S. Koch

Mark’s Ark

hendrixM2.jpg (26849 bytes)The state of Arkansas was born seven and a half months after Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens.  And although Mark Twain will rightly forever be associated with his native Missouri—Twain was born Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Mo., while Arkansas, originally part of Missouri Territory, was admitted to the Union June 15, 1836—Arkansas figures prominently in the writings of the American legend. And most prominently in Twain’s most prominent novel.  

Huckleberry Finn is not only considered Mark Twain’s finest hour, it is widely regarded as—perhaps the great American novel, a masterpiece that encompasses man’s inhumanity, and humanity, upon itself. Indeed, Finn is multi-layered, at once simple and complex, and a comedy and a tragedy, and is considered structurally flawed by some scholars—all just like America herself.

Ernest Hemingway said "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. . .It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that." It is one of the most studied and controversial novels of all time.

 Half of it takes place in Arkansas.


"The stores and houses was most all old, shackly, dried-up frame concerns that hadn’t ever been painted; they was set up three or four foot above ground on stilts, so as to be out of reach of the water when the river was overflowed. The houses had little gardens around them, but they didn’t seem to raise hardly anything in them but jimpson-weeds, and sunflowers, and ash-piles and old curled-up boots and shoes, and pieces of bottles, and rags, and played out tinware. The fences was made of different kinds of boards, nailed on at different times; and they leaned out every which way, and had gates that didn’t generly have but one hingea leather one. Some of the fences had been whitewashed some time or another, but the duke said it was in Columbus’s time, like enough. There was generly hogs in the garden, and people driving them out. 

"All the stores was along one street. They had white domestic awnings in front, and the country-people hitched their horses to the awning-posts. There was empty dry-goods boxes under the awnings, and loafers roosting on them all day long, whittling them with their Barlow knives; and chawing tobacco, and gaping and yawning and stretching—a mighty ornery lot. They generly had on yellow straw hats most as wide as an umbrella, but didn’t wear no coats or waistcoats; they called one another Bill, and Buck, and Hank, and Joe, and Andy, and talked lazy and drawly, and used considerably many cuss-words. There was as many as one loafer leaning up against every awning-post, and he most always had his hands in his britches pockets, except when he fetched them out to lend a chaw of tobacco or scratch . . . . 

"All the streets and lanes was just mud; they warn’t nothing else but mud—mud as black as tar and nigh about a foot deep in some places, and two or three inches deep in all the places. The hogs loafed and grunted around everywheres. You’d see a muddy sow and a litter come lazying along the street and whollop herself right down in the way, where folks had to walk around her, and she’d stretch out and shut her eyes and wave her ears while the pigs was milking her, and look as happy as if she was on salary." 

Also just like America, Huckleberry Finn is a parable of race. Since the initial 1884 release of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade), it has sold more than 20 million copies in more than 50 languages. 

Also nearly since then, misguided educators and parents have attempted to ban the book for its unflinching portrayal of the depths of human cruelty, the racism the era represents and its often coarse language. In the 1950s, the NAACP called for the book’s removal from libraries and schools, and it had been attempted before and would be again. The word "nigger" appears more than 200 times in Huckleberry Finn, more than in any other of Twain’s works. We know this because different groups have counted it over the years. But Huckleberry Finn is ultimately a tale of redemption, and, like so many of Twain’s often disjointed and structurally flawed writings, the story seemed to take on a life of its own, with its author merely acting as an instrument. 

Twain began the book in 1876, hoping to capitalize on the success of Tom Sawyer, writing to chapter 16. Three years later, he wrote to chapter 21, and wrote the Arkansas half of it in 1882 and 1883, while adding to the beginning.  

Two Arkansas towns were created for Finn: Bricksville, described above, and Pikesville. 

The King and the Duke, charlatans who take up with Jim and Huck, stage their "Thrilling Tragedy of the King’s Camelopard or the Royal Nonesuch!!!" in Bricksville. The bottom line of the handbill "was the biggest of all, which said: LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED "There," says he, "if that line don’t fetch them, I don’t know Arkansaw!" 

Although the fraudulent "Royal Nonesuch" is allowed by its angry audience to play another night in Bricksville so that the other townspeople can be equally duped, the King and the Duke receive their comeuppance in Pikesville, as described by Huck: " . . . Here comes a raging rush of people with torches, and an awful whooping and yelling, and banging tin pans and blowing horns; and we jumped to one side to let them go by; and as they went by I see they had the king and the duke astraddle of a rail—that is, I knowed it was the king and the duke, though they was all over tar and feathers, and didn’t look like nothing in the world that was human—just looked like a couple of monstrous big soldier-plumes. Well, it made me sick to see it, and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see.  Human beings can be awful cruel to one another."  

Bricksville is said by Twain scholars and historians to be based on Napoleon, Ark. Napoleon was located below the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. As its location would suggest, Napoleon, mentioned in Twain’s The Gilded Age as a stop of the Boreas, was a busy river port. Twain described it as "a good big self-complacent town." After suffering heavy blows during the Civil War, Napoleon was washed away by the Arkansas River in 1874. 

