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An Agony of Pleasurable Suffering”:Masochism and Maternal Deprivati
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2007년 04월 29일 01:54 4481
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 35
American Imago, Vol. 62, No. 1, 35–58. © 2005 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

“An Agony of Pleasurable Suffering”:
Masochism and Maternal Deprivation
in Mark Twain

“Among you boys you have a game: you stand a row of
bricks on end a few inches apart; you push a brick, it
knocks its neighbor over, the neighbor knocks over the
next brick—and so on till all the row is prostrate. That
is human life. A child’s first act knocks over the initial
brick, and the rest will follow inexorably.”
—Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger
Mark Twain never wore black leather. There is nothing to
attest that he ever asked to be whipped or beaten, and there is
no record of his ever having attended an S&M club. His
autobiography reveals no proclivity for sexual depravities or
self-mutilation. By most definitions, Mark Twain was no masochist.
Yet this essay will show the pervasiveness of masochistic
scenes and themes in Twain’s writing and seek to demonstrate
that their origin lies in the deprivations he suffered at the
hands of his mother, Jane Clemens, which led to unconscious
fears of passivity, effeminization, and infantilization. Superimposed
on this bedrock were Twain’s ambivalent relationship
with his father, John Clemens, and his guilt over the deaths of
his siblings in childhood.
The term “masochism” did not exist until 1886, the year
that Twain celebrated his fifty-first birthday, when Richard von
Krafft-Ebing introduced the notion to the world in Psychopathia
Sexualis, where he defined it as “the perfect counterpart of
sadism,” a “peculiar perversion of the sexual life in which the
individual affected, in sexual feeling and thought, is controlled
36 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to
the will of a person of the opposite sex” (1886, 86). Intriguingly,
when Twain came to Vienna during his 1898 European
tour, he had a conversation with Krafft-Ebing in which the two
luminaries discussed the psychology of lynching and mob
violence (Fisher 1922, 59–61). On this basis, along with the
overwhelming popularity of the text, Carl Dolmetsch has
concluded that “it seems quite unlikely Twain could have
escaped reading Psychopathia Sexualis” (1992, 264).
Freud, too, attended Twain’s public reading in the
Hapsburg capital. “I treated myself to listening to our old
friend Mark Twain in person,” he wrote to Wilhelm Fliess on
February 9, 1898, “which was a sheer delight” (Masson 1985,
299). Indeed, according to Dolmetsch, “there is sufficient
circumstantial evidence to indicate that Samuel Clemens and
Dr. Freud probably met more than once in 1898 and that they
may even have had a polite social acquaintance” (1992, 265).
Dolmetsch further proposes that in Twain Freud found “a
writer he found more useful for exemplifying his theories than
any other in English save Shakespeare” (268).
Freud’s admiration for Twain finds repeated expression in
his writings. When asked by Hugo Heller to list “ten good
books,” Freud (1907) included Twain’s Sketches (246). In “The
Uncanny” (1919), he interrupts a discussion of a frightening
dream: “Or one may wander about in a dark, strange room,
looking for the door or the electric switch, and collide time
after time with the same piece of furniture—though it is true
that Mark Twain succeeded by wild exaggeration in turning
this latter situation into something irresistibly comic” (237).
And in a footnote to Civilization and Its Discontents (1930),
Freud recalled his 1898 experience and cited Twain’s story,
“The First Melon I Ever Stole,” to illustrate the “enhancing of
morality as a consequence of ill-luck” (126).
In critical studies of Twain, it is customary to emphasize
the shift from the satirical humor of The Innocents Abroad
(1869) and Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) to the brooding
cynicism of his later works. Even in those texts that belong to
his “light” period, however, Twain manifests a fascination with
human psychology, including the relation between love and
pain and between pleasure and suffering. Twain’s early forays
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 37
into the literary profession provide abundant evidence of a
masochistic dynamic, albeit in the sublimated form of the
“Turkish Bath” episode in The Innocents Abroad or Tom’s
sentimentality and suicidal ideation in Tom Sawyer. Later on,
Twain gave his philosophical and psychological musings free
rein, and it is in The Diary of Adam and Eve and Letters from the
Earth—both written shortly before his death in 1910, though
not published until 1938—that Twain’s masochistic impulses
are evinced most explicitly.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30,
1835, in the small town of Florida, Missouri.1 His mother was
thirty-two years old and Samuel, the sixth of her seven children,
was two months premature. Without incubators and
appropriate medications, the success of a premature birth was
by no means assured. Samuel’s birth came during one of the
coldest winters in Missouri history, which likewise did not bode
well for a sickly infant. Six years earlier, Jane Clemens had lost
her third child, Pleasant Hannibal, in infancy, and, as Fred
Kaplan observes, “she thought it likely that she would lose this
one too” (2003, 11).
Whereas Jane Clemens had always taken on the responsibility
of naming her children, things seemed so bleak for her
premature son that she allowed her husband to do so.
Langhorne was the first name of a relative who had gotten
John an apprenticeship in Virginia, while Samuel was the
name of John’s father. According to Andrew Hoffman (1997),
“John never forgot feeling slighted that his father had not
kissed him before he left” (2) for a house-raising, during which
the frame of the house collapsed, crushing Samuel to death. As
Hoffman adds, “John Marshall Clemens bestowed the ambiguous
names Samuel Langhorne on a child he expected to die,”
and though these names “would bury John’s own failures . . .
and free him to look to the future in Missouri,” he “did not
think what a haunting burden they might be to his son, if the
child had the fortune to survive.”
38 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
The fragility of Samuel’s infancy was compounded by Jane
Clemens’s shortcomings as a caretaker. Kaplan (2003) follows
her unlikely journey from Jane Lampton, social gadfly, to Jane
Clemens, financially strapped Missouri housewife. He describes
Lampton as “an attractive, fun-loving belle of the ball,”
the granddaughter of a distinguished Revolutionary War colonel
(7). Following her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage,
Jane’s life “continued to have its social pleasures, including
recreation on the party and dancing circuit to as far away as
Lexington.” In 1823, Jane fell in love with “a shy young man
who lived in a nearby town.” As Kaplan summarizes the
sequence of events:
He seemed to be in love with her, and everyone they
knew, she thought, was aware of the relationship. The
mores of the time, though, made it difficult for them to
be alone together. After her uncle arranged for them to
be alone, she rejected his clumsy attempt as embarrassing.
