughing It, one can see a recurring, sometimes dramatic vacillation between optimism and pessimism. Dr. Forrest Robinson of UC Santa Cruz calls this “a narrative pattern of flow and reflux,” suggesting an origin in Twain’s lifelong fascination with get-rich-quick schemes and early experience in western mining towns before his literary fame.
Frontier miners, Robinson explains, often swung between these two states in the course of their work. Most mining claims were not wildly successful, a fact that inevitably led to discouragement and depression. These low spirits would give way to a hopeful optimism again as the miner continued working his claim, until these alternating mental/emotional states lost their momentum and the miner gave up his hopes as hollow illusions. At this point the pessimistic condition would become permanent.
This dualistic quality seems to affect Twain’s deployment of folklore throughout his works, and especially in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where one can most clearly see the two parallel veins into which folklore flows when guided by Twain’s pen.
In the first vein runs the tall tale, the comical exaggeration, the folk hero, the trickster. This mode will likely feel more characteristic to Twain’s casual readers. Here we see him as the “Wild Humorist of the Western Slope,” the cheerful raconteur, the irrepressible storyteller whose mustache bristles as he winks at his audience at just the right moment.
The second vein is a darker one, a deep, unoxygenated blue that flows far from the memory of daylight. Here Twain invokes omens, superstitions, and belief in the supernatural, which is often almost a fear of the supernatural. Here Twain soaks in the loneliness of the natural world, a paradoxical loneliness when we consider that nature, in this vein of folklore, is often animated with agency, will, and power. Nature here is just short of personified.
It’s with some hesitation that I suggest a terminology for these two veins. “Positive” and “negative” are wrong, since there can be negativity in the one and positivity in the other; whereas “light” and “dark” carry connotations of good and evil. Perhaps the best I can offer is “the folklore of the day” and “the folklore of the night.” But I would stress that there is nothing intrinsically diurnal about the one, nor intrinsically nocturnal about the other. The distinction lies in how Twain uses them and in what they reveal about his own writing and psychology.
Arguably, the folklore of the day is predominant in Twain’s earlier works, tending to overpower the other strain if both are present. In this mode, Twain’s use of folklore is replete with the wit and volubility of Americana, the confident perseverance of American agency. It contains elements such as the folk hero, the tall tale, the trickster, comical exaggerations, and folk sayings and wisdom.
Examples of the folk hero occur as early in Twain’s oeuvre as “The Dandy Frightening the Squatter,” when a backwoodsman demonstrates his superiority over the hubristic city dweller. The folk hero’s honesty, simplicity, and ability prevail over a Bowie knife and two pistols, employing only his raw strength and that of nature in the form of the river’s current. Twain’s depictions of riverboat pilots in Life on the Mississippi also fit the folk hero persona: swaggering, larger-than-life, and masters of their own small world.
The tall tale form, marked by its brevity, dry style, deadpan delivery, and a moment (often near the end) when listeners suddenly recognize its absurd exaggeration, is also employed by Twain in his fiction. Twain was a master of the deadpan style, a form of humor native to America’s backwoods settlements and tempered by frontier optimism and stoicism. Huck Finn is perhaps Twain’s greatest teller of tall tales. While on the lam with Jim, he effortlessly spins backstories and invented identities whenever need arises, which he narrates to those he meets with an ease that is itself almost shocking, considering he has dreamed them up on the spot. This deadpan earnestness is the soul of the tall tale of folklore, only without the outlandish twist at the end that reveals its obvious fictitious nature.
Comical exaggerations can be seen all throughout Twain, as early as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” whose central character, Jim Smiley, will literally bet on anything — even on whether a parson’s wife will die of an illness. Smiley is not merely an incorrigible gambler, but a caricature of one whose excesses are hyperbolic. The case most typical of exaggerations in folklore is found in a cut section from chapter sixteen of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck listens in on boasting contests among a group of raftsmen who outdo each other in trying to be the most outlandish in their claims of strength and power:
I scratch my head with the lightning, and purr myself to sleep with the thunder! When I’m cold, I bile the Gulf of Mexico and bathe in it; when I’m hot I fan myself with an equinoctial storm; when I’m thirsty I reach up and suck a cloud dry like a sponge; when I range the earth hungry, famine follows in my tracks! Whoo-oop! Bow your neck and spread!
Twain also employs folk sayings to comical effect, notably in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Tom’s Aunt Polly continually rattles off well-known proverbs:
“But old fools is the biggest fools there is.”
“Can’t learn an old dog new tricks.”
“I reckon you’re a kind of singed cat, as the saying is — better’n you look.”