In Twain’s Life On The Mississippi, published in 1883, Napoleon is the setting for a sketch called "A Dying Man’s Confession," and the narrator discovers to his dismay the disappearance of the town: 

"Come, what is this all about? Can’t a man go ashore at Napoleon if he wants to?" 

"Why, hang it, don’t you know? There isn’t any Napoleon any more. Hasn’t been for years and years. The Arkansas River burst through it, tore it all to rags, and emptied it into the Mississippi!" 

"Carried the whole town away?—banks, churches, jails, newspaper offices, courthouse, theater, fire department, livery stable—everything?" 

"Everything. Just a fifteen-minute job, or such a matter. Didn’t leave hide nor hair, shred nor shingle, of it, except the fag-end of a shanty and one brick chimney. This boat is paddling along right now where the dead-center of that town used to be; yonder is the brick chimney—all that’s left of Napoleon. These dense woods on the right used to be a mile back of the town. Take a look behind you—upstream—now you begin to recognize the country, don’t you?" 

 "Yes, I do recognize it now. . . ." 

"Yes, it was an astonishing thing to see the Mississippi rolling between unpeopled shores and straight over the spot where I used to see a good big self-complacent town twenty years ago. Town that was county seat of a great and important county; town with a big United States Marine hospital; town of innumerable fights – an inquest every day; town where I used to know the prettiest girl, and the most accomplished in the whole Mississippi Valley; town where we were handed the first printed news of the Pennsylvania’s mournful disaster a quarter of a century ago; a town no more—swallowed up, vanished, gone to feed the fishes; nothing left but a fragment of a shanty and a crumbling brick chimney!"

Twain had a special interest in remembering the steamboat Pennsylvania, which exploded in 1858. He sailed the boat while learning to captain and his brother died on it, nearly a quarter-century before he wrote Life on the Mississippi. On his first voyage, from St. Louis to New Orleans in November 1857, the Pennsylvania struck the Vicksburg and was repaired in New Orleans. Twain rejoined in February 1858, and soon so did his younger brother Henry. In early June, Twain got into an argument with the ship’s pilot, and left the helm to beat the man. Despite this uncaptain-like conduct, the captain offered to put the pilot ashore and put Twain in his spot, but Twain was unready. Instead, he departed the boat in New Orleans June 5 with plans to join it again when the offensive pilot was replaced with someone more suitable, with Henry still on board as mud clerk, unpaid. On June 13, 70 miles south of West Memphis, the Pennsylvania’s boilers exploded, killing both the pilot and Twain’s brother. Twain began to known by some as "Lucky" hereafter. 

Another then-bustling Arkansas river port, Helena, is described in Life On the Mississippi as occupying "one of the prettiest situations on the Mississippi. Her perch is the last, the southernmost group of hills which one sees on that side of the river. In its normal condition it is a pretty town; but the flood (or possible the seepage) had lately been ravaging it; whole streets of houses had been invaded by the muddy water, and the outsides of the buildings were still belted with a broad stain extending upward from the foundations. Stranded and discarded cows were all about; plank sidewalks on stilts four feet high were loose and ruinous,—a couple of men trotting along then could make a blind man think a cavalry charge was coming; everywhere the mud was black and deep, and in many places malarious pools of stagnant water were standing. A Mississippi inundation is the next most wasting and desolating infliction to a fire. 

"We had an enjoyable time here, on this sunny Sunday: two full hours’ liberty ashore while the boat discharged freight. In the back streets but few white people were visible, but there were plenty of colored folk—mainly women and girls; and almost without exception upholstered in bright new clothes of swell and elaborate style and cut – a glaring and hilarious contrast to the mournful mud and the pensive puddles. 

"Helena is the second town in Arkansas, in point of population—which is placed at five thousand. The country about is exceptionally productive. Helena has a good cotton trade; handles from forty to sixty thousand bales annually; she has machine shops and wagon factories—in brief has $1,000,000 invested in manufacturing industries. She has two railways, and is the commercial center of a broad and prosperous regions. Her gross receipts of money, annually, from all sources, are placed by the New Orleans Times-Democrat at $4,000,000." 


"It being of recent birth," Twain wrote he had not heard of Arkansas City in Life on the Mississippi

"It was born of a railway; the Little Rock, Mississippi River and Texas railroad touches the river there. We asked a passenger who belonged there what sort of place it was. "Well," said he, after considering, and with the air of one who wished to take time and be accurate, "it’s a hell of a place." A description which was photographic for exactness. There were several rows and clusters of shabby frame houses, and a supply of mud sufficient to insure the town against a famine in that article for a hundred years; for the overflow had but lately subsided. There were stagnant ponds in the streets, here and there, and a dozen rude scows were scattered about, lying aground wherever they happened to have been when the waters drained off and people could do their visiting and shopping once more. Still, it is a thriving  place, with a rich country behind it, an elevator in front of it, and also a big fine mill for the manufacture of cottonseed oil. I had never seen this kind of a mill before. Cottonseed was comparatively valueless in my time; but it is worth $12 or $13 a ton now, and none of it is thrown away. The oil made from it is colorless, tasteless, and almost if not entirely odorless. It is claimed that it can, by proper manipulation, be made to resemble and perform the office of any and all oils, and be produced at a cheaper rate than the cheapest of the originals. Sagacious people shipped it to Italy, doctored it and brought back as olive oil. This trade grew to be so formidable that Italy was obliged to put a prohibitory impost upon it to keep it from working serious injury to her oil industry." 

