Mark twain's cross-dressing oeuvre


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Skandera-Trombley L. Mark Twain's cross-dressing oeuvre. College Literature [serial online]. June 1997;24(2):82. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 21, 2011.

Mark Twain apparently enjoyed nothing better than writing a rollicking transvestite tale. Beginning with his uncompleted short story "A Medieval Romance" (begun in 1868) and continuing in his 1894 novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain was irresistibly drawn to loving descriptions and painstaking explorations of the contexts and implications of cross-dressing. He left a myriad of texts that testify to his fascination with transvestism; in addition to the short story and novel mentioned above, cross-dressing can be found in such various works as "1,002d Arabian Night" (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), Following the Equator (Vol. 2 1897), "Wapping Alice" (1898,1907), "How Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson" (c. 1902) [also known as "Feud Story and the Girl who was Ostensibly a Man"], and "A Horse's Tale" (1907).

In his transvestite tales Twain was identifying and challenging social constructions of gender, distribution of power within a patriarchal society, and socially determined racial categories. An evolution of what Marjorie Garber terms "transvestite effects" can be traced in Twain's transvestite tales from his first genderswitch short story where stereotypical gender roles are presented then problematized, to introducing a female "gender-trickster" figure in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn who identities and controls these constructions; to ultimately creating intersections where gender, race, and class identities meet in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson.[1]

While I am not the first to discuss Twain's use of cross-dressing (both Susan Gillman and Garber include substantive explorations), what has not been previously explored is the society being reflected in Twain's writings whose culture and history is being portrayed. Indeed, in utilizing the element of cross-dressing in short stories and novels (such as "A Medieval Romance" and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc), where gender themes are foremost, Twain may well have been paying tribute to upper-class, EuropeanAmerican female reformers and suffragettes.[2] In addition, in novels where racial themes are paramount, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson, he was openly recognizing oral and written contributions made by African-American women in the form of slave narratives.

In his first transvestite text, "Medieval Romance," Twain introduced a theme that would resurface in a more developed form in "1,002d Arabian Night." In both stories, the sex of the heroine necessitates cross-dressing in order for inheritance and dynastic structures to remain intact. Yet, in inventing the transvestite heroine, Twain was consciously subverting these systems. While the patriarchal order superficially remains intact at the end of these stories, a sexual revolution has been effected by transvestites who transform the monarchy and sultanate into matriarchies. What takes place here is that the figure of the transvestite restructures the existing society.

In "Medieval Romance," the main character Conrad has been raised as a male by her father, who is determined that the throne will belong to his side of the family, not his brother Ulrich's. When Conrad is twenty-eight years old, her father relates the story of her birth and the reasons for her male gender. Appalled, Conrad remonstrates, "Oh, my father! Is it for this my life hath been a lie? Was it that I might cheat my unoffending cousin of her rights? Spare me, father, spare your child!" (The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain 56).

With Conrad, Twain introduced his first gender-trickster transvestite character, although Conrad does not realize she is tricking anyone until her father informs her that her identity has been a deception in order to win the monarchy. However, despite her father's attempts to fool his brother, by the end of the tale Conrad and her father are out-tricked by Ulrich's daughter Constance. Constance has been seduced by one of her Uncle's henchmen, and she has given birth out of wedlock. It is decided that she must stand trial. Conrad, speaking from the throne, informs Constance that she must name the father of her child. Constance, enraged because Conrad has earlier rejected her advances, names Conrad. Conrad and her father, overcome by the accusation, both swoon. Apparently this plot twist complicated the story to such an extent that after this revelation Twain broke off the narrative and printed a disclaimer in the Buffalo Express explaining, "I have got my hero (or heroine) into such a particularly close place that I do not see how I am ever going to get him (or her) out of it again, and therefore I will wash my hands of the whole business" (The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain 56). Twain's language, "hero (or heroine)" and "him (or her)," is a good example of what Garber means by the transvestite's causing a "failure of definitional distinction."

Twain's next depiction of transvestism would come eight years after "A Medieval Romance," in the 1876 portion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel where all of the main characters (Huckleberry, Jim, and Tom) don female dress at different junctures. The two scenes of cross-dressing contained in the first section of the manuscript (chapters 1-18) are of particular interest here. Early in the novel, there occurs an odd incident which Huckleberry Finn matter of factly recounts: a body had been found in the river. This in itself is not particularly unusual; what is noteworthy about this drowning is the victim's apparel:

Well, about this time [Pap] was found in the fiver drowned, about twelve mile above town, so people said. ... They judged it was him, anyway. ... They said he was floating on his back in the water. They took him and buried him on the bank. But I warn't comfortable long, because I happen to think of something. I knowed mighty well that a drownded man don't float on his back, but on his face. So I knowed then, that this warn't pap, but a woman dressed up in a man's clothes. (15)[3]