Soon after, her suitor, convinced that Jane had
rejected him, so she thought, left Kentucky. Eager to
show the world that she was not disappointed by his
departure, and apparently in a pique, she accepted a
proposal of marriage from John Marshall Clemens. (7–8)
Kaplan documents that Lampton and Clemens were nothing
more than acquaintances at the time, and that “John Marshall
Clemens was not likely to have flirted with Jane, nor she with
him. She later claimed that she did not love him in the least” (8).
By the time that Samuel was born in 1838, Jane had been
in a loveless marriage for twelve years and borne five children.
John Clemens was largely unable to provide for his family,
certainly not in the fashion to which Jane had grown accustomed.
His legal practice was never profitable, and although
he did have a rather successful civic life, he lost most of his
money in land speculation and other fruitless ventures. Jane
was ill-equipped for the rigors of her new existence.
It is probable that caring for Samuel—premature, sickly,
and temperamental—taxed Jane Clemens both physically and
psychologically. As Kaplan observes, “death seemed a continuous
threat, first because of Sam’s frailness and then as a reality
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 39
imprinted on his consciousness by life history and religious
psychology” (2003, 17). According to Pamela Boker (1996),
Jane Clemens’s “excessive apprehensiveness about her newborn
son’s poor health and fractious disposition prevented her
from responding appropriately to his unique needs” (75).
Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain’s personal friend and biographer,
writes that Samuel “must have been a wearing child, and we
may believe that Jane Clemens, with her varied cares and
labors, did not always find him a comfort” (1912, 29). He
quotes Jane as saying: “‘He gave me more uneasiness than any
child I had.’” However, instead of doting on her sickly son,
Jane Clemens became oddly detached from him, a resignation
that perhaps signaled her unconscious recognition that she
was unfit to care for him. She was a firm believer in homeopathic
medicine and only used doctors as a last resort (Kaplan
2003, 16). Twain, recalling a time when he was about nine
years old, once stated that his mother “used to stand me up
naked in the back yard every morning and throw buckets of
cold water on me, just to see what effect it would have” (Fatout
1976, 386).
In his posthumously published Autobiography, Twain writes
that he was “born reserved as to endearments of speech and
caresses” (1958, 185; italics in original).2 More than once, he
alludes to the fact that neither his father nor mother ever
coddled or kissed him—or anyone else in the family, for that
matter: “I never knew a member of my father’s family to kiss
another member of it except once, and that at a deathbed”
(185). “In all my life,” he reiterates, “I had never seen one
member of the Clemens family kiss another one” (99).
When describing his mother, Twain paints her in the most
positive light possible, claiming that she was of a “fine and
striking and lovable” character (1958, 25). However, when he
goes on to say why she should be thus remembered, he recalls
not his own experiences with her but her behavior toward
others, particularly strangers and stray animals: “All the race of
dumb animals had a friend in her” (27). One gets the
impression that her devotion to animals and strangers came at
the expense of an interest in her own offspring. Indeed, when
a friend commented to Jane Clemens that she appeared to be
more enamored of her pet cats than of her children, Jane
40 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
responded that the advantage of a cat was that you could
always put it down when you were tired of holding it (Webster
and Webster 1925, 531).
In her eighty-eighth (and last) year, Twain asked his
mother about his temperament as an infant:
“I suppose that during all that time you were uneasy
about me?”
“Yes, the whole time.”
“Afraid I wouldn’t live?”
After a reflective pause—ostensibly to think out the
facts—“No—afraid you would.” (1958, 11)
As Boker remarks, this seemingly light-hearted exchange between
mother and son, like her jest about preferring cats to
children, “suggests that the infant Sam was so critically ill or
impossibly unmanageable that he could not function as a
normal baby, or that Jane Clemens had a warped . . . sense of
humor when it came to her son” (1996, 73). If, as Freud
contends, “a joke will allow us to exploit something . . . which
we could not, on account of obstacles in the way, bring forward
openly or consciously” (1905a, 103), it would seem warranted
to infer that Jane Clemens harbored death-wishes toward
The effect of his mother’s ministrations reverberates in
Twain’s addendum, “I was always told that I was a sickly and
precarious and tiresome and uncertain child and lived mainly
on allopathic medicines during the first seven years of my life”
(1958, 11). Rather than directly remembering himself as
“sickly” and the rest, he recalls having been “always told” that
he was. It seems apparent that Samuel Clemens’s survival was a
testimony more to his will to live than to his mother’s talents as
a caretaker. Boker argues that Twain harbored the grief “that
results when one is deprived of the mother’s unqualified love
and attention” (1996, 70). As a “defensive impulse,” she
continues, he adopted the persona of a humorist to “deny
feelings of guilt and hostility” toward his mother.
Samuel could hardly count on his father to give him the
attention that he missed from his mother. “He was a proud
man,” Twain writes in his Autobiography, “a silent, austere man”
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 41
(1958, 23). In the summer of 1842, the family decided to visit
the farm of Jane’s sister, Patsy. Jane Clemens, accompanied by
her children Orion, Pamela, Margaret, and Henry, set off one
day, while John was to bring Samuel on the next. Despite the
fact that John had only Samuel to look after, he somehow
managed to leave the six-year-old boy at home. John Clemens
did not notice that he had “forgotten” Samuel until he arrived
at the Quarles farm (Hoffman 1997, 13). Neither John nor
Jane felt concerned enough to fetch the child themselves.
Instead, an uncle of Jane’s made the half-day trip and found
Samuel “weeping, hungry, and angrily draining meal out of a
small hole he’d made in a burlap sack” (13).