These proverbs are also an example of Twain contributing to folklore, not just recording it. It is often difficult to separate the genuine folk sayings in his works — ones he actually heard growing up in the Mississippi Valley — from ones he adapted or invented himself for specific situations in his books, most notably the chapter epigraphs for Pudd’nhead Wilson.
Again, my term “folklore of the day” does not always mean positivity or lightheartedness: rather, it suggests Twain’s usage of the lore to establish a mood of confidence, wit, and agency. For example, Twain sometimes uses folk sayings & folk conventions in a less than favorable way, depicting rural villages like St. Petersburg and Dawson’s Landing (both fictional surrogates for the author’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri) and even characters like Aunt Polly, as beset by a conventional piety that does not recognize the world’s sometimes harsh realities. Probably the most ambivalent example of folklore of the day, though, is Twain’s usage of the trickster figure.
Cons and tricks are so ubiquitous in Twain’s writings that to do full justice to his use of the trickster motif (a pattern nearly ubiquitous in folklore worldwide, and American no less so) would require a treatment much longer than the scope of this essay. It will suffice to mention a few notable examples, and to notice how the trickster himself, while often an agent of humor and cheerfulness, can just as often be a figure of guilt and questionable morality.
Huckleberry Finn tricks the town of St. Petersburg into thinking him murdered (echoing Tom Sawyer’s faked death in his own book). Huck tricks Jim with the dead snake in his bed on Jackson’s Island, and later tricks Jim again after their separation in the fog. Tom Sawyer tricks his Aunt Sally into believing he is a stranger, then kisses her and forces her to ask for another kiss when the trick is revealed. Sally herself tricks her own husband when he comes home from looking for Tom. Most troubling, Tom tricks Jim into staying in a false captivity in order to pretend to free him. Of course, this does not touch all the tricks perpetuated on society and individuals by Hank Morgan in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by an anonymous stranger in “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” by Twain himself and others in Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad, and by the king and duke in Huckleberry Finn. Twain engaged in many trickster activities himself, as he describes in his autobiography.
Just as in folklore, tricksters in Twain can be good-natured and humorous when among friends and children, but can also reveal societal flaws and problematic relationships. As the Canadian literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch notes,
This setting — a new capitalist nation in the violent process of emergence — is a Trickster paradise. Its social and psychological uncertainties, its physical turbulence and shifting borders, make for a world that’s not only ripe for but conducive to all manner of Trickster wiles: transgressing boundaries, defying taboos, mocking rules and regulations.
The ambivalence of certain elements of daytime folklore, though, is quite different from the quality that, I would argue, sets the folklore of the night apart from it. In this strain of folklore Twain employs omens and superstition, ghost stories, and a form of animism regarding the Mississippi River. What binds these folkloric elements in common is fear. Loneliness. Elements of death. An existential quality and a sense of powerlessness against a world that is bigger than Twain’s characters, and over which they have little, if any, control.
The St. Petersburg novels, but especially Huck Finn, are full of omens and superstitions, most of which warn of approaching bad luck and tragedy. From the very first chapters, these omens attempt to make sense of the unpredictability of the world and the invisible forces that govern it. Jim judges the weather from the way birds fly and fears handling snakeskin, while Huck shivers at the spilling of salt, the death of a spider, and the calls of certain night birds, and Pap Finn employs a cross of nails on his bootheel to ward off the devil.
Surprisingly, this is not mere ignorance; these beliefs have real predictive power, accurately foretelling the arrival of Huck’s father, the snakebite Jim suffers, a rainstorm, even Jim obtaining money at the end of the novel. After Huck and Jim are separated in the fog, Jim’s interpretation of the events— even though based on the false belief that they were a dream — actually comes true: he foretells “troubles we was going to get into with quarrelsome people and all kinds of mean folks” (ie, the king and the duke), “but if we minded our business and didn’t talk back and aggravate them,” (Huck and Jim both decide to let the con-men have their way most of the time) “we would pull through and get out of the fog and into the big clear river” (they eventually rid themselves of the grifters).
To a lesser extent, Twain employs ghost stories to add atmosphere and mood to his stories. One of them, found in Life on the Mississippi, tells the origin of a ghost steamboat “still butting around in that deserted river, trying to find her way out.” In another chapter of the same book, Twain quotes a cut passage from Huck Finn, in which a raftsman talks about a “haunted bar’l” that once followed him down the river for a long time until he finally fished it out of the water, only to find it contained the body of a dead baby that one of the other raftsmen had killed. The barrel, it seems, had been following him for years down the river. Twain also wrote another ghost story for Huck Finn that was also ultimately cut, this one from the beginning of chapter nine, in which Jim tells Huck about a revenant that almost strangled him while he was preparing a corpse for his former master, a medical student, to examine.