If Huck is correct (and he is regarding Pap), then the reader must contend with the possibility of a female cross-dresser who may have met with foul play. Without any other immediate reference, the aside is easily overlooked when Huck continues his story. Yet this mention, while brief, is crucial and contains two questions begging to be asked: is the drowned woman simply a southern transvestite, or could Twain have been testing his reader's knowledge of African-American antebellum history? There does exist an historical explanation for the identity of the drowning victim: she may have been an AfricanAmerican woman fleeing North to escape enslavement who in her flight had either accidently drowned or been murdered.

If we pursue the possibility that the drowned woman might have been African-American, this incident would signal the beginning of Twain's conflating gender identification with racial categories.[4] Indeed in this quick aside, Twain seems to be developing a paradigm where gender and race meet. Garber explains that,

the apparently spontaneous or unexpected or supplementary presence of a transvestite figure in a text ... that does not seem, thematically, to be primarily concerned with gender difference or blurred gender indicates a category crisis elsewhere, an irresolvable conflict or epistemological crux that destabilizes comfortable binarity, and displaces the resulting discomfort onto a figure that already inhabits, indeed incarnates, the margin. (17)

Huck's inability to determine the sex of the dead person, and the historical possibilities for explaining his/her presence, certainly indicate a "category crisis elsewhere"--indeed, the "irresolvable conflict" within Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is that of slavery.

A connection can be made between this episode and African-American women's slave narratives where cross-dressing was a familiar component. Tales of escape from the South were well known, and hundreds of formerly enslaved African-Americans told their stories on the anti-slavery lecture circuit in the Northeast. According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "over one hundred [African-Americans] wrote book-length 'slave narratives,' before the end of the Civil War" (ix). Between the years of 1703 and 1944, these accounts were so numerous it has been estimated that "six thousand and six ex-slaves had narrated the stories of their captivity, through interviews, essays, and books" (The Classic Slave Narratives ix).

Among the published narratives were two that received a great deal of attention. William and Ellen Craft's Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, published in London in 1860, is by any measure a remarkable story. Ellen Craft, who was fair-skinned, disguised herself as a European-American southern planter, and her husband assumed the role of her/his slave. Travelling together, they managed to escape to the North and later fled to England. By the time William Still's The Underground Rail Road was published in 1883, the Crafts were so renowned that in addition to telling the story of their escape, Still included an account of their post-slavery life (Freedman xv).

Another slave narrative featuring a cross-dressed woman was published in 1861 by Harriet Jacobs under the pseudonym Linda Brent. Gates calls Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl "the major black woman's autobiography of the mid-nineteenth century" (The Classic Slave Narratives xvi). Could Twain have known of Harriet Jacobs? It seems almost impossible that he would not. Contained within his personal library were histories of slavery by Charles Ball and Still as well as Lydia Maria Child's Anti-Slavery Catechism (Gribben 43, 141,666).[5] In addition, after making her escape from the South in 1849, Jacobs moved to Rochester where she joined abolitionists and began working in an anti-slavery reading room and office located above Frederick Douglass's newspaper, The North Star (Yellin xvi). The Langdons were well acquainted with Douglass; Jervis Langdon served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and had aided Douglass during his escape from slavery (Mark Twain's Letters. 1867-68 2: 244). In subsequent years, Douglass was often a guest in the Langdon home. Twain met and spoke with Douglass in December 1869 and later wrote a letter to President Garfield endorsing Douglass for a federal job (Mark Twain's Letters. 1869 3: 428). It seems logical that considering the Langdons's times to the Underground Railroad and abolitionist societies and both the Langdons and Twain's personal relationships with Douglass, that they knew of Jacobs's Incidents.

This initial transvestite allusion in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, read in isolation from other scenes of transvestism, quickly becomes buried as Huck races along in his narrative. Buried, that is, until the next incident of cross-dressing. Huck, attempting to "find out what was going on," clumsily disguises himself as a girl and inquires at the dwelling of Mrs. Judith Loftus to see if she has any news about the scarer for him and Jim (47). Loftus informs Huck that she thinks Jim is still in the area--over on Jackson Island. She then proceeds to tell Huck, in precise terms, her husband's plan for the evening. A frightened Huckleberry takes up needle and thread and, after watching him fumble, Mrs. Loftus asks him to throw and catch. Sharp-eyed Mrs. Loftus soon suspects that Huck is not a girl, and after she observes him awkwardly trying to thread a needle, she cleverly devises a series of tests to prove her suspicions: she has Huck throw a lump of lead at a rat and then drops a piece of lead in his skirted lap to see how he catches it--Huck gives scripted "masculine" responses to each of the tests, meaning that his throw is accurate and he clamps his legs together instead of widening them.