John Clemens suffered from migraine headaches that he
ambiguously dubbed “sun-pains” (Hoffman 1997, 4). He was
likewise prone to long absences, leaving home for weeks if not
months to look after his lands in Tennessee in the vain hope
that they would bring his clan the prosperity that he and his
wife ardently desired. Together with his financial failures,
John’s mysterious disappearances left Samuel and his siblings
without a father-figure for much of their childhoods, an
absence that became permanent with his death when Samuel
was eleven years of age.
Compounding the severe emotional detachment of his
parents, Samuel Clemens’s childhood was fraught with death,
guilt, and repressed hostility toward his brothers. After the
birth of Henry Clemens, the three-year-old Samuel began to
act in a “wild and unmanageable manner” (Hoffman 1997, 7).
It was only when Samuel was ill that he was able to divert
attention away from his younger brother and back onto
himself. This pattern is replayed in Twain’s fiction, primarily in
the short story “My First Lie” (1899). That Henry’s arrival
exacerbated the strain on Samuel’s already tenuous bond with
his mother is demonstrated by the way that he once again
became prone to illnesses and colic, and, most tellingly, began
Samuel’s sleepwalking soon became a topic of conversation
in the Clemens household, reestablishing him as the focal
point of attention. Interestingly, he nearly always walked in the
direction of his mother (Hoffman 1997, 7). One notable
exception occurred in August 1839. While still asleep, Samuel
42 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
made his way into the room in which his nine-year-old sister,
Margaret, was sleeping. She had been ill for several days,
although the family did not consider her condition to be lifethreatening.
The sleepwalking Samuel plucked at her coverlet,
“a gesture associated in the Missouri folk-mind with imminent
death” (Hoffman 1997, 8). When Margaret died a few days
later, the family believed that Samuel had foretold the event.
The guilt-feelings resulting from Margaret’s death were
compounded by the death in 1842 of his older brother
Benjamin, apparently from a pulmonary condition, when
Samuel was still only six. Fifty years later, Twain wrote in his
journal: “Dead Brother Ben. My treachery to him” (Sanborn
1990, 61). Although this utterance remains cryptic, Hoffman
suggests that Twain’s “unshakable feelings of responsibility for
Margaret’s passing made him believe he carried the seed of
death in him” (1997, 12).
Strikingly, apart from the death of Benjamin, the only
other use of the word “treachery” in Twain’s writings in
connection with a family member concerns the accidental
death of his own infant son Langdon, for which he felt
responsible. In an uncanny reenactment of his father’s “forgetting”
of him, Twain took Langdon on a winter carriage ride,
during which he “dropped into a reverie and forgot all about
my charge” (1958, 190). The furs with which the child had
been wrapped fell away, and by the time that Twain remembered
him, he was nearly frozen, and indeed he died soon
after. “I have always felt shame for that treacherous morning’s
work,” Twain added in the Autobiography, “and have not allowed
myself to think of it when I could help it. I doubt if I had the
courage to make confession at that time. I think it most likely
that I have never confessed until now” (190).
Before Benjamin’s interment, Jane Clemens had her
other children surround the bier upon which her son lay and
directed each of them to touch the face of their dead brother.
Twain’s earliest recorded memory is of this traumatic event:
Only one clear and strongly defined one of early date
remains. She held me by the hand and we were kneeling
by the bedside of my brother, two years older than I, who
lay dead, and the tears were flowing down her cheeks
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 43
unchecked. And she was moaning. That dumb sign of
anguish was perhaps new to me, since it made upon me
a strong impression. (1958, 23)
The death also prompted the one kiss that John and Jane
Clemens ever shared in front of their children.
Following Benjamin’s death, the seven-year-old Samuel
went on a campaign of self-destructive behavior. He went so far
as to try several times to drown himself and broke into the
quarantined sickroom of his measles-stricken friend, Will Bowen
(Hoffman 1997, 12). Kaplan remarks that Samuel pursued
measles “with almost suicidal determination” (2003, 19). He
succeeded in contracting the dreaded disease and nearly in
dying as well. Recounting the family’s gathering at what was
thought to have been his deathbed, Twain later wrote: “They
were all crying, but that did not affect me. I took but the
vaguest interest in it, and that merely because I was the center
of all this emotional attention and was gratified by it and felt
complimented” (Paine 1924, 2:221).
The autobiographical source for Tom Sawyer’s deathfantasy,
this scene demonstrates how early Samuel relished
being made “the center of all this emotional attention,” no
matter what the cost. In his Autobiography (1958, 33), Twain
acknowledged that Tom’s younger brother Sid was modeled
on his own younger brother Henry. Tom, like Samuel, plays
the role of the troublemaker, forced to break the rules in order
to be recognized by Aunt Polly, while the doting Sid is able to
gain her attention without having to resort to anti-social
Tragedy—never absent for long in Samuel’s childhood—
struck again in March of 1847 when John Clemens died at the
age of forty-eight. On the night following his father’s death,
Samuel, fast asleep, walked into his mother’s bedroom. She
awoke to find him, wrapped in a sheet, standing over her
(Hoffman 1997, 21). Despite this evident sign of psychic
turmoil, when recalling his father’s death in the Autobiography
Twain focuses solely on the financial effects that it had on the
family, a far cry from the emotional way he describes the
deaths of his brothers Henry and Benjamin, his mother, his
wife, and his children: “We got along, but it was pretty hard
44 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
sledding. I was not one of the burdens, because I was taken
from school at once upon my father’s death and placed in the
office of the Hannibal Courier as printer’s apprentice” (1958,
88; italics added).
Twain’s chronology, however, contains a significant error.
He did not become a printer’s apprentice until 1849, a full two
years after his father’s death. On the most obvious level, this
faulty recollection evinces Twain’s penchant for hyperbole by
portraying himself as having sacrificed his education for his
family’s well-being. In addition, if Samuel’s primary aim was to
gain the love of his mother, then the removal of his father
would come as a relief and represent an unconscious oedipal
victory. Conspicuously absent from Twain’s account of the
period is the fact that he observed his father’s autopsy, a
second traumatic experience with a corpse to which I shall
return later in this essay.
