Nature or Nurture: Biological Vs. Social Conditions of Race According to Harper and Twain
After the Civil War, while human ownership had become illegal, negative social attitudes and discrimination against blacks continued. Critics of discrimination began to speak out. Nearly 30 years after the American government declared equality for all, literary figures such as Frances E. W. Harper, in her 1892 novel Iola Leroy, and Mark Twain, in his 1894 novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, continued to question the validity of a still prevalent prejudicial classification. Their works have raised this question: Is identity formed through “nature,” an innate quality passed on through a familial bloodline, or is it “nurtured” through personal experience? According to both Twain and Harper, as proven through interesting plot twists and character perspective, they each believe people should be valued for their individual merit rather than ancestral association.
Prior to the end of slavery, race had been the divisive factor in determining human worth, a worth measured either by ultimate freedom or a bill of sale. The rules for making such determinations were created solely by white men, allowing them to wield power as they saw fit. Harper challenges the superiority of this white heritage through her creation of Eugene Leroy, a wealthy white man, tracing his steps and proving his power fallible more often than not. Disguised as a compassionate slave owner, doting husband and caring father to his mulatto family, Eugene effectively demonstrates how the whim of his will defines the position of those subordinate to his rank. While the kindness of freedom is extended to Marie, one of his slaves, it is offered merely to satisfy his yen for her. Beyond making her his wife, he offers no attempt to change society for the benefit of all black people. When Marie asks, “Why do you not battle against public opinion, if you think it is wrong.” Eugene answers that he has “neither the courage of a martyr nor the faith of a saint” (Harper 79). Harper uses this statement to show that the power of the white man is nothing if his conviction is as weak as his Christianity. In this way, the nature of Eugene’s supposed supreme bloodline is proven not so noble.
To further avoid the issue, Eugene sends his children, ignorant of their true identity, to be educated in the North. He believes the dishonesty of this maneuver will be outweighed by their protection from society’s cruelty. This avoidance promotes the very institution Eugene and his wife most want their children to escape from. Their daughter, Iola, unwittingly aligns her opinion toward slavery with prominent Southern ideals. In essence, both Iola’s sense of self and her opinion are defined by her white father’s influence as is her freedom. Harper illustrates this point when Iola says, “Slavery can’t be wrong for my father is a slave holder and my mother is as good to the servants as she could be. Our slaves do not want their freedom.” (Harper 97) Harper uses this opportune moment to pull the rug out from under Iola?s ideology. When Eugene suffers an untimely death, his power is visibly reduced to the illusion it had always been. He can no longer keep his wife and children harbored away from their truth and reality. At the whim of Lorraine, a white cousin, Eugene’s remaining family members are seen only for the black blood in their veins and the dollar amount on their bill of sale. Lorraine, as a matter of settling Eugene?s estate, relegates them to slavery. When she learns of the travesty, Iola says, “I used to say that slavery was right. I didn’t know what I was talking about” (Harper 107). Only by walking in slave shoes rather than pretending to understand what it is to be owned does Iola challenge her original opinion.
This sudden twist provides an opportunity for Harper to perform her magic, demonstrating that bloodline can neither promote nor confine a person to any particular character. Forced to finally identify with their black bloodline, Iola and her family suffer a never-ending series of social injustices, testing their true mettle at every turn. Just prior to the family’s separation, Iola asks, “Mother, are these people Christians that are robbing us of our inheritance and reducing us to slavery? If this is Christianity, I hate and despise it” (Harper 107). Marie answers, “I have not learned my Christianity from them. The most beautiful lessons of faith and trust I have ever learned were from our lowly people in their humble cabins” (Harper 107). This sentiment lies in direct conflict with Eugene’s lack of a strong sense of faith. Regardless of being torn apart, suffering an enormous sense of anguish, loss and sadness, neither the Leroys’ black bloodline nor their new environment turns them away from their sense of Christian and moral decency. In fact, Iola and her brother Harry reject opportunities for easier lives based on the whiteness of their skin because acceptance would require denial of her true identity and thus her family. Instead they created their own value based on achievement, using their accomplishments to give back to their community. The capacity for honesty, independence and moral humanity as demonstrated by her characters is what Harper believes to be most the honorable and superior power, shattering the white society’s belief that the black race is inferior.
