Cover image for Searching for Jim : slavery in Sam Clemens's world
Searching for Jim : slavery in Sam Clemens's world
Dempsey, Terrell, 1954-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Columbia : University of Missouri Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xvii, 316 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm.
A performance : Spring 1891, Hartford, Connecticut -- 1839 -- Slavery and the Clemens family -- The abolition movement across the river -- The contest begins -- The trial of Thompson, Work, and Burr -- Judge John Marshall Clemens -- Slavery and the churches of Hannibal -- The theology of slavery -- The face of domestic slavery in Hannibal -- The siege begins -- The emancipation and colonization movement -- 1849 and 1850 : terror in Marion County -- Sam Clemens and the press in slave culture -- Runaway slaves and slave resistance -- Battling abolitionists in the press : the enemy without -- Dehumanizing the slave in the press -- The slave trade in Hannibal -- Leaving Hannibal and taking a swipe at the abolitionists -- The great change : the railroad -- Steamboating days -- Sam Clemens comes back to fight.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS1342.S56 D46 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Searching for Jim is the untold story of Sam Clemens and the world of slavery that produced him. Despite Clemens's remarks to the contrary in his autobiography, slavery was very much a part of his life. Dempsey has uncovered a wealth of newspaper accounts and archival material revealing that Clemens's life, from the ages of twelve to seventeen, was intertwined with the lives of the slaves around him. During Sam's earliest years, his father, John Marshall Clemens, had significant interaction with slaves. Newly discovered court records show the senior Clemens in his role as justice of the peace in Hannibal enforcing the slave ordinances. With the death of his father, young Sam was apprenticed to learn the printing and newspaper trade. It was in the newspaper that slaves were bought and sold, masters sought runaways, and life insurance was sold on slaves. Stories the young apprentice typeset helped Clemens learn to write in black dialect, a skill he would use throughout his writing, most notably in Huckleberry Finn. Missourians at that time feared abolitionists across the border in Illinois and Iowa. Slave owners suspected every traveling salesman, itinerant preacher, or immigrant of being an abolition agent sent to steal slaves. This was the world in which Sam Clemens grew up. Dempsey also discusses the stories of Hannibal's slaves: their treatment, condition, and escapes. He uncovers new information about the Underground Railroad, particularly about the role free blacks played in northeast Missouri. Carefully reconstructed from letters, newspaper articles, sermons, speeches, books, and court records, Searching for Jim offers a new perspective on Clemens's writings, especially regarding his use of race in the portrayal of individual characters, their attitudes, and worldviews. This fascinating volume will be valuable to anyone trying to measure the extent to which Clemens transcended the slave culture he lived in during his formative years and the struggles he later faced in dealing with race and guilt. It will forever alter the way we view Sam Clemens, Hannibal, and Mark Twain.

Author Notes

Terrell Dempsey is an attorney and partner with the firm Dempsey, Dempsey, and Moellring, in Hannibal, Missouri

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Dempsey practices law in Hannibal, Missouri, and describes himself as an "accidental historian." He attempts here to represent "fully and realistically the world that created Sam Clemens." Relying on primary sources--newspaper accounts, legal documents, 19th-century abolitionist and pro-slavery narratives, Clemens family papers, church and census records--he greatly expands knowledge of the slave culture of Mark Twain's early years. He explores topics such as the "theology of slavery," sexual practices of slave owners, and distinctions between abolitionists and emancipationists. Especially revealing is the role played by Twain's father in the local conflicts over slavery. Dempsey's account deflates the mythology (promulgated by Twain and later commentators) of a generally more benign form of slavery in Missouri than in the southern plantation states. Moreover, he uncovers many sources for Twain's dialect humor in the racist sketches that Sam Clemens read as a young printer and budding journalist. With rare exceptions, such as the story Twain wrote of his brief experience in the Civil War, Dempsey considers the analysis of Twain's use of these events in his writing to be beyond the scope of his study. Much of his groundbreaking research, however, will be invaluable for both future biographers and literary critics. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. T. P. Riggio University of Connecticut

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xv
1. A Performance: Spring 1891--Hartford, Connecticutp. 1
2. 1839p. 5
3. Slavery and the Clemens Familyp. 14
4. The Abolition Movement across the Riverp. 20
5. The Contest Beginsp. 27
6. The Trial of Thompson, Work, and Burrp. 39
7. Judge John Marshall Clemensp. 49
8. Slavery and the Churches of Hannibalp. 55
9. The Theology of Slaveryp. 68
10. The Face of Domestic Slavery in Hannibalp. 76
11. The Siege Beginsp. 99
12. The Emancipation and Colonization Movementp. 114
13. 1849 and 1850: Terror in Marion Countyp. 125
14. Sam Clemens and the Press in Slave Culturep. 153
15. Runaway Slaves and Slave Resistancep. 167
16. Battling Abolitionists in the Press: The Enemy Withoutp. 182
17. Dehumanizing the Slave in the Pressp. 198
18. The Slave Trade in Hannibalp. 217
19. Leaving Hannibal and Taking a Swipe at the Abolitionistsp. 231
20. The Great Change: The Railroadp. 239
21. Steamboating Daysp. 251
22. Sam Clemens Comes Back to Fightp. 256
Postscriptp. 273
Appendixp. 283
Selected Bibliographyp. 297
Indexp. 305