As it turned out, the period of apprenticeship following
his father’s death was for Samuel a time of freedom, often to
the point of recklessness. In the first year, he destroyed a
cooper’s shop by rolling a boulder down a nearby hill, skated
on the thawing Mississippi river with his friend Thomas Nash,
possibly causing Nash to fall into the frigid waters, and
constantly bullied and tormented his teacher’s son, Theodore
An especially noteworthy event occurred in May 1850,
when Samuel was fifteen years old, that is, “the age at which a
boy is willing to endure all things, suffer all things short of
death by fire, if thereby he may be conspicuous and show off
before the public” (Twain 1958, 51). Enchanted by a visiting
“mesmerizer,” Samuel was filled with “a burning desire to
become a subject” who aided in the performance. After several
nights of failing to be hypnotized by the magical disk, however,
Samuel decided to pretend. “I was cautious at first,” he writes,
“being afraid the professor would discover that I was an
imposter and drive me from the platform in disgrace.” Samuel’s
enthusiasm soon made all the other volunteers superfluous. In
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 45
a prefiguration of his later career as Mark Twain, the adolescent
Clemens found himself on stage, lying, and the center of
Several days into his performance, the mesmerizer introduced
a new twist: he would prick his subjects with a pin and
also let the audience do so in order to demonstrate how deeply
hypnotized they were. Twain describes his ordeal:
I didn’t wince; I only suffered and shed tears on the
inside. The miseries that a conceited boy will endure to
keep up his “reputation”! And so will a conceited man; I
know it in my own person and have seen it in a hundred
thousand others. That professor ought to have protected
me and I often hoped he would, when the tests
were unusually severe, but he didn’t. It may be that he
was deceived as well as the others, though I did not
believe it nor think it possible. . . . They would stick a pin
in my arm and bear on it until they drove it a third of its
length in. . . . Whereas it was not insensible at all; I was
suffering agonies of pain. (1958, 54)
In The Language of Psychoanalysis (1967), Laplanche and
Pontalis define masochism as “a perversion in which satisfaction
is tied to the suffering or humiliation undergone by the
subject” (244). In his emblematic experience with the mesmerizer,
Clemens suffers “agonies of pain” at the hands of his
audience and sheds tears “on the inside,” all the while basking
in his position as the object of curiosity. The masochistic
constellation is completed by the pathos of adult betrayal, as
Clemens expects the professor to intervene on his behalf.
I take the scene with the mesmerizer to be a displaced
repetition of the relationship between Clemens and his parents.
He runs around the stage like a lunatic, fleeing from
imaginary snakes, fishing from an invisible platform, and
kissing and making love to imaginary girls, all in a pathetic
attempt to gain attention and approval. His willingness to
“suffer all things” to achieve this end resonates with the
character of Severin in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in
Furs (1870), who declares that he is ready to “suffer anything”
(170) as long as the object of his adoration promises not to
46 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
discard him. Twain’s accusation that the professor did not
“protect” him echoes his feelings toward his mother, while also
expressing a wish that his father might have done something
once it became obvious that his mother was unfit to care for
For fifty years, Twain refused to contemplate the phenomenon
of mesmerism or hypnotism, saying that the subject
“revolted him” and “brought back to me a passage in my life
which for pride’s sake I wished to forget” (1958, 56). As an
adult, he discussed the adolescent incident only once, when he
sought to explain what had really happened to his mother.
“Thirty-five years after those evil exploits of mine,” he writes, “I
visited my old mother, whom I had not seen for ten years. . . .
I thought that I would humble myself and confess my ancient
fault” (57). Despite his protestations, however, Jane refused to
believe that the spectacle had been a fraud. Thus, in seeking to
gain his mother’s sympathy for his ancient ordeal, Twain
(whose long absence may well have been an act of revenge)
found himself traumatized anew: “To my astonishment, there
were no sentimentalities, no dramatics, no George Washington
effects.” Indeed, “she was not moved in the least degree.”
In a desperate attempt to convince his mother that he had
been in genuine pain, despite his silence, he offered to wound
himself again: “‘Oh, my goodness!’ I said, ‘let me show you that
I am speaking the truth. Here is my arm; drive a pin into it—
drive it to the head—I shall not wince’” (57). Like the Spartan
boy who hid the wolf under his cloak, Twain sought to prove
his masculinity to his mother by his ability to endure pain. But
Jane Clemens again withheld her sympathy: “‘You are a man
now,’” she observed, “‘and could dissemble the hurt; but you
were only a child then and could not have done it.’”
Clemens’s inability to elicit empathy and understanding
from his mother led him to seek out these traits in other
women. After a courtship lasting only two weeks, he proposed
in 1869 to Olivia (“Livy”) Louise Langdon, the daughter of a
wealthy coal businessman and a member of the leading family
in Elmira, New York. Livy’s rejection was subtended by the
Langdon family’s disapproval of Clemens’s bohemian style of
life. Undeterred, he renewed his suit, and on February 2, 1870,
the two of them were married.
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 47
Although far from well off, Clemens had tasted the first
fruits of success with The Innocents Abroad (1869), published
under the pseudonym of Mark Twain. The letters that Twain
wrote to his wife before and during their marriage leave little
doubt that they loved one another. Still, material considerations
also clearly played a role in his choice of a mate. “That
Livy moved in an aura of money,” observes Guy Cardwell
(1991), “was one of her charms . . . for the idea of money was
endlessly present in Clemens’s thoughts” (50). Even more
important than Olivia’s money was her social prominence. As
Cardwell writes, unlike a lower-class woman who married an
upper-class man, a young man who married upward in the
social hierarchy was “made to feel the difference in status”
(1991, 48). He argues that Olivia was idealized by Clemens as
much for being a status symbol as a love-object.
At the time of their wedding, Clemens was thirty-five years
old and Olivia twenty-five. Her shyness and near paralysis since
the age of sixteen when she was stricken by Pott’s disease made
her appear younger than she was. In Olivia, Clemens found a
partner who embodied the childlike beauty with which he
would surround himself in his later years, and combined it
with the social status and affluence that he craved. Although
his wealth soon eclipsed that of the Langdons, he always felt
insecure among the aristocracy of the eastern seaboard.