Perhaps most fascinating, Twain often describes the river itself in personified, almost animistic terms. In Life on the Mississippi he states that it “would neither buoy up a swimmer nor permit a drowned person’s body to rise to the surface,” suggesting an implacable personality that demands tribute and is unwilling to give up what it has claimed. The water is unpredictable, capricious, inexorable, a thing whose many faces and moods even the vaunted steamboat pilots Twain so admires must always heed. It floods, destroys homes, and wrecks riverboats, heedless of the damage it does and which people do to each other along its banks. T.S. Eliot even went so far as to call the Mississippi of these novels a god, and indeed it feels appropriate that omens and superstition are so often employed within the demesne of the river.
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Much has been written about the first strain of folklore in Twain, what I call the folklore of the day. Most readers probably would agree it is more characteristic of his stories, and it certainly mirrors his popular persona: the brazen humorist whose wit and breezy irreverence reflect the soul of a mythical America, that land of possibility and opportunity. It is this flavor of folklore that more people think of when they hear names like Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.
But it is Twain’s use of the folklore of the night that interests me more. Here we see not only a division between “day” and “night”; we also sense a deep, unbridgeable chasm between himself and the world outside of him. Of an existential unease, perhaps even dread, that soaks through his plots and characters alike. There is something in the folklore of the night that demands resolution, catharsis, and consolation, even while offering none of those things in itself.
What, then, is the purpose of this strain? What is the function of fear-based stories? What role do horror and the ghost story play in human art, storytelling, and psychology?
I would argue that they allow us to explore mortality, both literally and figuratively, in a safe context in which one’s self is not actually in peril, in order to achieve peace and acceptance in the face of a sometimes frightening reality. Death is something we all fear; yet it is something none of us can avoid. If we are to live peaceful, meaningful, fulfilling lives, we must all sooner or later come to terms with it.
It is worth taking a moment to look at the cultural roots of this folklore. Many readers, seeing how well-versed Jim is in superstition, might chalk this up to mere slave ignorance, or to his African heritage. Ironically, nearly all the folklore associated with Jim is of European origin, including most of the omens and the concept of being ridden by witches. The main African component of his lore consists of the prophesying hairball, and the general view of nature as filled with ambivalent spirits. The ghost ship also seems to have African resonance; in black folklore, though seldom in white, inanimate objects can have spirits of their own. Snakes are another point of contrast between Huck Finn and African traditions, where they are often creatures of good luck, conferring strength and potency to those who touch them or wear their skins.
But the association with (if not always the actual origins of) the folklore of the night and a Black character like Jim makes sense in a way. In Twain, this lore is an expression of powerlessness, and who is more powerless than an enslaved person? Yet it carries emotional resonance for all of us, since we are all powerless to some extent, however we try to convince ourselves otherwise through cultural and social influence, money, or political power. The less privileged — here, slaves and runaways like Jim — are always in more intimate contact with the fundamentally human limitations we all feel on some level.
The horror story, the ghost story, the terrifying omen — in other words, what I call the folklore of the night — all facilitate the process of acceptance. With the help of such stories, we can undergo a symbolic and sympathetic death, and thereby reconcile ourselves with the world around us, where death is just another part of life.
Just as the folklore of the day is not necessarily good or positive in and of itself, so also the folklore of the night is not necessarily evil or even negative. Death, suffering, and fear are real aspects of the world Twain and his readers live in, so stories employing the folklore of the night are in that sense realistic and can, at the very least, provide opportunities to achieve some degree of growth toward a healthier, more holistic acceptance of our place in the world.
In his book The Immortal Diamond, the mystic Richard Rohr writes of the necessity of this process, in which we let go of the false self and its delusions, resulting in a nondual consciousness in which “life and death are not two but are part of a whole,” allowing one to “view reality in a holistic, undivided way,” where everything has value and relationship to everything else. This is not something anyone can ever be taught. It is something everyone must choose to experience, or not. It is part of the act of letting go. In a nondual consciousness, one sees that division and alienation are only illusions, that nothing real separates one’s self from the universe.
The question is: does Twain do this himself?
It’s impossible, of course, to fully know another person’s inner state, especially if that person is no longer among the living. But a look at some of Twain’s writing, especially certain works produced later in his life, can shed some light on the subject.
My suspicion is that Twain has not got far on this journey, despite his well-trodden path into the folklore of the night. Even though Huckleberry Finn is a novel with a lot of humor, Huck himself rarely laughs or has fun. He is often describe as “in a sweat,” and while he can be an amusing character to the reader, in his own mind stress and uncertainty seem predominant. Further, while modern readers often project a moral victory over racism onto Huck’s crucial decision to “go to hell” for Jim’s sake, Huck doesn’t actually reject racism himself.