After the threading, throwing, and catching is completed, Mrs. Loftus's suspicions have been proven correct: Huck is indeed a boy. Loftus then asks Huckleberry to tell her the real reason he is there: "You just tell me your secret, and trust me. I'll keep it; and what's more, I'll help you. So'll my old man, if you want him to" (52). Mrs. Loftus asks Huck another series of questions to determine if he is from the country or the city and concludes that at least he has not lied to her about his country origin. After his perceptive hostess completes her questions, she then allows Huck to choose his new fake name, George Peters, and cautions him to remember it: "Don't forget and tell me it's Elexander before you go, and then get out by saying it's George-Elexander when I catch you" (53). Before she allows Huck to take his leave, Loftus says "Now trot along to your uncle, Sarah Mary Williams George Elexander Peters [here Loftus verbally acknowledges that Huck's gender identity is still a fabrication], and if you get into trouble you send word to Mrs. Judith Loftus, which is me, and I'll do what I can to get you out of it" (53).

Myra Jehlen poses two important questions in her discussion of the Loftus episode in her essay "Gender": "What is the role in all this of the feminine disguise"; and "Why and to what effect does Huck pass through the crisis of rejecting his born identity dressed as a girl?" (267) What Twain may have been doing in having Huck don female garb is to assist him in gaining insight into Jim's dilemma. Before Huck can understand Jim's plight, he must experience what it means to be powerless. Twain cannot make Huck African-American, but he can make him a girl (granted Huck isn't exactly a privileged member of the Southern elite, although compared to enslaved African-Americans and women he certainly enjoys more personal freedoms).

Dressed as a girl, Huck, under the guidance of Loftus, learns that being female means, among other things, restricted movement and a required lack of intellectual and physical prowess. What is particularly fascinating about Loftus is that, unlike Twain's preceding and subsequent gender-trickster characters, she reveals her methodology for tricking (thus giving her secrets to and, in conjunction, sharing her power with Huck). In other words, working within Gates's definition of the trickster and signifying language, Loftus, a straightdressed gender-trickster, is explaining the art of signifying to the transvestite Huck (Figures in Black 236-41). The gender-tricksters who appear in Twain's other works act out their roles, either male or female--cross-dressed or not-but never openly discuss and deconstruct the act as Loftus does.

When Loftus tells Huck that missing rats is what girls do, she is giving him a lesson on gender roles and expectations. Loftus is teaching Huck how the game is played, and once the rules are understood by Huck, the implication is not only that he can play but that he can win. Who was once powerless is now empowered. As Mrs. Loftus informs him, "You do a girl tolerable poor, but you might fool men, maybe" (53).

If there are any fools here, Twain seems to be saying, they are those who do not realize that such women as Mrs. Loftus are gender-tricksters who can manipulate and thus subvert socially prescribed gender roles. Huck learns from Loftus the powerlessness associated with female gender; Jim will instruct him about the powerlessness inherent in slavery. Huck, and by implication the reader, will eventually realize that racial hatred is, like gender, a sociocultural construct, not a biological certitude.

There is a close connection between Huck's willingness to cross gender lines and his later act of questioning and rejecting racial categories. These two discourses, race and gender, contain overlapping margins whose intersections surface in the figure of the transvestite. Throughout the novel, Huckleberry (as does Jim) adopts and abandons different male and female disguises as well as rejecting activities considered purely male or female. At the end of the novel, Twain has Jim and Tom share Huck's experience of cross-dressing when the two don Aunt Sally's clothes and flee. With such constancy of crossdressing it may be possible to reinterpret Huck's flight as a response to the death of the father leading to a quest for contact with the feminine.

During the summer of 1883 when Twain was completing work on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was also writing "1,002d Arabian Night" (Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques 88). While it is true, as Gillman recognizes, that Twain creates "a hero-heroine pair whose behavior reverses stereotypical masculine and feminine characteristics--but always the sexes are distinguished in terms of traditional traits," unlike "A Medieval Romance," Twain completes the narrative and introduces as the narrator of the tale a third female gender-trickster protagonist (108).

Scherezade, attempting to delay her execution by King Shahriyar, tells him tale "Number One Thousand and Two." Her story concerns two babies whose genders are switched at birth. She chronicles the infants' lives and how they eventually marry and have twins. When the cross-dressed pair show their son and daughter to their celebrating subjects, the people wonderingly comment: "To think that the father, and not the mother, should be the mother of the babes! Now of a truth are all things possible with God ..." (Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques 91; 132). The pair's unconsciousness of possessing each others' supposed "correct" gender is similar to Conrad's apparent unawareness of being raised male in "Medieval Romance."