Cardwell observes that Clemens “chose Olivia Langdon as a
wife because he wished to be mothered and correctly sensed
that she would make an effective substitute mother” (1991,
On November 7, 1870, nine months after their marriage,
Samuel and Olivia celebrated the birth of their first child,
Langdon Clemens. Twain did so by writing a letter from the
newborn child’s point of view to the Reverend Joseph Twichell
and his wife, informing them of “his” birth. As Boker (1996,
76) contends, the sadness imputed to the child, coupled with
the emphasis on disease and a foreshadowing of death, reveal
more about Twain’s state of mind than about that of his fiveday-
old son:
I came into the world on the 7th, and consequently am
about five days old now. I have had wretched health ever
48 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
since I made my appearance. First one thing and then
another has kept me under the weather, and as a general
thing I have been chilly and uncomfortable. . . . At birth
I weighed only 4 pounds with my clothes on. . . . Life
seems a serious thing, what I have seen of it—and my
observation teaches me that it is made up of hiccups,
unnecessary washings, and colic. But no doubt you, who
are old, have long since grown accustomed and reconciled
to what seems to me such a disagreeable novelty.
(Paine 1920, 102)
Like the letter ascribed to Langdon, Twain’s sketch, “My
First Lie and How I Got Out of It,” written on December 10,
1899, also depicts the thoughts of an infant boy, though in this
instance Twain humorously claims to be recalling his own first
week of life:
I had noticed that if a pin was sticking me and I
advertised it in the usual fashion, I was lovingly petted
and coddled and pitied in a most agreeable way and got
a ration between meals besides. . . . [One day] I lied
about the pin—advertising one when there wasn’t any. .
. . They found no pin and they realized that another liar
had been added to the world’s supply. (1899, 256)
This story bears a striking resemblance to Twain’s experience
with the mesmerizer, revealing just how ingrained the association
between the endurance of pain and the receiving of
attention had become in his mind.
Taken in tandem, the letter and the story reveal that
Twain regarded infancy as a period of sickness and colic, for
which maternal affection was the only cure. However, in order
to receive this balm, he had first to “advertise” his affliction by
crying or acting out. Instead of receiving unconditional love
from his mother, Twain received only sporadic attention,
which ceased with his protests. According to Winnicott (1971),
“the good-enough mother starts off with an almost complete
adaptation to her infant’s needs,” which “affords the infant the
opportunity for the illusion that her breast is part of the infant”
(10). “The mother’s eventual task is gradually to disillusion the
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 49
infant,” Winnicott continues, “but she has no hope of success
unless at first she has been able to give sufficient opportunity
for illusion.” Twain was never given the opportunity for illusion,
and this deficit left him with a psychic vulnerability for
which he sought to compensate by resorting to masochism.
Masochism need not manifest itself as a desire for physical
pain. Laplanche and Pontalis (1967) maintain that a subject
can be defined as masochistic if he or she derives satisfaction
from suffering or humiliation, though I would add that this
must be inflicted by an external force.3 The requisite experience
is not one of humiliating oneself but rather one of being
humiliated, a crucial distinction.
There is undeniably a dialectical aspect to the power
dynamic in sado-masochistic relationships. By submitting to
the other, the masochist coerces his partner to notice him or
her, and in that respect gains the upper hand. This paradox
has a counterpart in the situation of the infant who depends
upon the mother to be fed, cleaned, and loved. From one
perspective, the mother is dominant. However, there is also a
sense in which the mother is at the beck and call of her infant
who imperiously demands her attention.
Twain’s case underscores that the passive position of the
masochist is a distorted expression of the desire for goodenough
mothering in infancy. Having been deprived of ordinary
attention and affection, masochists demand to be punished
as a way of gaining at least some recognition from their
primary caretakers. Although Freud’s (1924) gender-bias led
him to dub this passive component of masochism “feminine,”
he rightly discerned that “the masochist wants to be treated
like a small and helpless child” (162).
A major reorientation away from Freud’s drive-based
model of the mind and toward contemporary object relations
theory was effected by W. R. D. Fairbairn. Citing the example
of a thumb-sucking baby, Fairbairn (1941) argues profoundly
that if we seek to explain this behavior by claiming that the
infant does so “because his mouth is an erotogenic zone and
50 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
sucking provides him with erotic pleasure, it may sound
convincing enough; but we are really missing the point.” He
continues: “we must ask ourselves the further question—‘Why
his thumb?’ And the answer to this question is—‘Because there
is no breast to suck.’ Even the baby must have a libidinal
object; and if he is deprived of his natural object (the breast),
he is driven to provide an object for himself. Thumb-sucking
thus represents a technique for dealing with an unsatisfactory
object-relationship” (33).
In a more extreme form, masochism too is “a technique
for dealing with an unsatisfactory object-relationship.” In The
Bonds of Love (1988), Jessica Benjamin fuses Winnicott and
Hegel to contend that domination and submission result
“from a breakdown of the necessary tension between selfassertion
and mutual recognition that allows self and other to
meet as sovereign equals” (12). A mother responding to her
infant’s smile affirms the latter’s belief in its power to affect the
world. Breakdowns signify a failure of attunement. A sickly
baby may not react to its mother’s caresses, and she in turn
may become depressed by her inability to connect with the
infant. This transforms assertion into aggression and sets in
motion what Benjamin terms a “negative cycle of recognition”
in which “a person feels that aloneness is only possible by
obliterating the intrusive other, that attunement is only possible
by surrendering to the other” (28).4
From an object relations perspective, then, masochism is a
strategy to compensate for being prematurely deprived of what
Winnicott terms the “opportunity for illusion.” In the negative
cycle of recognition, when the child wants to be alone, it can
only do so by destroying the other in fantasy, while the wish for
nurturing and affection entails assuming a posture of submission.