Twain examines these same social conditions of race in Pudd’nhead Wilson by crafting his commentary around a mullatta slave mother desperate to keep her child from being “sold down the river.” In her desperation, Roxy switches her white-skinned slave boy, Chambers, with her master’s son, Tom. At first glance, it seems likely that the boys should grow similar in nature, sharing the same mother, household, and skin color. The hindrance comes from the smallest amount of colored blood contaminating Chamber’s “whiteness.” This affliction, as viewed by whites at the time, is enough to result in a person’s confinement within the institution of slavery. Unaware of the switch themselves, the boys become Twain’s perfect experiment. Because opportunities are offered and denied to each based on a false perception of origin, they grow to be very different men. This development of character, or lack thereof, allows Twain to demonstrate the validity of personal merit over lineage.
The boy now known in town as “Tom,” Roxy’s real son, is given every opportunity to reach his full potential but, as the narrator states, “‘Tom’ was a bad baby from the very beginning of his usurpation” (Twain 75). This sentence draws a compelling connection between Tom “becoming” white and turning bad. From this point forward, Tom commands an undeserved respect because he is believed to be the descendant of an honorable bloodline. As Roxy describes it, “She saw her darling gradually cease from being her son, all that was left was master, and it was not a gentle mastership either” (Twain 81). Immersed in a white environment, the undesirable traits of white society shape “Tom” into a frightfully cruel person, regardless of his true lineage. Able to escape every transgression, the perceived “whiteness” of Tom’s race excuses his squandering of a Yale education, cloaks his corrupt gambling habit and heavily shields him from suspicion when he murders his uncle. Twain has attributed not one desirable or redeeming quality to this boy, leaving room only for moral bankruptcy. Joining the white race has robbed “Tom”of decency and demonstrates the sole effect of environment, or “nurture,” as the most influential aspect in molding personality.
On the contrary, “Chambers” develops true strength of character by facing the hardships attributed to the race he is believed to belong to. In his childhood obedience to master “Tom,” when asked to steal, fight and win games by proxy, the experience makes him stronger and more clever. Even through thievery, “Chambers” retains his sense of decency, stealing only out of obedience and not by choice. “Tom did his humble comrade these various ill turns partly out of native viciousness and partly because he hated him for his superiorities of physique and pluck, and for his manifold cleverness” (Twain 79). Twain strongly suggests here that jealousy and the feeling of inferiority is what drives whites to oppress blacks, poignantly addressing the viciousness present in the white population. Interestingly, Twain refers to viciousness as “native,” a complicated term considering the children’s racial swap. This use of the term obviously refers to the native “nature” of whites, yet their environment has the most ill effect on one not of their own bloodline.
Twain, like Harper, makes his character walk in the shoes of the slaves, giving him the experience to understand the value of freedom and how wrong ownership of another human being is. Interestingly, once “Tom” learns of his true mother/son relationship to Roxy, his emotions become firmly rooted in both disgust and fear, “the ‘nigger’ in him asserting its humility” (Twain 118). Self hatred is born out of his white orientation and aimed at the colored blood he embodies. Still, Twain believes that this recognition is not fully transformative. As the narrator explains, “In several ways his opinions were totally changed and would never go back to what they were before, but the main structure of his character was not changed, and could not be changed” (Twain 119). The damage of the white race has far reaching effects extending to the core of “Tom”s” very being. When “Tom’s” black lineage and “Chambers” claim on the Driscoll’s dwindled fortune is finally revealed and each resume the position of their birth, their identity is permanently damaged with no hope of return. Each of them is destroyed by both sides of slavery’s coin.
Harper and Twain, by addressing the racism issue almost 30 years after the Civil War, reveal open wounds still bleeding long after the abolishment of slavery. Unfortunately, these wounds still hang open today. To significantly challenge society?s perception of a white superior race, each author nobly confronts the validity of the concept of classifying superior or inferior people. By demonstrating the ill effects of a harmful environment, even in the event of ancestral ignorance, identity is proven to be “nurtured” through personal experience, for better or worse. Lineage plays no role. The one common denominator, according to Twain and Harper, is that the value of people resides solely in individual merit. Whether speaking about the past, present or future, slavery and its remnants of racism are damaging to the character of all people, regardless of their skin color.
“Nature Versus Nurture.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 27 Oct 2006, 03:04 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 30 Oct 2006
Harper, Frances. Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.
Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson. England: Penguin Classics, 1986.