The question had come to my mind after reading Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; I knew he more often had put Indians as his story villains, but I wasn't paying attention to it till I read that novel myself.

There is a question asked by me on Yahoo! Answers 3 years ago; but the answers didn't properly convince me. Thus I'm asking it here today to get answers from some literature experts.

Was Mark Twain a racist? I praise Twain's works, but this question about him, i.e. opinions he expressed outside of his fiction works, and not about the characters he created.

  • 2
    The answers you received on Yahoo make a valid point: people in the 19th century were more inclined to make statements based on race & ethnicity. People who were otherwise tolerant & insightful. Which makes me wonder what bigotry or prejudice my words will be obvious to someone a century or more in the future -- if there is a human race at that time.
    – llywrch
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 15:19
  • 1
    This is a hard question to answer, because as soon as you label one author as "racist", suddenly a whole cascade of them start to be labeled racist. One can perhaps objectively define a work as potentially racist, but you'd need some damn good outside evidence to say a person was racist. Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 15:29
  • 1
    Joseph Conrad used many words, and used many characters that can tempt us to call him something alike. But we know it was a different time. We shouldn’t expect authors to be filled with godly scruples. Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 16:40
  • 1
    Can you please edit your question to clarify whether it is about whether (a) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is racist or (b) Mark Twain was (privately) racist?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 16:54
  • 3
    Racism isn't binary, you can't neatly sort people into two boxes labeled "racist" and "not racist". It is perfectly possible for somebody to actively fight against societal racism, and reject most of the racist beliefs that are common in their society, but still hold some racist belief. It is also perfectly possible for somebody to, for example, support the rights of PoC while supporting anti-Jewish discrimination, or vice versa. I do not know where Twain fits in this continuum, but it's important to have a more complex understanding of racism than a simple "yes/no" checkbox.
    – user10704
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 19:52

2 Answers 2


As a concise and direct answer to your question, here is a quote from Twain's essay "Concerning the Jews":

"I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices or caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being--that is enough for me; he can't be any worse."

To go into it a bit deeper (it may not seem at first that it does, but I think it does), the following is an excerpt from chapter 56 of my book “Rebel with a Cause: Mark Twain’s Hidden Memoirs”; this portion could be entitled “IN DEFENSE OF MARK TWAIN’S USE OF ‘THE ‘N’ WORD’ IN ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN”

[ Note: I also recorded the below, and you can hear it here. ]

In an 1885 letter to his publisher, Charles Webster, Twain wrote the following about the negative reaction to Huck Finn:

Dear Charley,
The Committee of the Public Library of Concord, Mass. have given us a rattling tiptop puff which will go into every paper in the country. They have expelled Huck from their library as “trash and suitable only for the slums.” That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure.

Twain later expounded on the personal benefits to him of this banning:

It will deter other libraries from buying the book and you are doubtless aware that one book in a public library prevents the sale of a sure ten and a possible hundred of its mates. And secondly it will cause the purchasers of the book to read it, out of curiosity, instead of merely intending to do so after the usual way of the world and library committees; and then they will discover, to my great advantage and their own indignant disappointment, that there is nothing objectionable in the book, after all.

Explaining the reason behind their action, one member of the Concord library committee wrote of “Huck Finn”:

It deals with a series of adventures of a very low grade of morality, … and all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of rough, coarse, inelegant expressions …The whole book is of a class that is more profitable for the slums than it is for respectable people, and it is trash of the veriest sort.

The New York World’s headline was, “‘Humor’ of a Very Low Order—Wit and Literary Ability Wasted on a Pitiable Exhibition of Irreverence and Vulgarity”.

Although the verdict of the Concord library committee and some newspaper reviewers may have been good for Twain and his company book-sales-wise, the author doubtless also enjoyed receiving positive reviews . . .

The San Francisco Chronicle’s review of “Huck Finn” in March of 1885 was positive:

Mark Twain may be called the Edison of our literature. There is no limit to his inventive genius, and the best proof of its range and originality is found in this book.

H. L. Mencken called it “a truly stupendous piece of work, perhaps the greatest novel ever written in English” and opined that Twain was “the true father of our national literature, the first genuinely American artist. He was, by great odds, the most noble figure America has ever given to English literature.”

Much later, Ernest Hemingway also famously said of “Huck Finn” (in 1935, on the book’s gold anniversary): “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

As previously noted, at the time of publication, though, Huck was not popular with everyone by any means. One magazine described it as being full of “blood-curdling humor” and “coarse and dreary fun” and judged its “gutter realism” as being unsuitable for young people.

Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, even went so far as to scold the author: “If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them.”

Lionel Trilling’s book The Liberal Imagination says: “Huckleberry Finn was once barred from certain libraries and schools for its alleged subversions of morality. The authorities had in mind the book’s endemic lingo, the petty thefts, the denigrations of respectability and religion, the bad language and the bad grammar.”
. . .
As far as today’s view of “Huck Finn” goes, it is most often criticized for its use of the “N-Word.” But those who criticize it for this reason fail to take into account the context (of the text and the times) and perhaps have not even read the book. And if they have indeed read it, the question should be raised as to whether they understood it; understood its point and theme, that is.