Scherezade keeps extending her story (and her literal deadline), and the King finally dies. It is important to recognize that while Scherezade acts out the part of the acquiescent and submissive female (each time the king interrupts her narrative she meekly replies "I hear and obey"), by the conclusion she has managed to manipulate her prescribed feminine role until she ultimately triumphs in the misogynist King's demise (Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques 93).

The intersections of gender and race manifested in cross-dressing introduced in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have their fullest rendering nine years later in Pudd'nhead Wilson, where various uses of cross-dressing traceable in Twain's earlier works merge in and become inextricable from the narrative. When the reader is first introduced to the world of Dawson's Landing, everything appears to be in order and everyone is carefully controlled: women are firmly deposited in their "sphere," African-Americans know their "place," and the upper class treats the lower strata of society with benign neglect. However, upon closer examination, none of this reflects the reality of the town and its population. As the narrative proceeds, little is as it initially appears to be and all is marked by the figure of the cross-dresser.

Garber argues that category crises "can and do mark displacements from the axis of class as well as from race onto the axis of gender" (17). It is exactly these crises/intersections that form the narrative of Puddn'head Wilson. The person upon whom the plot hinges, namely Valet de Chambre, is descended from the recently deceased Colonel Cecil Burleigh Essex, a member of the F.F.V. (First Families of Virginia). Roxana, far from trying to hide her liaison, is outspoken regarding her illicit connection with the upper class: "He was de highest quality in dis whole town--Ol Virginny stock, Fust Famblies, he was" (43). Even before Roxana switches babies, Twain calls her own racial identity into question: "To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one-sixteenth of her which was black out-voted the other fifteen" (8). Twain also provides the "percentage" of African-American blood in her son: "Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a negro" (9).[6] In addition, Roxana does not remain in her "place," rather at age thirty-five when she is freed she leaves Dawson's Landing to work on a river boat and carefully invests her money so that she may enjoy a worry-free retirement--only to later lose her savings in a bank failure.

Frederick Anderson notes that the way Twain explored what he terms "multiple identity" can be observed in a summary of the roles taken by Chambre and Roxana. Anderson first describes Chambre's instances of cross-dressing: "There are, in sequence, that of a white man with a beard, a young white woman, an old white woman (whose clothes Tom borrows from his Negro mother), a young Negro woman wearing a veil, and finally 'a disguise proper for a tramp'" (294-95).[7] In adopting these various disguises, Anderson contends, Chambre makes "multiple interchanges of sex, race, and social position" even though he must simultaneously maintain "the role of a respectable member of the family of the town's leading citizen, and a corrupt and dissolute gambler in St. Louis. When he learns of his Negro heritage he must assume the further role of a Negro passing as white" (295). Chambre's blurring of social classes, racial categories, and gender roles is indicative of an epistemological crisis in the novel that Twain would deliberately leave unresolved

Of course, Roxana also acts out a transvestite role, necessitated by her escape from enslavement in the deep South. As Anderson points out, Roxana must "disguise herself further by blackening her face in order to make her skin color conform to her Negro speech" (295). When the history of this crossdressing duo is traced it becomes evident that Chambre's male power, position in society, and racial superiority decrease each time he assumes female garb, while Roxana's transvestism has the inverse effect. When Roxana enters her son's room during a rainy night in St. Louis, Chambre sees what he thinks is a man's back. The unknown man proceeds to turn around and a frightened Chambre tries to order him away, but he is silenced--for the first time in the text. In the course of their conversation, Roxana deduces that Chambre is lying about the bill for her capture, hatches a plan for Chambre to buy back her freedom, and makes him walk with her to the wharf while she keeps a knife ready to plunge into him at the slightest provocation. The Roxana in this scene is quite a departure from the helpless young mother who, earlier in the narrative, contemplated suicide as her only recourse. Like Huck, she has had a lesson in power--and uses it to her advantage.

Much of the material Twain uses in Pudd'nhead Wilson can be found in the slavery narratives of Roxana's real-life counterparts, Ellen Craft and Harriet Jacobs. Just two pages into the Craft's narrative, they challenge the existence of a definable black and white binary: "slavery in America is not at all confined to persons of any particular complexion; there are a very large number of slaves as white as any one ..." (2-3). This strategy is echoed by Twain when he reveals Roxana and Chambre's blood "percentages" at the beginning of chapter two.