It is a sacrificial and highly admirable moment, yes; but it doesn’t seem to change Huck’s basic views about Black people. He still quips, “No’m. Killed a nigger,” when asked by Aunt Sally if anyone was hurt when his fictional riverboat blew a cylinder-head, a remark completely extraneous to his cover story. He still feels disappointment at the idea that Tom Sawyer would stoop so low as to steal a slave. He still has no problem — other than that it seems impractical and nonsensical — with putting Jim’s freedom (as far as Huck knows) at risk by indulging Tom’s desire for romanticism. Note that it is here, in this final segment, just when we might expect a moment of synthesis, growth, or acknowledgment of shared belonging between Jim and Huck, that witchlore, a symptom of Jim’s captivity, reappears in the story for the very first time since the opening chapters.
One might expect witchlore to fit in the category of folklore of the night; but again, I draw these categories based on how Twain uses this folklore, not on anything intrinsic to the folklore itself. Earlier in Huck Finn, witchlore is used for comical effect, at Jim’s expense. Here again, though Jim has freed himself and no longer believes in witches, he is forced to pretend that he does. Witchlore, in Huck Finn, belongs to the folklore of the day, and to return to it after the challenges Jim and Huck have faced together strikes a very odd, almost discordant note, as does the entire “evasion”segment of the novel. We as readers often believe we have undergone a broadening experience along with Huck, but it almost feels as if Twain is unaware of it.
Toward the end of his life, Twain wrote numerous stories focused on the figure of Satan. Like witchlore, the folklore of the devil can belong to either the day or the night, depending on how it’s used. There are numerous folktales in which the devil is himself a comical figure, such as the many versions of the bad man who forces Satan to relinquish a claim on his soul by tricking him into climbing inside an inescapable sack. (This story, by the way, is the origin of the Jack O’Lantern, a piece of folklore Huck mentions in chapter sixteen.)
However, in Twain’s stories — “The Chronicles of Young Satan,” “No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger,” “Letters from the Earth,” and possibly even “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” whose titular character remains mysterious and is most notable for his corrosive influence — Satan plays a much more sinister role and serves a purpose that is anything but unifying. These writings spend their energy criticizing humanity, undermining the idea of human goodness, and haranguing against religion. Satan himself, if not a figure of fear or dread like the river in Huck Finn or the ghosts in Life on the Mississippi, is nevertheless disquieting, unnerving.
When Satan casually destroys the miniature, apparently sentient people he creates just for the amusement of himself and three human children in “No. 44,” he blithely tells his mortal companions, “Don’t cry, they were of no value.” Twain’s narrator, young Theodor Fischer, concludes:
It was of no use to try to move him; evidently he was wholly without feeling, and could not understand. He was full of bubbling spirits, and as gay as if this were a wedding instead of a fiendish massacre. And he was bent on making us feel as he did, and of course his magic accomplished his desire.
Satan is almost Lovecraftian in his ability to make humans feel like insignificant gnats on the back of a hostile, incomprehensible and ultimately irrational and senseless power, itself adrift in a blind and meaningless universe.
As Twain comes more into contact with death and loss in his own personal life, he seems to descend more and more into pessimism, nihilism, and rage against the world, humanity, and religion. Rather than acceptance or belonging — the fruits of a mind that has confronted death and fear and come to terms with them in a healthy way — his writing is filled with resentment and alienation and the denial of intrinsic value, goodness, or meaning in humanity or the world in general. Even his own wife lamented his pathological venom: “Why always dwell on the evil,” she asks, “until those who live beside you are crushed to the earth and you seem almost like a monomaniac?”
I said earlier that the terminology of “folklore of the day and night” is not intended as a system of judgment or assessment of value. Both night and day contain essential aspects of human experience, and a life lived to the fullest must embrace and include both. Folklore can be both prescriptive and descriptive in its relevance to human life; it records our deepest strivings and most desperate searches, and can, at its best, provide signposts of varying reliability along the way. Mark Twain’s lifelong fascination with and usage of folklore shows that he clearly understood this on some level, for he engaged both elements to great effect in his writing.
Nor is it entirely a judgment to conclude that Twain himself most likely did not get far on the road of synthesis, acceptance, and universal belonging. None of us ever truly completes the journey; each day we must, in a sense, begin it again as if for the first time. And yet there is growth. We can learn from Twain’s own failures, insofar as they are failures, and hopefully surpass his limitations even as we strive to surpass our own.
Image source: Library of Congress, E. Everett Henry: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Literary Map for the Harris-Intertype Corporation, 1959.