And, further along the river, "Island 92 belongs to Arkansas. The river moved it over and joined it to Mississippi. A chap established in a whisky shop there, without a Mississippi license, and enriched himself upon Arkansas protection (where no license was in those days required)."  

Arkansas is mentioned in several other of Twain’s writings, including:

  • Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896)

The setting for Tom Sawyer, Detective, like the conclusion of Huckleberry Finn and Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, is the Phelphes’ Arkansas farm. The farm is described as being near fictional Pikesville, Ark., and a "little bit of a shabby village" in Huckleberry Finn; while Tom Sawyer, Detective doesn’t mention Pikesville by name.

  • Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians (1884)

The unfinished sequel to Huckleberry Finn, this story begins where Huckleberry Finn left off — in Arkansas on the farm of Aunt Sally Phelps.

  • The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)

In Twain’s last American novel, Arkansas is mostly represented as "down the river," a fearsome place where the slaveholders are much more harsh than in Missouri. When the owner of slaves caught stealing agrees not to sell them down the river, only "here," . . . "The culprits flung themselves prone, in an ecstasy of gratitude, and kissed his feet, declaring that they would never forget his goodness and never cease to pray for him as long as they lived. They were sincere, for like God he had stretched forth his mighty hand and closed the gates of hell against them. He knew, himself, that he had done a noble and gracious thing, and he was privately well pleased with his magnamanity; and that night he set the incident down in his diary, so that his son might read it in after years and be thereby moved to deeds of gentleness and humanity himself." 

After being sold down the river by her son "to an Arkansas cotton planter for a trifle over six hundred dollars," Pudd’nhead Wilson character Roxy escapes and returns to Missouri, and chastises her son: 

"Sell a pusson down de river — down de river! — for de bes’! I wouldn’t treat a dog so! I is all broke down en wore out, now, en so I reckon ot ain’t in me to storm aroun’ no mo,’ like I used to when I ‘uz trompled on en ‘bused. I don’t know – but maybe it’s so. Leastways, I’s suffered so much dat mourin’ seem to come mo’ handy to me now den stormin.’" 

  • The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress; Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City’s Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Land (1869) 

In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s first book, Venice is compared — unfavorably, it would seem — to an "overflowed Arkansas town."

  • The American Claimant (1892)

At the beginning of the story—Twain’s sixth novel—the deaths of Simon Lathers and his twin brother occur in a fictional Arkansas town: 

"In the environs of the hamlet of Duffy’s Corners in the grand old State of Arkansas  . . . both being crushed by a log at a smokehouse raising, owing to carelessness on the part of all present, referable to over-confidence and gaiety induced by overplus of sour-mash."

  • Connecticut Yankee (1889)

In the novel that gave Franklin D. Roosevelt the phrase "new deal," Hank Morgan compares the Camelot Weekly Examiner Hosanna to "Arkansas journalism."

  • Roughing It (1872)

This book features a character named Arkansas. A "stalwart ruffian," Arkansas personifies the rough and rowdy post-territorial reputation of his namestate.  Stranded by bad weather at an inn, the narrator witnesses Arkansas, "a stalwart ruffian  . . . who carried two revolvers in his belt and a bowie-knife projecting from his boot  . . .  always drunk and always suffering for a fight," goads the inn’s owner into a fist fight: "  . . .  Arkansas began to shoot and the landlord to clamber over benches, men, and every sort of obstacle in a frantic desire to escape. In the midst of the wild hubbub the landlord crashed through a glass door, and as Arkansas charged after him the landlord’s wife suddenly appeared in the doorway and confronted the desperado with a pair of scissors! Her fury was magnificent. … While the wondering crowd closed up and gazed, she gave him such another tongue-lashing as never a cowed and shame-faced raggart got before, perhaps! As she finished and retired victorious, a roar of applause shook the house and every man ordered ‘drinks for the crowd’ in one and the same breath." 

"The lesson was entirely sufficient. The reign of terror was over, and the Arkansas domination broken for good. During the rest of the season of island captivity, there was one man who sat apart in a state of permanent humiliation, never mixing in any quarrel or uttering a boast, and never resenting the insults the once cringing crew now constantly leveled at him, and that man was Arkansas." 

The Arkansas excerpt appears in some short story anthologies as "Mr. Arkansas." Twain began to expand and dramatize Arkansas’s scene from Roughing It for a play, but did not complete the project.


(Photo by M. Hendrix)