Twain’s acts of delinquency in childhood—his destruction
of the cooper shop with a boulder, the bullying of his teacher’s
son, and his suicide attempts through drowning—were therefore
what Winnicott (1967) would call signs of hope and
attempts to gain the recognition he desperately sought from
his environment. Similarly, he populates his fictions with
misbehaving boys in order to rid himself of his internalized
bad objects. Only through such simultaneously creative and
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 51
destructive acts is Twain able to make his bad objects good, and
thereby also to half-persuade himself that his parental figures
were not cruelly neglectful, but rather nurturing and loving.
A common thread uniting Twain’s novels about adolescent
boys is the heroes’ knack for getting into trouble. Twain
himself acknowledged that all his fictional works were based
on “incidents out of real life,” and that he never deliberately
“‘created’ a character” (1961, 68).5 And of all his protagonists,
it is Tom Sawyer who seems to me to be most deeply rooted in
Twain’s childhood history and to exemplify best his perverse
equation of suffering with pleasure.
Early in his Adventures, Tom imagines what would become
of his family if he were to commit suicide. This is the only
scenario in which he can picture his Aunt Polly feeling
genuine love and remorse for him. The description of the
scene is replete with the physical affection that Jane Clemens
never bestowed on Sam: “How she would throw herself upon
him,” Twain writes of Aunt Polly, “and how her tears would fall
like rain and her lips pray God to give her back . . . her poor
little sufferer” (1876, 27). But Tom vows simply to lie there and
let her laments wash over his limp body, a suffering boy “whose
griefs were at an end.”
As Tom’s fantasy continues, the line between Aunt Polly
and other women is blurred. He is reminded of his love
interest, Becky Thatcher, and the flower that she gave him as a
gift. Becky is never named, however, and referred to simply by
the pronoun “she”: “He wondered if she would pity him if she
knew? Would she cry, and wish that she had a right to put her
arms around his neck and comfort him? Or would she turn
coldly away like all the hollow world? This picture brought
such an agony of pleasurable suffering that he worked it over
and over again in his mind” (27; italics in original).
The phrase “agony of pleasurable suffering” encapsulates
Twain’s masochistic constellation. Tom leaves open the possibility
that Becky will turn away from him as the rest of the
world has done, and it is this prospect of abandonment that
52 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
propels him to his greatest paroxysms. While “she” in the first
instance refers to Becky, it may also include Aunt Polly, and
indeed the biological mother who is absent from the text.
Tom, of course, eventually acts out his suicide fantasy,
albeit only in mock form. Although Twain comically portrays
the disappearance of Tom and his friends as an opportunity
for them to return to nature, there can be no doubt that in
faking his death Tom elicits from Aunt Polly the loving
attention that he wanted. Even when he sneaks into his home
to observe her crying, his primary focus is narcissistic: “Tom
was snuffling now, himself,” Twain writes, “and more in pity of
himself than anyone else” (103). There is little doubt that the
feelings Twain imputes to Tom were his own as a seven-year-old
with the measles when he lay at death’s door surrounded by his
mother and family.
The conflation between attention and pain is also explicit
in Twain’s posthumously published comic tour de force, The
Diary of Adam and Eve (1938a). Toward the end of Eve’s portion
of the Diary, she tries to explain why she loves Adam. Since he
lacks brightness, graciousness, industry, education, and chivalry,
Eve decides that she loves Adam simply because “he is
masculine” (143). There follows another apparent non sequitur:
“At bottom he is good, and I love him for that, but I could love
him without it. If he should beat me and abuse me, I should go
on loving him. I know it, it is a matter of sex, I think.” Adam is
not violent to Eve anywhere in the text. Rather, he demonstrates
a marked coolness toward the woman who fawns over
him. “I love him with all the strength of my passionate nature,”
Eve gushes, but Adam only loves her “as well as he can” (142).
Like The Diary of Adam and Eve, Letters From the Earth
(1938b) was written near the end of Twain’s life in his grief and
depression following the death of his favorite daughter, Susy.
Cast in the form of apocryphal letters sent from Satan to the
angels Michael and Gabriel during an exile imposed on him by
God, this blasphemous text contains Twain’s most extensive
discussion of sexuality, a topic largely absent from his other
works. From the age of seven until the day that she dies, he
writes forlornly, a woman yearns for sexual intercourse, while a
man is only “briefly competent” (40). After the age of fifty, his
performance is of “poor quality, the intervals between are
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 53
wide, and its satisfactions of no great value to either party.” Yet
“his great-grandmother is as good as new.” That Satan’s sentiments
are also Twain’s own is clear from an 1881 letter to Mary
Fairbanks in which he complained, “Physically, I am an old
man at 45, older than some men are at 80” (Wecter 1949, 245).
As Sacher-Masoch does with Wanda in Venus in Furs, Twain
sought to preserve Olivia from the contamination of sexuality.
“You are as pure as snow,” he wrote on March 1, 1869, “and I
would have you always so—untainted, untouched even by the
impure thoughts of others. You are the purest woman that I
ever knew, and your purity is the most uncommon and most
precious ornament” (Wecter 1947, 76). The masochist idealizes
the other in order to feel that he is at the mercy of a
sublime being, elevating his own self-esteem in the process.
I have argued that Twain’s masochism is intimately linked
to his desire for comfort and infantilization. Late in The
Innocents Abroad (1869), he ruminates on Turkish bathhouses:
For years I have dreamed of the wonders of the Turkish
bath . . . [in which I would be] passed through a weird
and complicated system of pulling and hauling, and
drenching and scrubbing, by a gang of naked savages
who loomed vast and vaguely through the steaming
mists like demons; then rested for a while on a divan fit
for a king . . . finally, swathed in soft fabrics . . . and laid
on a bed of eiderdown, where eunuchs, gorgeous of
costume, fanned me while I drowsed and dreamed.
The scene is a fantasy of rebirth. The “pulling and hauling”
evokes the escape from the womb, following which comes the
“drenching and scrubbing” as an infant is cleaned of blood
and amniotic fluid. To be “swathed in soft fabrics” amounts to
being diapered, and the passivity of being “laid on a bed” is
evident. Through it all, Twain is the focus of attention “fit for a
king.” But what of the “eunuchs” and the “gang of naked
savages”? One reason for their appearance is simply their
exotic nature, which was bound to fascinate a man born in a
Missouri town with a population of only one hundred people.