But it is in Jacobs's Incidents that the most parallels can be made. Like Roxana, the unmarried Jacobs enters into a sexual liaison with an upper-class European-American male. While both suffer feelings of guilt, it is less for themselves than for the legacy they have brought upon their children. As Jacobs explains, "I will not try to screen myself behind the plea of compulsion from a master; for it was not so. Neither can I plead ignorance or thoughtlessness ... I knew what I did, and I did it with deliberate calculation" (xxx). Both Jacobs and Roxana have bills posted for their capture, both cross-dress, and both must darken their faces with charcoal in order to pass as African-American.

Gillman recognizes that Chambre and Roxana, in darkening their faces and cross-dressing, "conflate" gender and racial categories. According to Gillman, this combining, "explicitly pursued by Twain after Pudd'nhead Wilson ... comes through partially even here: if 'male' and 'female' are as readily interchanged as 'black' and 'white,' then gender difference may prove to be as culturally constituted" (79). To echo Twain, such distinctions would eventually be recognized as "a fiction of law and custom." Yet, the question that Twain poses in Pudd'nhead Wilson and tries in part to answer is: what does one do with this fiction, and how does it fit into preconceived narrative structures? While acknowledging the possibility of conflation, Gillman cautions that if a pattern of association is established between the two categories, "we must ourselves be careful ... not to blur distinctions" (102). But this is exactly what Twain is trying to do and what Garber identifies: "Pudd'nhead Wilson is in fact an exemplary instance of the category crisis, the slippage from one borderline to another, in this case race to gender, or gender to race, marked by the appearance of the transvestite" (289).

This "slippage" of borderlines, how to conceive of this blurring of distinctions and how to understand these intersections, is not restricted to nineteenth-century prose but is also clearly a contemporary issue. Twain did not wait until after Pudd'nhead Wilson to explore the social and cultural constitutions of race and gender; actually he began this investigation in his earliest tale of gender switching, and his examination continued into the last years of his life.[8] Gillman is correct in that both gender and racial differences were highly important topics to Twain; however, Twain's investigations of gender constructs using the figure of the transvestite preceded his focus on race. In creating cross-dressing characters Chambre and Roxana, Twain shatters such binaries as what it means to be African-American and European-American, master and slave, and male and female. By the end of the story when Tom is sold down the river, former ways of knowing, have by necessity, been abandoned, and an epistemological crisis looms as no new systems have been constructed to replace the old.

By the end of the story, this intersection of race and gender as evidenced by the figure of the transvestite has so disrupted the world that was Dawson's Landing that there will be no hope of ever restoring it. Within Pudd'nhead Wilson there are several related category crises: the first is, again, slavery; the second is reconstruction (it is worth taking into account that Twain wrote Pudd'nhead Wilson thirty-two years after emancipation in the aftermath of the failure of Reconstruction), and the third is the difficulty in trying to narrate the reality of the African-American female experience.

In Twain's writing after Pudd'nhead Wilson, cross-dressing was a frequent occurrence. Twain's historical transvestite novel, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, features a young woman whose objective is transgressing defined social boundaries. Joan's transvestism results in some of the most injurious accusations leveled against her at her trial. Among the sixty-six articles with which she is charged are "discard[ing] the decencies and proprieties of her sex" and "irreverently assuming the dress of a man and the vocation of a soldier" (377). When Joan makes her first appearance in court, she approaches the bench in male apparel: "A wide collar of this same black stuff lay in radiating folds upon her shoulders and breast; the sleeves of her doublet were full, down to the elbows, and tight thence to her manacled wrists; below the doublet, tight black hose down to the chains on her ankles" (352).

When Joan is asked by the court whether she would remove her male attire if she were allowed communion, Joan replies: "when one receives the sacrament, the manner of his dress is a small thing and of no value in the eyes of Our Lord" (378). After this response, the court charges Joan with being "stubborn" (379). In conjunction with her transvestism, she is castigated for performing a traditional male role in choosing combat and "deserting the industries proper to her sex" (379). Joan finally loses patience with the court's attempts to "resex" her and responds: "Peace! Without the permission of God I will not lay it off [her male clothing] though you cut off my head" (380).

In two incomplete short stories written within one year of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc Twain continues his experiments with gender sans transvestism. In "John Brown and Mary Taylor," no cross-dressing occurs, although there is a crossing-over of gender characteristics. John Brown's distinguishing traits are shyness and passivity, and he is described as "good, gentle, bashful, timid" (Mark Twain's Short Stories 381). Mary Taylor, on the other hand, is an active, thoughtful, problem-solver and leader of a band of women.

