Turn Us into Real Men:

Mark Twain and His Incomplete Masculine Education




Mark Twain is an experimentalist in “masculine education,” encouraging his boys to acquire ideal masculinities and to be gentlemen as their community expects. However, these acolytes eventually have no choice but to drop out and follow Twain into some new gendered territories. Students of Twain's masculine education struggle with the social issues of Twain's contemporary America. I argue that Twain makes an experiment with the concept of masculine education, ignoring the cultural imperatives placed before his students and encouraging them to transgress their class, race, time, country, and even gender boundaries. Ironically enough, Twain's concept of education may go against what he repeatedly declares in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) or The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894): “Training is everything.”2 Twain's “students” forge their way through Twain's masculine education, adopting his own sense of justice and eventually choosing to be outcasts of the community like Huckleberry Finn, or literally to perish like the English boys in A Connecticut Yankee.

The aim of this paper is to analyze Twain's attitude toward masculinities, mainly by casting new light on The American Claimant (1892).3 As Linda Morris points out in Gender Play in Mark Twain“throughout his writing career, Mark Twain played with gender issues,” and “his approach to gender is much more playful and experimental than critics have generally credited.”4 I agree with her view and will go one step further to argue that Twain is a “scientist” in what we may call a “gender technology.”

Masculine education is my key term in interpreting Twain's works. It is a kind of gender education that seeks to transform boys into reasonable, active, and contributory “gentlemen” in civilized male-dominated societies. One characteristic of Twainian masculine education is, however, that the followers are always destined to fail, with just a few fortunate exceptions like Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).


Twain reproduces his version of masculine education for his male characters in his novels. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), for example, Huck Finn, on his journey down the Mississippi river, refuses at the last second to “tell on” the runaway slave Jim to the authorities, despite knowing that it is a duty for a Southern white man to obey the slave codes. While Jim flatters Huck, describing him as “de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to old Jim,” Huck will never become a gentleman in the old South. He gives up on doing “the right thing,” that is, becoming a white gentleman by obeying the rules of his slave-based society, and finally says “I warn't man enough,”5 finding himself inadequate for that designation. Also in A Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan's followers cannot get rid of their Englishness in spite of Hank's having instilled in them the postbellum, nineteenth-century American democratic values of practical manhood. Pudd’nhead Wilson is another laboratory for Twain's curious masculine education. In this novel, a baby boy who has “black blood” is given a counterfeit identity as a noble white in antebellum America. Although he is educated to have a strong sense of entitlement as a white patriarch, he never evolves into a gentleman. He becomes, on the contrary, the complete opposite: a thief, a cruel slave dealer who sells his own mother, the murderer of his foster father, and what is more, a coward. Tom is a villain, but Twain is less critical of Tom than he is in the slave system that has created his appetites for mastery and vengeance. Twain evolves the basic pattern of his masculine education out of these representative novels of his: male characters, mainly boys, are exposed to a kind of education for which they are unfit because of the peculiar problems that their society imposed on them. The American Claimant lies among these important works by Twain.

The American Claimant is one of Twain's works that has rarely been read, scarcely reviewed, and hardly appreciated. Still, this novel should be placed in the lineage of Twain's genealogy of masculine education. Even if it might have been appropriate for critics to consider in it his contrivance for considering the state of American masculinity, which he himself came to represent. Also, if what makes Twain's works Twainian is in the details, we should pay due attention to those “failures” for the purpose of capturing the whole image of the author.

Here I confine my attention to two of the characters for analysis: Berkeley and One-armed Pete. This story examines in detail the experiences in America of Berkeley, an English viscount. After acknowledging the successive letters from his remote relative who claims the legitimacy of his succession, Berkeley undertakes a heroic and reckless journey to the United States to yield his peerage to Colonel Mulberry Sellers. The purpose of it turns out to be not only to abandon his lordship, but also to become an American man. Berkeley's father speaks to himself at his departure:

“Let us see what equality and hard times can effect for the mental health of a brain-sick young British Lord. Going to renounce his lordship and be a man!” (25)

“Candor, kindliness, honesty, sincerity, simplicity, modesty” (17-8) are among Berkeley's disposition, which should avail him much in educating himself again in nineteenth-century, postbellum America, where hard work and courage are said to have been essential elements in the strenuous lives that men were required to lead. We do not have space here to examine the old, familiar Colonel Sellers. He is a typical Gilded Age American male in that he is absorbed in speculative activities to gain instant success. He is also typical in his failures: he has no job, no economic resources, and no intention to “change” himself. Sellers plays an important role in triggering an accidental encounter between Berkeley and One-armed Pete, which directly leads to the coalescence of two different types of masculinities.