However, the passage provides further evidence for the link in
54 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
Twain’s mind between infantilization and effeminization, and
reflects the dangers attendant upon being pampered and
catered to.
At the time of his trip to Europe in 1867, Twain was
preoccupied with “Rock Me to Sleep, Mother,” a popular poem
written by Elizabeth Akers Allen. The first verse sets the tone of
this ode to nostalgia:
Backward, turn backward, O time, in your flight,
Make me a child again just for to-night!
Mother, come back from the echoless shore,
Take me again to your heart as of yore;
Kiss from my forehead the furrows of care,
Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair;
Over my slumbers your loving watch keep;—
Rock me to sleep, Mother—rock me to sleep!
(1866, 190)
The poem closes with the couplet, “Never hereafter to wake or
to weep; / Rock me to sleep, Mother—rock me to sleep!”
completing the conflation between birth and death, and
between the mother as the creator of life and dispenser of
oblivion. Saturated with a sense of loss, the poem also carries
with it the hope that the mother will be reencountered in
Twain’s first allusion to “Rock Me to Sleep, Mother” in The
Innocents Abroad is satirical. While visiting Rome and coming
face to face with the relics of antiquity, Twain becomes depressed
by the ravages of time. “What may be left,” he asks, “of
General Grant’s great name four centuries hence?” (1869,
250). Grant was the prototype of the victorious soldier and the
ideal man in mid-nineteenth-century America, and his memoirs,
which Twain helped to edit and publish, were one of the
best-selling works of the period. As the ultimate affront to
Grant’s memory, Twain imagines that future generations might
mistakenly remember him as the author of “Rock Me to Sleep,
Mother,” which he takes to be the epitome of dependency and
Despite his implicit condemnation of the poem, Twain
refers to it again during his travels to the Holy Land, where he
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 55
is surrounded by the “dreary solitude” of Galilee. “If these
things are not food for ‘Rock Me to Sleep, Mother,’” he muses,
“none exist, I think” (377). Faced with oppressive loneliness,
Twain takes refuge in a fantasy of maternal comfort, which he
at once yearns for and dismisses as a sham. Strikingly, in the
letter of February 3, 1863, in which he uses the name “Mark
Twain” for the first time, Clemens criticizes a certain Judge
Brumfield for throwing “too much operatic affectation into his
singing” (Quirk 1994, 6) during a ballad rendition of “Rock
Me to Sleep, Mother.”
In The Innocents Abroad, Twain recalls an episode in which
he ran off from school and, instead of going home, decided to
spend the night in his father’s office. After sneaking in
through the window, the young boy came upon the body of a
dead man sprawled across his father’s desk. (Apparently, he
had been stabbed in a fight and brought to John Clemens for
doctoring.) Terrified, Sam exited through the window. Upon
returning home, he is whipped, but claims, “I enjoyed it. It
seemed perfectly delightful” (1869, 132). I sense no irony in
these words. Young and afraid, Sam needed to be comforted.
The whipping, hurtful though it may have been, confirmed
that he was at home, safe and in the presence of those who
loved him. In true masochistic fashion, Samuel surrenders in
order to find comfort and takes pleasure in pain.
Fused with the sight of his deceased brother Benjamin,
this episode was traumatically reenacted when Samuel as a
twelve-year-old beheld his father’s corpse. Shortly after John
Clemens’s death, the family physician, Dr. Hugh Meredith,
asked Jane for permission to perform an autopsy. Samuel
followed the pallbearers to Dr. Meredith’s office, where he
looked on the operation through a keyhole. Even in adulthood,
Twain was unable to tolerate images or statues of dead
people. As he narrates in The Innocents Abroad, he was horrified
to come upon the sculpture of a body without skin in the Milan
cathedral: “I am very sorry I saw it because I shall always see it
now . . . I shall dream of it” (1869, 131). Although he calls the
sculpture “repulsive” and “a hideous thing,” the same sequence
of childhood memories underlies his avowal that
“there was a fascination about it somewhere.”
56 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
The Innocents Abroad was “Affectionately Inscribed” by
Twain “To My Most Patient Reader, and Most Charitable Critic,
My Aged Mother.” In a consummate enactment of his lifelong
ambivalence, however, this expression of filial devotion was
unconsciously plagiarized from a book of poetry by Oliver
Wendell Holmes. Asked by an unnamed friend why he had
stolen the dedication from Holmes, Twain claimed not to
know what he meant. When the friend produced the volume—
the title of which Twain also curiously neglects to mention—
Twain confessed that he “was very much ashamed and unspeakably
astonished” (1958, 150).
Isabel Lyon, Mark Twain’s secretary, recalls in her diary a
conversation that they once had concerning the responsibility
of mothers for the development of their children. “Mr. Clemens
laid all the faults of all mankind to the mothers,” she writes,
“for they alone—alone—have the teaching of their children”
(Boker 1996, 68). “I sat on that stiff little chair defending the
mothers,” she continues, “and I couldn’t say what I ought to
have said because I was blind with the suddenness of his
As I have tried to demonstrate, Twain’s mother-blaming is
profoundly autobiographical in nature. To call him a masochist
is not to argue that he enacted (or even imagined) scenes in
which a woman dresses herself in furs and then proceeds to
whip her prostrate slave-lover. Given Olivia Clemens’s illhealth,
she makes an unlikely candidate for the role of
dominatrix. But much of Twain’s writing, and the experiences
that fueled it, are preoccupied with the joys of pain and
suffering. From infancy, Twain came to associate mothering
with deprivation and punishment, and love with submission to
the other. Sexual desire in his fiction inevitably leads to
disappointment, and often to violence. Only masochism can
explain why Eve equates being beaten with true love or why
Tom describes the prospect of abandonment as “an agony of
pleasurable suffering.” Twain’s self-abasement, his cynicism,
and his mordant humor all conform to this pattern. Although
Julio C. Avalos, Jr. 57
he may not have worn black leather, during his later years he
did dress entirely in white, a form of ritualized behavior that
likewise bears the imprint of the psychic constellation of
425 W. 121st St., Apt. 506
New York, NY 10027
1. In my biographical narrative, I shall refer to Twain as “Samuel Clemens” prior
to his adoption in 1863 of the name “Mark Twain.” For a well-documented
fictionalized account of the life of Jane Clemens, see Varble (1964).