The story commences with Brown, a fussily dressed Presbyterian Sundayschool superintendent, driving his carriage to Mary Taylor's home to propose marriage. Four miles into his journey, a gust of wind flips off his straw boater and it flies into a creek. Unwilling to present himself to his intended less than completely outfitted, Brown strips and wades into the stream. When he emerges from the water, he discovers that his buggy has disappeared. He chases and catches his horse and dresses himself from the upper body down--but before he can don his pants he spies four women approaching him and he quickly covers himself with his new white, embroidered, linen lap-robe. Coming down the lane are Mary, her mother, and two elderly friends. Mary asks John to drive the aged sisters home and then return. The highly embarrassed Brown, who has remained silent throughout the exchange with the women except to say he is unwell, is relieved upon hearing Mary's plan but he quickly becomes alarmed when she reaches out her hand for the lap-robe. At that point, Twain ends the story and then mischievously adds that it is "the reader's privilege to determine for himself how the thing came out" (387).

In "Hellfire Hotchkiss," like in "1,002d Arabian Night," Twain presents a second female-male couple with switched genders (although neither crossdress). Rachel, nicknamed "Hellfire," is a fearless heroine who possesses superior athletic ability and rescues a frightened, weeping Oscar "Thug" Carpenter from drowning. In a scene reminiscent of the drowned woman episode in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Rachel casts aside her bonnet and shawl and leaps into the icy Mississippi with a whiskey flask tucked inside her "bosom" (Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques 189). Hellfire, though, unlike the unfortunate drowned woman, does not succumb to the currents of the river. Instead, after arriving at the emergency scene astride her "great black horse" she swims to the ice floe, makes Thug strap on a life preserver, and pulls him to shore.

Despite initial approbation from the townspeople who witnessed her selfless heroics, Hellfire is later informed by her Aunt Betsy that gossips are maligning her "masculine" ways. After agreeing to cease riding astraddle and going hunting, boating and skating with male companions, Rachel laments: "Oh, everything seems to be made wrong, nothing seems to [be] the way it ought to be" (Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques 199). Here is a marked tonal shift to Twain's later gender-switch stories. Instead of the humor and eventual success of the gender-trickster in "1,002d Arabian Night," in "Hellfire Hotchkiss" there is a sense of society closing in and crushing those who tempt to transgress rigid gender bifurcations.

In 1904 Twain completed a short story involving a couple with exchanged genders, namely the extraordinary "The $30,000 Bequest" (Mark Twain Collected Tales 597-626). Twain's prior gender-switch tales, "John Brown and Mary Taylor" and "Hellfire Hotchkiss" practically serve as drafts of this later, completed piece. "The $30,000 Bequest" features two main characters: "Saladin Foster" nicknamed "Sally" and "Electra Foster" nicknamed "Aleck." Sally is a devoted husband and father who daydreams about spending a thirty thousand dollar bequest to be left to him by a distant male relative on the occasion of his death. Aleck is a loving wife and mother as well as a talented money manager and investor.

The story consists of the two fantasizing about investing and spending their future bequest until Aleck has managed to parlay the initial thirty thousand dollars into an imaginary three hundred million. All is lost, though, in the imaginary Wall Street crash and both Sally and Aleck are plunged into despair. After their fantasy bankruptcy, the story ends with the pair discovering that the relative left no estate at his death and the town was forced to pay for his burial. The discovery that there will be no forthcoming money shatters the make-believe world the two have constructed together and the tale concludes with their deaths.

The remainder of Twain's transvestite writings, Following the Equator, "Wapping Alice," "How Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson," and "A Horse's Tale" all contain cross-dressing themes and subject matter traceable to earlier works. Twain's difficulties with "Wapping Alice" (also never completed), especially in his wavering in deciding whether "Wapping Alice" is male or female, is reminiscent of his inability to complete the narrative in "A Medieval Romance." Following the Equator returns to the twin issues of race and gender, and Twain again treads upon familiar ground when he describes his young Singhalese man-servant in ways that denote him as belonging to an indeterminate world. Gillman observes that in describing the young man, Twain draws a connection between race and sex: "a world between: between black and white, masculine and feminine" (99). Such indeterminacy has already been expressed most poignantly by a bitter Tom Driscoll when he replies to Roxana: "Bofe of us is imitation white--dat's what we is--en pow'full good imitation, too--Yah-yah-yah!--we don't 'mount to noth'n as imitation niggers" (35).

"How Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson" bears certain similarities to "A Medieval Romance" and the Loftus scene in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This story contains two gender-tricksters who act against each other. Nancy Jackson has been involved in a murder and is forced by Thomas Furlong, the witness, to don male dress, move away from home, and forever after be known as Robert Finlay. After securing Nancy's promise to do as he tells her, Furlong, in a take-off of the Loftus scene, tells Nancy to put on the clothes of a lynched African-American man and to burn her dress: "I'll trim your head and make a young fellow of you. Every day you'll practice, and I'll help you; and by and by when you're letter perfect and can walk and act like a male person and the lynch-fever has blown over, I'll take you out of this region some night and see you safe over the border and on your way" ("How Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson" 103).