Berkeley and One-armed Pete do not actually face each other. In fact, Berkeley does not know of Pete's existence at all. By Seller's conduct, their threads of fate are twisted together, and the author contrives to use this accident as a quick and impressive masculine education for Berkeley. The New Gadsby, the hotel at which the two are staying by the long arm of coincidence, is touched by fire and collapses. Berkeley and Pete are among the alleged victims. Remarkably, the death reports of the two in the newspaper are completely contrary. Both may have fulfilled the eager expectancy of the public respectively, that is, while Berkeley's death was reported as truly heroic, Pete's was quite mean.

According to the newspaper:

he[Berkeley] went on saving women and children until escape for himself was impossible; then with the eyes of weeping multitudes upon him, he stood with folded arms and sternly awaited the approach of the devouring fiend; “and so standing, amid a tossing sea of flame and on-rushing billows of smoke, the noble young heir of the great house of Rossmore was caught up in a whirlwind of fiery glory, and disappeared forever from the vision of men.” (76)

On the contrary, as if only to prove that he is a coward, One-armed Pete discloses his mental weakness when he faces the fire. He was:

seen flying along one of the halls of the hotel in his underclothing and apparently out of his head with fright, and as he would listen to no one and persisted in making for a stairway which would carry him to certain death, his case was given over as a hopeless one. (78)

Unless “the report of” his “death was an exaggeration,” Pete can hardly escape being labeled a coward.

Berkeley's borrowing of Pete's belongings at the fire site leads to a kind of coalescence of the two different masculinities, which is the author's contrivance in the text. When the hotel is collapsing, Berkeley by chance finds Pete's clothing and belongings scarcely before he has a chance to escape with his life. A well-known proverb says “Clothes make the man.” Berkeley wraps himself up in them, fills the absence of Pete's right arm with his, and declares himself a new American man, Howard Tracy. The author's aim seems to be clear: another experiment in producing an American gentleman out of imperfect material. Berkeley comes to America in order to obtain American masculinity without any idea about what it is. He starts his adventure with totally unlooked-for help from Pete, whose cowardice has proven him to be another dropout of society. Their masculine identities integrate themselves, apparently without their agency, into a single identity in quite an improbable way. The result is a hybrid masculinity, a mutually complementary relationship. Berkeley, hereafter Tracy, wearing his adopted cowboy attire, whose image immediately invokes typical American manhood, ventures forth on a journey to obtain American contemporary masculinity. The failure in his masculine education is too soon predicted, however, by a remark of a passing boy saying, “English cowboy! Well, if that ain't curious” (75). Unlike Huck Finn, who finds himself inappropriate for the ideal manhood in the antebellum South, Berkeley has no idea about his own inappropriateness in the postbellum America. He wonders: “Cowboy. Now what might a cowboy be?” (75). His fundamental ignorance about the most typical American male image suggests his thorny path in society.6

Tracy believes himself to have the willpower to survive without aid as a “self-made” man, contributing to American society. He feels he has undergone a metamorphosis of identity by changing his name and attire, but as the boy's innocent words have indicated, he cannot hide his true self: he looks English, speaks with an English accent, and has been too accustomed to being in the privileged class as an English viscount. He believes employment and money are easy to get, and so is American masculinity. He is too naïve. This flaw haunts him until he admits himself “a shabby creature” (172).


