#57, July 21, 2004


novel histories (3)

The Sir Walter Disease



In a chapter of Life on the Mississippi (New York: P.F. Collier, 1917) entitled “Enchantments and Enchanters,” Mark Twain begins with a memory of seeing Mardi-Gras festivities in New Orleans in 1850.  He remembered seeing a procession of the Mystic Crew of Comus, “with knights and nobles and so on, clothed in silken and golden Paris-made gorgeousness, planned and bought for that single night’s use; and in their train all manner of giants, dwarfs, monstrosities, and other diverting grotesquerie – a startling and wonderful sort of show, as it filed solemnly and silently down the street in the light of its smoking and flickering torches.”(373)


He then notes that Mardi-Gras had been a relic of French and Spanish “occupation” of the city, but that any religious origins of the festivities had been “pretty well knocked out of it now.”  The reason for this, Twain tells us, is that “Sir Walter has got the advantage of the gentlemen of the cowl and rosary, and he will stay.  His medieval business, supplemented by the monsters and the oddities, and the pleasant creatures from fairy-land, is finer to look at than the poor fantastic inventions and performances of the reveling rabble of the priest’s day, and serves quite as well, perhaps, to emphasize the day and admonish men that the grace-line between the worldly season and the holy one is reached.”(373-4)


More’s the pity, Twain believes.  He is pleased that it is unlikely that such pageantry is unlikely to spread beyond Memphis, St. Louis, and Baltimore to infect the “practical North”, let alone London.  But he is obviously less than happy with the fixation of his own natal region on all this romanticism. “For the soul of it,” he intones, “is the romantic, not the funny and the grotesque.  Take away the romantic mysteries, the kings and knights and big-sounding titles, and Mardi-Gras would die, down there in the South.  The very feature that keeps it alive in the South – girly-girly romance – would kill it in the North or in London.  Puck and Punch, and the press universal, would fall upon it and make merciless fun of it, and its first exhibition would be also its last.” (374)


Now, while we may be less sanguine than Twain about the career of romance in the dens of practicality, he certainly makes an interesting case about the South, framed nicely in relation to the French Revolution.  He writes:


Against the crimes of the French Revolution and of Bonaparte may be set two compensating benefactions: the Revolution broke the chains of the ancien régime and of the Church, and made a nation of abject slaves a nation of freemen; and Bonaparte instituted the setting of merit above birth, and so completely stripped the divinity from royalty that, whereas crowned heads in Europe were gods before, they are only men since, and can never be gods again, but only figure-heads, and answerable for their acts like common clay.  Such benefactions as these compensate the temporary harm which Bonaparte and the Revolution did, and leave the world in debt to them for these great and permanent services to liberty, humanity, and progress.(374-5)


One imagines that Twain is capable of believing that “abject slaves” would not just mean Frenchmen, but could include the bonded Haitian, and his similarly situated brother and sister in the Old South.  But, liberty, humanity, and progress, were to be taxed commodities in the domain of literature.  “Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments,” Twain continues,


and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.  (375)


What Twain tells us is quite important, I think.  Perhaps there is a historian who in a footnote about the Old South has mentioned the appeal of Sir Walter Scott to members of the slaveholding society; but none that I know of has gone so far as to attribute the characteristics of that society to changes in literary taste.  With few exceptions, historians have a more materialistic bent, seeing culture as a reflection of material conditions – the superstructure built upon the economic base.  Now, obviously one might still wonder why Scott might have the appeal in the Old South that Twain claims for him, attributing this to the institution of slavery perhaps, but one would still have to recognize what impact is being afforded a mere writer of Scottish romances.  Twain notes:


He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote.  Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still.  Not so forcefully as a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully.  There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization, and so you have practical common sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works, mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.(375)


So, according to Twain, the South had been held back by its adoration for the romance of Scott and “but for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner…would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be a generation further advanced than it is.”(375-6)  But the problems associated with the Scott disease were even more pernicious.  For,


It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a major or a colonel, or a general or a judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations.  For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them.  Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.(376)


Much of the honor code described by Bertram Wyatt Brown as central to Southern mentalité in Southern Honor, a work that come closer than most others to an idealist rather than materialist interpretation of the South, can be linked to this Scott fixation.  And, more still, Twain claims that this fixation was one of its causes of the Civil War itself:


Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.  It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument, might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition.  The Southerner of the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War; but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman.  The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter’s influence than to that of any other thing or person.(376)


As one reads “Enchantments and Enchanters” one is reminded of both Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The former work does a couple of things.  First, it places the representative of northern practicality in a Scott-like medieval setting, but with an unexpected twist.  Rather than simply showing the idiocy of Arthurian society and ridiculing its conventions, as one might predict from this particular essay, Connecticut Yankee has its Yankee imposing his own conventions in such a way that “the modern” itself becomes problematic.  Second, the work provides a parable about Reconstruction.  While the South may have been a weird mix of medieval and modern, northerners’ attempts to reconstruct this region, without really knowing the extent of their own warped romanticism (and so their susceptibility to Southern wiles) and without understanding the region they were trying to reconstruct, would be abortive.


Huck Finn, by contrast, provides an antidote to Sir Walter’s fare.  Twain ends the “Enchantments” essay by juxtaposing Scott’s work and that of Cervantes:


A curious exemplification of the power of a single book for good or harm is shown in the effects wrought by Don Quixote and those wrought by Ivanhoe.  The first swept the world’s admiration for the medieval chivalry silliness out of existence; and the other restored it.  As far as our South is concerned the good work done by Cervantes is pretty nearly a dead letter, so effectually has Scott’s pernicious work undermined it.(377-8)


Huck Finn provides an assault on the Scott-ridden South using Cervantine conventions.  Huck is very much a Don Quixote maneuvering his way through the South’s pretensions to chivalric civilization, finding its limits in the contradictions and hypocrisies evident in the racism of the South.  Huck’s companion, Jim, very much takes on the air of a Sancho Panza, uneducated and yet wise, especially by comparison with those who would keep him in bondage.


So, what of all this?  We have then a novelist who has transformed a society for ill – showing the power of the novel not just to tell us about particular kinds of societies and historical narratives, but also to mislead us, and in so doing create a historical memory that begins to shape history itself.  We have another novelist attempting to put things to right in his own writing, and doing so via the muse of Miguel de Cervantes.  As we have said in the introduction to these “novel histories” – all roads lead to Cervantes; we will get there yet.



© Rob Gregg, 2004