While Furlong is giving lessons on gender-tricking to Nancy, Kate Wilson is falling in love with a young male stranger who will soon desert her. Panicked because she is pregnant and abandoned by the young man, Kate decides to make her father's new hired hand, "Robert Finlay," fall in love with her. She asks Robert to kiss her and is furious when he does not respond. Kate then informs her parents that Robert is the father of her unborn child and they are forced to wed. As in "Medieval Romance," the cross-dressed female trickster is ultimately outfoxed by the female tricking within her feminine gender.

Twain's last transvestite tale, "A Horse's Tale," written during the fall of 1905, owes much to Twain's youngest daughter, Jean Clemens, and to Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.[9] The heroine of the story, nine-year-old Cathy Allison, is sent to live with her uncle, General Allison, after the death of her parents in Europe. Cathy travels to the western territory from Rouen, France (the site of Joan's trial and execution), and immediately becomes the fort's darling. She is made an officer and routinely inspects her soldiers and returns salutes while dressed in medieval military garb similar to the description of Joan's clothes.

After all this exchanging of clothing, it seems fair to ask if Twain himself ever transgressed into cross-dressing. Quite often so it appears. An avid participant in charades and family drama productions, Twain would readily outfit himself to meet the demands of the moment. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar assert that "for the most part ... men of letters tended to wear clothes that emphasized some version of masculinity, as if to suggest that the right garments reflect the right relationship not only between the sexes but between anatomy and destiny" (327). This was not the case with Twain. Perhaps in part due to his wife and her family's influence or perhaps because of his own evolving views on race and gender, Twain proved to be willing to explore what other authors feared. Indeed his life might be viewed as a series of categorical crises: impoverished/wealthy, Confederate/Yankee, westerner/easterner, humorous short story writer/serious novelist and social commentator. Twain's personal involvement in cross-dressing quite possibly reflects his willingness to engage the issue fictionally, and his apparent eagerness to don female dress may have allowed him to escape (albeit briefly) and thereby challenge stifling constructions of masculinity. In his life and his writing, Twain extravagantly proved Garber's thesis that "transvestism is a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture."

The most touching artifact of Twain's transvestism is a photograph taken circa 1890 of the author and his eldest daughter, Susy. In the picture the two are posing on the porch of a rustic cabin holding hands high above their heads. Susy is dressed as a princess with a cape, and her father is wearing a woman's dress over rolled-up long underwear with a bonnet on his head and a hot water bottle hanging from his neck. Looking as though he was photographed in the midst of a merry jig, Twain, trickster himself, never stopped dancing between the accepted and the taboo.


1 In coining the term "gender-trickster," I am indebted to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s discussion of African-American trickster figures and signifying language in Figures in Black 236-41. Also useful is Lawrence Levine's chapter on signifying language in Black Cultures and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford UP, 1978) 103, 121-23.

By gender-trickster, I mean several different categories: characters who successfully cross-dress are gender-tricksters, while those characters whose attempts to cross-dress fall (as when Huckleberry dons a dress) are not. Gender-tricksters need not necessarily be cross-dressed. These are characters who either recognize gender as a construction and openly identify it as such (Judith Loftus is the best example), or characters who are clearly manipulating stereotypical gender characteristics without identifying they are doing so Kate Jackson is such an example).

Marjorie Garber divides her discussion of cross-dressing into two sections entitled "Transvestite Logic" and "Transvestite Effects." According to Garber, "transvestite logic" occurs when "transvestism creates culture," and "transvestite effects" when "culture creates transvestites." Garber argues that "one of the most consistent and effective functions of the transvestite in culture is to indicate the place of ... 'category crisis,' disrupting and calling attention to cultural, social, or aesthetic dissonances. ..." This "category crisis" indicates a "failure of definitional distinction"; in other words, "a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits of border crossing from one ... category to another": such as male/female, master/slave, black/white, and at various points between the binaries. Therefore, the figure of the cross-dresser becomes a sign for "development [and] progress" (16). The crux of Garber's argument is that "transvestism is a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture" (17).

  • 2 For a detailed history of the Langdon family's political and social activism, including acts of public cross-dressing, see chapters 4 and 5 in Laura Skandera-Trombley's Mark Twain in the Company of Women (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1994).