Tracy's new life is a succession of miseries. Given an opportunity, as he has hoped, to live in the free and equal country where there is “work and bread for all” (104), he intends to support himself as an independent man. He has, however, no other choice than to move into shabby lodgings without any job. Assisted by his new friend, Barrow, he seeks a job that would save him from the edge of starvation, but his efforts are in vain. The Royal Path of Life, published in 1883, says, “men who pursue no useful occupation” are “leeches on the body politic.” Manhood is equated with wealth in society. Barrow's only concern is also for Tracy to get a job. Twainian masculine education is characterized by the presence of instructors who exemplify the masculinity of their respective American societies. To illustrate, Huck Finn has his Pap, Colonel Grangerford, and Widow Douglas for his masculine education. Each of them attempts to infuse into Huck what they believe to be the masculine set of values. The false Tom in Pudd’nhead Wilson has also his uncle Driscoll for his own. Barrow becomes Tracy's rudder, who leads him into acquirement of postbellum American masculinity.

The contemporary set of American masculine values is represented by Barrow. He is, though being of short stature, an alive, intelligent and pleasant chair maker with solid income enough to support himself. His knowledge in science, or “large acquaintanceship with books” (117) creates a deep impression on Tracy. He emphasizes to Tracy the importance of occupation, saying “when a man loses his job and ability to support himself, […] it makes a great difference in the way people look at him and feel about him” (126), which makes Tracy shudder to realize his critical situation. Tracy perceives that in “a republic where all are free and equal, prosperity and position constitute rank” (129). Trade-unions –joining one of which is an indispensable condition for job hunting– exclude him, making him aware of his being one of “the outcasts” (131). Manhood meant “the individual virtues, character, and willpower that made for success”7 in the postbellum society. Above all, a man is measured by his job and his economic independence.

This change in the definition of American masculinity indicates that the traditional masculine values like physical strength no longer indicate effectiveness in society. Manhood becomes more vulnerable to a financial blow than to physical torment. I will now observe the fight between Tracy and Allen, another boarder, in order to reveal another aspect of the notion of American masculinity at the time. Tracy, having become disgusted with being ridiculed for his unemployment, knocks Allen down. Physical strength is the only masculinity left in him, and though reluctantly, he has to admit that its exertion leads him to a temporal satisfaction because of approbation from the boarders. Especially notable is that “the house pet” (137) Hattie, the landlady's daughter, tells him moderately that he is “ever so nice” (137). Tracy is satisfied, which he should not be, since the hidden intention of this scene is to describe the decisive change in the notion of masculinity. The beaten man is fully aware of the conventional power that supposedly attends this traditional expression of manhood, and yet, Allen destroys Tracy's regained confidence with just a single blow.

On the following Sunday Tracy finds that he has had all his money stolen and becomes unable to pay the charge for lodging. That is, the critical deprivation of financial independence occurs, which entails more ridicule from boarders, and which leads him to abandon his hope of achieving manhood. Barrow, his guide in masculine education, as if to boast of his own masculinity, pays it for him and wins praise from the same Hattie, ardently this time, that he is “the only man here” (160). Barrow displays the essence of an emerging American masculinity, and Hattie's final judgment thus endorses that masculinity is exemplified by money.

I will now point out the coalescence of Berkeley and Pete; the masculine education that follows only produces another dropout. Here, Twain's experiment fails. Tracy has to admit that he is one of the faceless people. For Tracy, money and employment, or social status, are things he should naturally inherit from his ancestors. They can never be something by which he should verify his own manhood. He cannot understand the system, and Tracy's quest for American masculinity ends here, when he discovers the current state of it. I should call this “the real end of the book,” and I dare say the rest of the story might be “just cheating.” Immediately after this, Tracy comes to show his significant ability as a painter, meets Sellers, marries his daughter, and goes back to England, which all constitute a pedestrian ending.


Despite its mediocre ending, Twain uses the novel to explore the state of American masculinity and to represent it through the metaphor of deficient bodies. Twain's fascination with deficient bodies emerges as early as 1867 with “Lucretia Smith's Soldier” or “Aurelia's Unfortunate Young Man” included, symbolically enough, in the first collection of his short stories. It is no exaggeration to say that Pete's presence makes this novel distinguished in the lineage of Twain's genealogy of masculine education. Let me return to the hotel fire scene. One-armed Pete, who stands at opposite poles to Berkeley, is lured by Colonel Sellers to the same hotel where Berkeley comes to stay. According to the illustration in its first edition,8 it looks like he is boasting about his own masculinity as represented by his appearance. In his cowboy outfit, he is standing with his chest thrown out and a cigar in his mustached mouth. Added to it is the alleged fact that he is a violent offender who recently hit a bank. The most conspicuous among all these masculine peculiarities is the absence of his right arm, which displays the bilateral character of his masculinity: that he was once man enough, and that he is no longer able to exhibit his masculinity other than to depend on his appearance and crimes.