Critics should note what prominent African-Americans of the time thought of Twain. Frederick Douglass, who penned an account of his early life entitled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, and who had been assisted in escaping from slavery by Twain’s future in-laws in 1838, was a friend. So was Booker T. Washington, one of the founders of Tuskegee Institute and author of Up From Slavery, who wrote of Huckleberry Finn’s friend Jim:

One cannot fail to observe that in some way or other the author, without making any comment and without going out of his way, has somehow succeeded in making his readers feel a genuine respect for ‘Jim,’ in spite of the ignorance he displays. I cannot help feeling that in this character Mark Twain has, perhaps unconsciously, exhibited his sympathy and interest in the masses of the negro people.

It is exceedingly unlikely that Twain’s success along these lines was unconscious. In fact, Twain once said to an interviewer: “Everything I have ever written has had a serious philosophy or truth as its basis. I would not write a humorous work merely to be funny.”

More recently, in Mark Twain’s America, Bernard DeVoto wrote:

Sam Clemens grew up among Negroes: the fact is important for Mark Twain. . . . In his books the Negroe is consistently a noble character.

Of even more recent vintage is the following quote from the late Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison, who deemed the banning of Huck Finn “elitist censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”

In the preface to his book Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era that Shaped His Masterpiece, Andrew Levy posited the provocative question: “Is the book racist, or a textbook illustration of the antiracist uses of racism?” The fact that Twain refused to allow the “N-Word” to be used in his presence in most situations should provide a good clue as to how we should reply to Levy’s rhetorical question.

Long-time portrayer of Twain Hal Holbrook had this to say about “Huck Finn” and its message:

It is sometimes painful to read, but that’s because Twain is pushing our nose into painful realities. The material and the audiences rise above the political correctness issue. Look, frightened and faint-hearted people don’t know how to think. They’re absolutely paralyzed by political correctness. They’re so frightened of a word, they miss the larger issue. They miss the wonderful message that preaches against prejudice and hatred. We get so distracted by these truly small-minded deviations like political correctness that we don’t deal with the big problems that are becoming almost insurmountable in our society.

Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, wrote in 1953:

Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain, that Jim was not only a slave but a human being …in freeing Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalized evil taken for civilization by the town …Twain …was as highly moral an artist as he was a believer in democracy, and vice versa.

Modern detractors may be interested to know that early denigrators of “Huck Finn” did not take issue with the “racist” language (the “N-Word”). They rather took umbrage at the fact that Twain presented the “runaway slave” Jim as a real person with thoughts and feelings rather than as a caricature from a minstrel show.

Something else to consider: As for reparations, Twain held that such should be made to the negroes, both through personal actions and by civil reforms.

Giving further evidence of where Twain’s heart was in the matter of race relations and equality is the fact that he had a picture of school-teacher Prudence Crandall on the wall of his billiards room at his Hartford home. Crandall was the first educator to integrate an American classroom.

  • 1
    Wow, based on Thierry's answer, www.twainquotes.com makes an indefensible alteration to the meaning of that quote by cutting off the start of the sentence.
    – sumelic
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 16:38
  • Also perhaps relatedly, Twain was thought to be Jewish by many, because of the shape of his nose, his defense of Dreyfus, and that he spoke positively of Jewish people. In Austria, some referred to him as "Mark Twain der Jude" (Mark Twain the Jew) Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 0:45

There's a serious mistake in the accepted answer. The first quote from "Concerning the Jews" is not correct, and Mark Twain indeed admits that he holds one racial prejudice, which I'm almost sure was against "Indians" (Native Americans). Here's the actual quote, taken from Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays 1891-1910 and also found in Concerning the Jews.

I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices.

Does that make him racist by today's standards? I don't know—probably—but it's a pretty interesting admission in any case.

  • Welcome to Literature Stack Exchange, take our tour! If you think an answer needs to be edited, the right thing to do is click the link at the bottom to suggest an edit. Here's the one for that answer. We're not a typical forum; all answers must be direct answers to the question at the top of the page, not just add-ons to or discussions with other answers. Alternatively, and perhaps for the better, you could comment on the other answer and mention this about the quote.
    – bobble
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 1:52
  • I may suggest an edit but this is still a suitable answer to the question (a concise and direct answer, as stated in the accepted answer). I don't think just a comment on that answer would get much attention.
    – Thierry
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 3:06
  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review
    – verbose
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 5:05
  • 1
    I don't mind editing but I'm not sure how to make it clearer. Should I remove the reference to the accepted answer? As for the rest, I can't do much better than to quote the man himself saying that he has one racial prejudice, can I? I'm not going to give a definitive yes or no answer (neither does the other answer btw).
    – Thierry
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 13:33
  • 2
    @verbose: Question: "Was Mark Twain a racist?" Answer: quote from Twain saying "I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices". How is this "not an answer"? It clearly addresses the question; it refers to the other answer but does more than just comment on it.
    – sumelic
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 16:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.