  • 3 Albert Bigelow Paine records how as a young boy Twain, accompanied by several friends, found the body of a drowned slave in a swamp, Mark Twain: A Biography (New York: Harper, 1912) 64.

  • 4 Gillman argues that "conflating categories of gender identification with racial categories" first takes place in Pudd'nhead Wilson and would be continued in Following the Equator (79). I contend that Twain's combining of gender and race first began with this hint in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and would be pursued in the above two works.

  • 5 The three works as listed in Gribben: Charles Ball, Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a Slave (1837) 43; Lydia Mafia Child, Anti-Slavery Catechism (Newburyport, 1836) 141. [Bound as a volume with W.E. Channing's Letter on Slavery, along with five other pamphlets.]; William Still, The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, by Themselves and Others, or Witnessed by the Author (1883) 666.

Sholom S. Kahn, in a recent Mark Twain Circular article, "Mark Twain's 'Original Jacobs's: A Probable Explanation," contends that the title of chapter fifty in Life on the Mississippi, "The Original Jacobs," is attributable to Linda Brent's work: "I want to propose that in the title he gave to Chapter 50 of LOM, Clemens was alluding to Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself ..." (8 Jan-Mar 1994): 4-6. In addition, Kahn reasons that it is likely that Twain had Brent's narrative in mind when he composed "A True Story" (4).

6 The conception and formulation of race is still a problematic issue in American law. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, in a chapter entitled "Racial Formation," in Racial Formation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 1994) include the following example of how the law classifies and quantifies racial identity:

In 1982-83, Susie Guillory Phipps unsuccessfully sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records to change her racial classification from black to white. The descendant of an 18th-century white planter and a black slave, Phipps was designated 'black' on her birth certificate in accordance with a 1970 state law which declared anyone with at least 1/32nd 'Negru blood' to be black In the end, Phipps lost. The court upheld the state's right to classify and quantify racial identity. ... Phipps's problematic racial identity, and her effort to resolve it through state action, is in many ways a parable of America's unsolved racial dilemma. It illustrates the difficulties of defining race and assigning individuals or groups to racial categories. It shows how the racial legacies of the past--slavery and bigotry--continue to shape the present. (53)

  • 7 I agree with Anderson; nonetheless it should be noted that what Anderson terms as examples of "multiple identity" are those places in the text where the transvestite forces various displacements of the kind Garber identifies.

  • 8 Gillman argues that while Twain "unequivocally condemned racial stereotypes ... his writing circles more hesitantly around the whole problem of gender difference, sometimes affirming, sometimes denying that such a clear-cut system of difference does in fact exist. In short, Twain shows himself to be more aware of the invidiousness of racial than sexual stereotypes" (102).

  • 9 In April 1905, Harper's Weekly published a short story by Jean Clemens, "A Word for the Horses," describing the mistreatment of horses by riders using checkreins and martingales. Twain was apparently encouraged by Jean to write a short story exposing Spanish cruelties to bulls and horses used in bullfighting. Twain's "A Horse's Tale" was first published in Harper's Magazine in August and September of 1906 and again in 1907 in book form [Everett Emerson, The Authentic' Mark Twain: A Literary Biography of Samuel L. Clemens (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1984) 260-61.]


Anderson, Frederick. "Mark Twain and the Writing of Pudd'nhead Wilson." Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins. Ed. Sidney Berger. NewYork: Norton, 1980.

Craft, William and Ellen Craft. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. New York: Arno, 1969.

Freedman, Florence. Introduction. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. New York: Arno, 1969.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin, 1987.

-----. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Vol 2: Sexchanges. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Gillman, Susan. Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain's America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Gribben, Alan. Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction. 2 vols. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Jehlen, Myra. "Gender." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Sculley Bradley. New York: Norton, 1977.

----- "How Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson." Ed. Robert Sattelmeyer. The Missouri Review 10 (1987): 97-112.

----- Mark Twain Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays 1891-1910. New York: Library of America, n.d.

----- Mark Twain's Letters. 1867-1868. Ed. Harriet Smith and Richard Bucci. Vol. 2. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

----- Mark Twain's Letters. 1869. Ed. Victor Fischer and Michael Frank. Vol. 3. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

----- Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques. Ed. Franklin R. Rogers. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967.

----- Mark Twain's Short Stories. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: New American Library, 1985.

----- Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989.

-----. Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins. Ed. Sidney E. Berger. New York: Norton, 1980.

-----. The Signet Classic Book of Mark Twain's Short Stories. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Penguin, 1985.



Skandera-Trombley is Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the faculty at Coe College and executive director of NEMLA. She has published numerous articles on Mark Twain including a book, Mark Twain in the Company of Women (U of Pennsylvania P, 1994).


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