A brief explanation about the relationship between the Civil War and American masculinities is necessary here in order to consider why One-armed Pete, who seems a very masculine type of a man, became one-armed and has to die a coward's death. To suppose that Pete lost his right arm in the Civil War would help to understand the situation and the incomplete and bilateral nature of his masculinity. As many documents and books have laid out what the war and its aftermath were like, we know that most soldiers were too young and the war was fought at the “end of the medical middle ages.”9 Their average age was 26 and 40% of the soldiers were no older than 21. Casualties are said to have totaled more than 610,000. What should matter from the perspective of masculinity studies is, however, the number of injured soldiers. As opposed to the battlefield, the field hospitals might have been the more miserable place for the men. 75% of field hospital treatment was amputation. More than 60,000 soldiers had such operations, which saved 35,000 lives of the soldiers on both sides. Michael Kimmel writes in his Manhood in America“All wars, of course, are meditations on masculinity. And the Civil War was no different.”10 The young soldiers must have sought to bring their masculinity to completion on the hard-fought battlefield. The surviving young soldiers saw themselves as having lost their important bodily or mental functions. While their status as war heroes may seem to invite them to flaunt their masculine identities in post-war America, the fact is that many returned to their community physically fragmented and unable to negotiate the age to come. E. Anthony Rotundo points out that the war greatly contributed to shaping the “male perception of life as warfare.”11 Men's lives and values underwent significant changes before and after the war, making a sharp contrast between “the courage and self-sacrifice demanded by the great struggle” and the “soft, pampered life of the business and professional classes.”12 The war never ended, and the soldiers were exhausted of every resource. Many wounded soldiers became unable to keep pace with society, and One-armed Pete might have been among them; only he turned to crime in order to be economically independent. I am not going to use a medical term here like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It would lead us into that specialized area of psychiatry to inquire further into the matter, and such a digression would undoubtedly obscure the outline of this argument. Let me here point out the possibility that the fire may be a vicarious experience in the war, which reminds him of the terror on the battlefield. One-armed Pete might have been a brave, or overly brave, young man in antebellum America, but now he is a loser in the masculine games staged by post-war society.


The American Claimant mainly depicts Berkeley's journey to produce another dropout in the college of American masculinity. While the story begins as an epic, the narrative becomes increasingly trivialized; until it finally becomes little more than the story of a man seeking a humble job. This shift further portrays the changing aspect of the nature of American masculinity at that time. The continual changes and the significance of American masculinity have to be explored further, and Twain's obsession with it is also yet to be researched. Let me quote from Twain's famous “Pudd’nhead Wilson's New Calendar” in Following the Equator. It says “Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed.” Let us remember that Twain, though he was among those who succeeded, tried to depict the trials in masculine education. I hope, above all, to propose the applicability of masculinity studies to Mark Twain Studies. There is more to be discovered from this viewpoint. 

Figure 1.

Figure 1: One-armed Pete.


  • 1

    An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Sixth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies held at Elmira College from August 6 to 8, 2009.

  • 2

    See A Connecticut Yankee, 217 and Pudd’nhead Wilson, 67.

  • 3

    The edition used throughout is The Oxford Mark Twain edition. Hereafter, the page numbers are cited parenthetically in the text.

  • 4

    See Morris, 1.

  • 5

    See Huckleberry Finn, 125.

  • 6

    According to Kimmel, “[N]owhere could American men find a better exemplar of tugged outdoor masculinity than out west with the cowboy.” (148)

  • 7

    See Hilkey, 53.

  • 8

    See Fig. 1, the illustration of One-armed Pete from The Oxford Mark Twain edition.

  • 9

    Faust quotes in his book these words of Union surgeon general William A. Hammond.

  • 10

    See Kimmel, 72.

  • 11

    See Rotundo, 233.

  • 12