2. At his death in 1910, Twain left a voluminous manuscript he called his
“autobiography,” which also contained sketches, stories, and other half-finished
works. A portion was first published in 1917 under the title, The Autobiography of
Mark Twain. In 1924, Albert Paine, dissatisfied with the 1917 text, published his
own two-volume edition as Mark Twain’s Autobiography. Unhappy with Paine’s
version, but retaining his title, Bernard DeVoto issued a third edition in 1940.
Finally, in 1958, Charles Neider published what has since become the standard
scholarly edition of The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Apart from one citation
from Paine’s 1924 version, all references to the Autobiography in the present
essay are to Neider’s edition.
3. See the critique of Freud’s (1905b) view that “masochism is nothing more than
an extension of sadism turned round upon the subject’s own self” (158) offered
by Deleuze (1967). As Deleuze argues, the masochist’s mantra is not “I punish
myself” but “I am being punished,” and there must therefore be an intermediate
stage not of reflexivity but of projection, “through which an external object
is made to take on the role of the subject that then acts upon the self” (105).
4. Benjamin’s definition of the masochist as one who “despairs of ever holding the
attention or winning the recognition of the other” (1988, 72) is amplified in
Emmanuel Ghent’s (1990) influential contrast between submission and surrender,
according to which the nucleus of masochism is a “perversion of surrender.”
5. The sentence appears originally in Twain’s essay, “Favors from Correspondents,”
published in September 1870 in a journal called The Galaxy.
Allen, Elizabeth Akers. 1866. Poems. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.
Benjamin, Jessica. 1988. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of
Domination. New York: Pantheon.
Boker, Pamela. 1996. The Grief Taboo in American Literature: Loss and Prolonged
Adolescence in Twain, Melville, and Hemingway. New York: New York University
Cardwell, Guy. 1991. The Man Who Was Mark Twain: Images and Ideologies. New Haven:
Yale University Press.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1967. Coldness and Cruelty. Trans. Jean McNeil. In Masochism: Coldness
and Cruelty/Venus in Furs. New York: Zone Books, 1991, pp. 9—138.
Dolmetsch, Carl. 1992. “Our Famous Guest”: Mark Twain in Vienna. Athens: University
of Georgia Press.
58 Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain
Fairbairn, W. R. D. 1941. A Revised Psychopathology of the Psychoses and Neuroses.
In Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality. New York: Routledge, 1994, pp. 28–58.
Fisher, Henry W. 1922. Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field: Tales They Told to a
Fellow Correspondent. New York: Nicholas L. Brown.
Fatout, Paul, ed. 1976. Mark Twain Speaking. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Freud, Sigmund. 1905a. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. S.E., vol. 8.
———. 1905b. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. S.E., 7:130–243.
———. 1907. Contribution to a Questionnaire on Reading. S.E., 9:245—47.
———. 1919. The Uncanny. S.E., 17:219—256.
———. 1924. The Economic Problem of Masochism. S.E., 19:159—72.
———. 1930. Civilization and Its Discontents. S.E., 21:64—145.
Ghent, Emmanuel. 1990. Masochism, Submission, Surrender: Masochism as a
Perversion of Surrender. In Stephen A. Mitchell and Lewis Aron, eds., Relational
Psychoanalysis: The Emergence of a Tradition. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 1999, pp.
Kaplan, Fred. 2003. The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Doubleday.
Hoffman, Andrew. 1997. Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
New York: Quill Publications.
Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. 1886. Psychopathia Sexualis. Trans. Franklin S. Klaf. New
York: Arcade Publishing, 1998.
Laplanche, Jean, and J.-B. Pontalis. 1967. The Language of Psychoanalysis. Trans.
Donald Nicholson-Smith, New York: Norton, 1973.
Masson, Jeffrey, trans. and ed. 1985. Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess,
1887–1904. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Paine, Albert Bigelow. 1912. Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Harper Bros.
———, ed. 1920. Letters of Mark Twain. London: Chatto and Windus.
———, ed. 1924. Mark Twain’s Autobiography. 2 vols. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Quirk, Tom, ed. 1994. Mark Twain: Tales, Speeches, Essays, and Sketches. New York:
Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von. 1870. Venus in Furs. Trans. Jean McNeil. In Masochism:
Coldness and Cruelty/Venus in Furs. New York: Zone Books, 1991, pp. 143–293.
Sanborn, Margaret. 1990. Mark Twain: The Bachelor Years. New York: Doubleday.
Twain, Mark. 1869. The Innocents Abroad. New York: Signet Classic, 1966.
———. 1876. Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York: Signet Classic, 1979.
———. 1899. My First Lie and How I Got Out of It. In Quirk 1994, pp. 256–63.
———. 1938a. The Diary of Adam and Eve. Ed. Bernard DeVoto. London: Hesperus
Press, 2002.
———. 1938b. Letters From the Earth. Ed. Bernard DeVoto. New York: Harper
Perennial, 1991.
———. 1958. The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Ed. Charles Neider. New York: Harper
Perennial, 1990.
———. 1961. Life As I Find It. Ed. Charles Neider. New York: Hanover House.
Varble, Rachel M. 1964. Jane Clemens: The Story of Mark Twain’s Mother. New York:
Webster, Samuel, and Doris Webster. 1925. Whitewashing Jane Clemens. The Bookman,
Wecter, Dixon, ed. 1947. The Love Letters of Mark Twain. New York: Harper and
———., ed. 1949. Mark Twain to Mrs. Fairbanks. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library
Winnicott, D. W. 1967. Delinquency as a Sign of Hope. In Home is Where We Start From:
Essays by a Psychoanalyst. Ed. Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, and Madeleine
Davis. New York: Norton, 1986, pp. 90–100.
———. 1971. Playing and Reality. New York: Tavistock, 1982.

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